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With a spade or garden fork, dig so il to the depth of the blade or tines. Turn over each spade- or forkful in place. Continue turning until no iarge clumps of soil or organic matter remain. Or use a rotor / - e^ to turn the top 6 to 8 inches. If soil will remain bare for over a month, cover with a coarse layer of mulch.

Master Gardening Tips

The Green Manure Alternative

If you can plan ahead an entire season, growing green manures offers two distinct advantages over basic bed preparation. First, you can add large amounts of organic matter without importing or hauling materials or making compost You simply grow all the material right where its needed and then turn it under. Second, you eliminate many weed seeds, so you'll greatly reduce the time spent weeding your future garden. (See chapter 6 for specific-instructions.)

The No-Till Alternative: Sheet Composting

If you don't want to dig or remove sod, use the sheet-composting steps explained on pages 76-77. You'll need more time (six months) bur less overall effort.


The basic strategy for problem soils is simple: Fix what you can and learn to manage what you can't fix. Moderate cases of alkalinity or acidity are good examples of characteristics you can fix. Using muscle power, you can also fix some drainage problems by physically breaking up or cutting holes through hardpan. This chart outlines strategies for specific problems; read on in this chapter for details. ^fl^^H

Save most of your effort for those few plants you just have to grow that can't tolerate existing conditions. With really problematic soils, try growing plants in containers or excavating a few inches of soil and filling in with imported topsoil to create raised beds. It's often easier to go with the flow: Design a garden around plants that thrive in the conditions your yard offers. (Ask your Cooperative Extension Service, local nurseries, or local landscapes.) You'll be surprised at the variety you have to work with.

Above all, remember that organic matter is the universal soil improver (see chapters 3 and 4). Thats why adding it is listed as the top strategy for each entry in the chart.

Quick Reference Chart

Where to Find


Management Strategies


Soggy soils or poor drainage

• Add organic matter (include some relatively fresh residues)

chapters 4 and 5

(see also clay soils and com

• Identify cause (topography or soil structure)

pages 10-12

pacted soils)

• Regrade low spots; loosen compacted soil with broadfork

pages 138,143

• Double-dig beds or build raised beds

pages 138-139,141

• Improve and protect soil structure

page 10; chapters 4,5

• Check for extreme magnesium levels />« .

pages 140,206

Clay and heavy soils (see also poor drainage)

Compacted soils or hardpan (see also poor drainage)

Sandy soils or excessive drainage

  • Add organic matter (include some relatively fresh residues)
  • Double-dig beds or build raised beds
  • Improve and protect soil structure
  • Avoid overwatering and compacting soil or working when wet
  • Choose plants that tolerate heavy soils
  • Add organic matter (include some relatively fresh residues.)
  • Loosen soil with broadfork and/or double-dig beds (or cut holes through hardpan)
  • Improve and protect soil structure
  • Grow deep-rooted green manures
  • Add organic matter (well-decomposed is best)
  • Create sunken beds (where salt levels are low)
  • Mulch to reduce evaporation

Use fertilizer often, but in small amounts (or use foliar fertilizer) chaptt Choose drought-tolerant plants chapters 4 and 5 pages 138-139.141 page 10; chapters 4,5 pages 10,142 page 140

chapters 4 and 5

pages 138,143 ^ page 10; chapters 4, $ chapter 5

chapters page 145 page 1

it pages 138,143 ^ page 10; chapters 4, $ chapter 5




Steep slopes (see also excessive drainage)

Thin and/or stony soils

Acidic soils

Alkaline soils, also saline and sodic soils

Diseased soils

Contaminated soils

Management Strategies

  • Add organic matter (well-decomposed is best)
  • Plant sturdy groundcovers or build terraced beds
  • Minimize cultivation
  • Cover any exposed soil with mulch (or grow cover crops)
  • Add organic matter
  • Build raised beds or grow plants in containers
  • Choose plants adapted to local area
  • Add organic matter to increase buffering
  • lest soil to determine if calcium and/or magnesium is needed
  • Spread limestone and retest after a year
  • Switch to fertilizers and amendments that don't acidify soil
  • Choose plants that tolerate acidic soil
  • Add organic matter (acidic, if possible)
  • For moderate alkalinity, add sulfur
  • For very high pH, determine cause through soil tests
  • Test for salt problems
  • Switch to low-salt fertilizers and amendments that acidify soil
  • Try foliar feeding for nutrient deficiencies
  • Don't use lime; use only gypsum if calcium is needed
  • Don't use cow manure if salt levels are high
  • Saline soils: Improve drainage and leach to reduce salt levels
  • Sodic and saline sodic soils: Improve drainage; treat with sulfur before leaching
  • Add organic matter (compost is best)
  • Practice good garden hygiene
  • Solarize soil
  • Use mulch to prevent soilborne plant diseases from splashing onto leaves

Where to Find Reference chapters 4 and 5 pages 146-149 page 147 chapter 5

chapters 4 and 5 pages 138-139,168-169 pages 155,181

chapters 4 and 5 pages 122,125,150 pages 150-151 chapter 6 pages 150,182

chapters 4 and 5 pages 124,152-153 pages 28-29,152 pages 152,154 chapter 6 page 115 pages 140.157 page 154 pages 154-155

pages 152-157

chapters 4 and 5 page 158 pages 160-161

page 158; chapter 5

. Choose resistant or tolerant varieties recommended for your area pages 158-159

Add organic matter and keep soil mulched

Keep pH between 6.5 and 6.8

Maintain abundant phosphorus

Get special soil tests for suspected contaminants

Determine source to limit further contamination chapters 4 and 5 pages 150-153,162

pages 118-119. 205 pages 162-163 pages 162-163


Improving Drained Soils oi


Three things can cause poorly drained soils.

  • Topography is the culprit if the surrounding land slopes toward the soggy spot: Water has no choice but to end up there after every rain.
  • Heavy or compacted soils (which are often hard to distinguish) act like a plastic bag, holding water and not letting it drain away.
  • If the water table (groundwater) is close to the surface, it can keep the soil above it saturated. Often these factors combine to keep soil soggy for long periods of time.

Raised Beds

One management strategy can help you grow great gardens regardless of the cause of your poor drainage. Raising the soil level at least 4 inches (10 cm) in raised beds often transforms a constantly wet site into an evenly moist site — the ideal condition for most types of gardens. Raised beds look nice, too, as plants are set off from their surroundings. And you can make them yourself.

Raised beds give roots room to grow without hitting the wet soil caused by a low spot or high water table. If the soil used to build the beds isn't too heavy, it will improve gardens in clay or compacted soils. For the best results with clay or compaction, though, double-dig the area before you build raised beds (see page 141).

Raised beds can benefit your garden in many other ways as well. They can improve soil drainage, soil aeration, and air circulation around plants; allow soils to warm up in spring; increase space available for roots in shallow or rocky soils; and in salty soils, create a low-salt zone for root growth.

A Few Perennials That Like Wet Feet

Many attractive perennials thrive with constantly moist or even wet feet.

Angelica (Angelica archangelica) Astilbes (Astilbe spp.) Blue flags (Iris versicolor,

/. inrginiana) Candelabra primrose (Primula japonica)

Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) Cattails (will overrun other pfctife)

(Typha spp.J Great blue lobelia (Lobelia syphilitica) Japanese and Siberian irises (Iris ensata, I. sibirica) Joe-Pve weed (Eupatorhon maculatum) Marsh marigold (Caltha potest"*) Many ferns (many spp.) Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) Yellow flag (Iris pseudoaconts)


If you have enough money, you also have the option of regrading the topography of your yard or installing drainage pipes. Hiring a landscape professional is a good idea with either. While it's easy enough to fill small low spots with topsoil, regrading large areas could direct water into your basement or other unintended spot. Also, be aware that even small bulldozers tend to compact soil, especially if it's wet.

Drainage pipes usually work best if an experienced person lays them. They don't work if they're nor slop* correctly. They tend to fill in over time, too, and have a habit of moving around from frost heaving. Before y^ hire anybody, try to find where the water is coming from. Sometimes a simple aboveground extension of a downspout, or redirecting the outlet from a downspout, will solve the problem.


Trees and shrubs. Build up a low m°und or berm (8 to 12 inches high) gradually sloping edges before Planting. For a single shrub, make it o to 4 feet in ¿joroetef. expand for beds of multiple shrubs. For a single make it about as wide as the ^ure diameter for small trees, or half ^ width of large shade trees.

Options for Raised Beds

For vegetable gardens, simply shape existing soil (if you double-dig it first, your soil will end up a few inches or cm, higher to start). For large shrub or perennial borders, you may need to import topsoil or add a mix of half compost and half topsoil. If your climate is cool and/or humid, make beds 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 cm) high for extra drainage. In warm or dry climates, aim for 3 to 4 inches (8 to 10 cm) to keep soil from drying out too much

Vegetable gardens. Create temporary beds. Lay them out with stakes and string for tidy edges. Three to 4 feet is a good width; leave a path at least a foot wide between beds. Use a hoe to pull soil up into beds; rake the top level. If the lower soil in the paths tends to stay moist,, mulch thickly or lay wide boards to walk on.

Permanent beds. Landscape timbers or 2 x 6 boards make good sides; more elaborate options include mortared brick and dry stone walls around raised beds. To keep landscape timbers from heaving in winter, drill holes through them at 5- to 6-foot intervals. Pound 2-foot •engfhs of slender steel pipe through the holes until ends are flush with the timber. Short pieces of pipe also make good stakes for holding wide boards against the raised soil sides; (Or use rebar, a concrete reinforcing rod, if you can get it cut to size.) You can buy raised-bed kits of pbslic corner slakes with slots to hold wooden boards or '^cycled plastic "boards."

Trees and shrubs. Build up a low m°und or berm (8 to 12 inches high) gradually sloping edges before Planting. For a single shrub, make it o to 4 feet in ¿joroetef. expand for beds of multiple shrubs. For a single make it about as wide as the ^ure diameter for small trees, or half ^ width of large shade trees.

Improving Clay and Heavy Soils

Heavy clay soils can be made more loamlike by physical loosening with double-digging (see opposite page). Once loosened, you need to supply them with lots of organic matter to keep them that way. Since loam is a mix of sand, silt, and clay, you might be tempted to add sand to improve the texture of clay. Don't bother. Sand is very heavy, and you have to add several inches of the coarsest grade to make any difference. Spreading only a couple of inches of compost or other organic matter over soil gives better results than several inches of sand. Compost is a lot easier to deal with, too, as it's much lighter to cart and shovel.

The Benefits of Clay

Clay offers benefits to offset its heavy texture. It can hold large reserves of nutrients and moisture for plants. The main problem with clay soils isn't the clay itself but the high probability that such soils will become compacted, develop hardpan, or develop drainage problems. If you correct those problems, you can grow great gardens in clay. Since these problems are so often interrelated, you'll find that the double-digging described here can work wonders with compaction and poor drainage as well.

ter Gardening Tips

A Few Plants That Like Heavy Clay Soils


Ajugas i.Ajuga spp.) . Daylilies (Hemerocalis spp.) Houttuynia (Houituynia cordata) Ornamental grasses (many spp.) Pachysandra (Pachysandra lermimlh) Virginia creeper (vine) (Parthenocissus quiwjuefolia)


Barberries (Berberis spp.) Creeping juniper (Juniperus hori-

zontalis) Euonymus (Euonymus spp.) Viburnums {Viburnum spp.) Willows [Scdix spp.) Rugosa rose (Rosa rugosa) Shr ub dogwoods (Cornus alba.

C sericea, C stolonifera) Spruces {Pica spp.) Sumacs (Rhus spp.)

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