One of the most important steps in gardening of any type is soil preparation. Good soil is what we build our yards and gardens out of. A little more time and effort in this stage, will help to assure your gardening efforts are successful.

Get to Know Your Soil

There are three basic types of soil – Sandy , Clay, and Silt

  • Clay based soil causes problems by holding the water and being to dense to work..
  • Sandy soil allows water to drain too easily and washes out nutrients.
  • Silty soil also allows water to wash through it too fast, the difference with sandy soil is when it is dry it is powdery in texture and prone to wind damage.

Along with organic matter or humus there are three primary minerals that make up soil: sand, clay, silt. The right balance of both humus and minerals will achieve garden loam, the best soil for growing plants. The good news is that poor soil can easily be improved and transformed into loam.

What Kind of Soil Do I Have?

Here’s a quick informal test to see what type of soil you have. Check your soil’s texture by picking up a handful and squeeze gently: If it feels sticky and stays in a tight mass, your soil is likely too high in clay. If it feels harsh or gritty and won’t hold any shape or crumbles it is likely too high in sand. If it feels smooth or floury and won’t hold any shape, it’s likely too high in silt. If it molds into your hand yet crumbles apart when squeezed, it has the perfect texture. It is probably loam.

Turning Poor Soil Into Loam

Available organic matter can be used to enhance the quality of your topsoil. There are several sources of organic matter. The one to use depends upon local availability and cost. Commonly recommended soil additives include:

  • Mushroom manure, well rotted
  • Chicken manure with sawdust, should be composted
  • Peat moss
  • Peat and sand mixture
  • Any readily available compost

After adding topsoil and/or soil additives, bring entire yard to a rough grade, be sure to distribute the improved topsoil evenly over the entire yard. Generously apply lime. Use three times the amount recommended for an established lawn.

Roto-till the soil to a depth of 4 to 6 inches. Finish grading:

  • Start ground leveling by raking the high spots into the lower areas. A home made float (a 6 x 6 beam with a rope attached) will work if the soil has been well prepared. Use a string line to check ground levels.
  • Roll the soil lightly during the early stages of preparation. This will show up variations in ground level. Continue to rake and roll until the contours are smooth and all high and low spots have been removed.

When you rake and grade, remove debris such as old sod, plants and rocks. Stones less than one inch in diameter can be left ‘when you are laying turf.

Prepare the ground with these goals in mind:

  • Good drainage
  • Smooth contours for even growth
  • No high spots or ruts for mower wheels, as this will cause scalping.
  • Good topsoil

You should slope the ground away from buildings and grade to one inch below driveway or sidewalk level.

When possible use mulch or gravel borders to avoid turf areas that are difficult to irrigate efficiently.


Grasscycling is the natural practice of leaving clippings on the lawn when mowing. This can save time, money and other resources like landfill space. The clippings quickly decompose, returning nutrients to the soil. Proper turf management, in conjunction with the practice of grasscycling, can reduce water and fertilizer requirements, mowing time, and disposal costs.

When you mow, the grass clippings do not need to be removed from the lawn unless they are excessively heavy. Clippings have a high nutrient value, breakdown rapidly and do not contribute significantly to thatch. If clippings are removed on a regular basis, then fertilizer, particularly nitrogen, have to be increased by 20 to 35 % to compensate for their removal. It may be desirable to remove clippings in some instances, such as around pool areas, but in most cases, clippings can be returned without causing any problems.


Mulching is a great way to landscape areas of your yard that are not covered by lawn or plants. By creating mulch strips around your lawn you can reduce irrigation runoff and improve watering efficiency. There are many different types of mulch, so pick the one that best fits your needs. Some people use stones or lava rocks in the place of mulch edging. Keep in mind that rocks will not hold moisture in the ground as effectively as mulch – if this is a concern.

Inorganic mulches include rocks and gravel, and should be applied at least 2 inches deep. They rarely need replacement and are good in windy spots. However, they should not be placed next to the house on the sunny south or west sides, because they tend to retain and radiate heat. Mulch may be applied directly to the soil surface or placed over a landscape fabric. (Note: Do not use black plastic because it prevents air and water from reaching to the plant roots.)

William Lowe
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