It's easy to blame poor soil conditions for our garden troubles; I do it myself. In northern Wisconsin it was too sandy. Here, in Cincinnati, there’s too much clay. Some soil blocks nutrients from plants. Some soil simply lacks enough nutrients for the plants we want to grow. And that is part of the problem—we need to choose the right plants for the soil, or find a different place to grow the plants we want.
How to Decide if You Have Poor Soil Conditions
Start by taking several soil samples to your local extension office where they can analyze the nutrients in the soil. Then select plants with needs that fit those levels. That’s how we avoid double-digging and adding endless yards of amendments—in short, how to avoid a lot of backbreaking work.
Even after adding plants suited to the soil, we can still enhance the growing conditions by adding composted manure. It's beneficial to plants, but keep in mind that most root systems reach far below the top few inches of soil. While the nutrients may be penetrating below the compost line, they may leach quickly through the soil if it's sandy.
Raised Beds Solve Poor Soil Condition Problems
When I gardened in ver sandy soil, I created raised beds one foot tall. I added a foot of black soil, worked it in as deeply as I could to the original soil, and then I added another foot of black gold (rich, dark soil). I used Milorganite with abandon—it doesn’t burn, it won't discolor hosta leaves and it seems to keep the deer at bay.
Each year I top-dressed the garden with generous amounts of more composted matter and organic mulch. The gardens in my raised beds grew lush and plants thrived. However, I admit that just beyond my yard, in the natural soil, a healthy community of plants also existed, natives to the area and not necessarily the plants I longed to grow.
Jennifer Smith is a horticulturist, garden writer and photographer for Wimberg Landscaping, a Cincinnati-based landscaping firm. She is the author of the Adventures of a Landless Gardener blog here on hortmag.com and the former managing editor of Horticulture.