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Soil and Composting Tips

Soil and Composting Tips 

Here are 30 suggestions that will help save time or solve soil and composting problems.  These are tips gathered from successful gardeners over the years.

Quick Soil Typing 

To quickly identify the type of soil in your garden, grab a handful of moist soil, squeeze it tightly, then release it.  If it keeps the shape, some clay is present.  If you can model with it and it feels smooth, it contains a lot of clay.  If it crumbles, feels gritty, and stains your hand, it is a mixture of sand and clay.  A silty soil feels smooth but cannot be modeled.  A very sandy soil slips through your fingers.

Soil Temperature Management 

Most gardeners measure the gardening season from the last frost in the spring to the first frost in the fall.  In reality, it runs from the time the soil temperature hits 45° F until it falls below 45° F.  (The soil bacteria that make the nitrogen available to roots only become active as the soil approaches 40° F.)  Check the temperature with a soil thermometer.


To wake up your garden in the spring, apply an even layer of compost, rotted manure, or dry organic fertilizer over the soil and proceed with a shallow rototilling or spading (4-6 inches deep).  This helps break up soil chunks, mixes in dead plants, aerates the soil, and starts bacterial action.  Leave the bed alone for a few weeks, then seriously work it.

Quick Check 

You can’t spade or rototill soggy soil.  to determine when to go to work, pick up a clod and press it with your thumb.  Soil that is ready for work falls apart.  If it won’t break apart easily, give it some time to dry.

Mother Nature’s Help 

Mother Nature will help you break up heavy soil if you let her.  In the fall pile the sod to form ridges and furrows in your garden.  This exposes the soil to frost and rain, the weather action will break up the particles over time to make them more workable.

Improving Heavy Soil 

The best way to tame heavy soil is to mix sand and weathered ashes (ashes left outside for several months) into the bed.  This improves drainage and makes the soil easier to work.

Rock Screen 

The easiest way to handle rocky soil is to sift it through a screen.  Build a 4x4-foot using two-by-fours, and prop it over the bed.  I prefer a 3x3-foot screen because women can handle a smaller screen.  Starting with a Starting with a 4x4-foot section of the bed, put all the soil through the screen; remove the rocks to a depth of about 6 inches.  Move the screen down to the next section of the bed and repeat.

Quick Additive 

Soil additives don’t have to be long-lasting to be effective.  Sawdust, for instance, which breaks down fairly quickly, may be more directly beneficial to vegetables than more durable additive.  (Remember that sawdust robs plants of nitrogen initially, so you need to add blood meal or a similar nitrogenous fertilizer to the soil).

Compost Helpers 

To enrich your soil the easy way, try adding Red Wiggler earthworms, which you can buy from any worm farm.  They excel at braking down compost.  To keep the Red wiggler working and multiplying, you must add generous amounts of fresh manure or compost.  Otherwise they disappear from your bed.

Spading the Garden 

There’s a right way and a wrong way to spade your garden.  If you cut the soil straight down, you can then turn it over without difficulty.  But if you cut at an angle, you won’t penetrate deeply enough to be able to turn the clods completely over.

Tilling Heavy Soil 

If you rototill an especially heavy clay soil that is slow to dry out below the surface, it will become lumpy and extremely hard as it dries.  To solve this, till 3-4 inches down and let the bed dry for a day.  Then till again to the full depth.

Cutting Down on Weeds 

Karen NewcombTo minimize the wed problem, till the soil thoroughly and let it sit for a day or two.  Then till it again and let it sit four to have days.  Besides killing the roots of grasses and weeds, this procedure also aerates the soil far better than a single effort can.

Leaf Mold 

To improve vegetable yields, try leaf mold.  In a loamy garden soil, 2-3 inches of leaf mold have increased yields of broccoli, eggplant, and cucumber 25-50 percent.

Keeping the Soil Light 

Newly cultivated beds often compact easily when gardeners walk on them to week or plant seedlings.  To keep the soil fluffy while you’re working in the garden, place boards at least 6 inches wide across the beds.  This distributes your weight evenly across a larger area to prevent compression.

Garden Drainage 

Here’s a simple test that will indicate the quality of drainage in your garden.  Dig a hole 2 feet square and 2 feet deep at the lowest part of your garden.  One week after a period of heavy rain, check the hole.  No standing water means you have good drainage.  If some water is pooled at the bottom, the drainage is good enough for plants with shallow roots.

Water-Saving Mulch 

An effective water-saving mulch is one that is thick enough to create dead air space.  This means a 1-2-inch layer of mostly ½-inch bark particles or a 3-inch layer of larger bark pieces.

Leaf Mold Mulch 

A thin layer of leaf mold makes a great mulch.  It conserves soil moisture and controls weeds that haven’t emerged by depriving them of sunlight and air.  Leaf mold also helps prevent organic fertilizers from leaching out of the soil.  To create leaf mold, pick the leaves up in your lawn mower bag and place them in a leaf compost pile.  The shredding speeds up decay.

Newspaper Mulch 

Shredded newspapers make an excellent mulch.  For protection from cold weather, spread about 6 inches over the bed toward the end of the season.  But don’t use colored pages because some ink contains lead, which should be nowhere near a food garden.

Biodegradable Mulch 

To get all the advantages of a plastic-type mulch without having to pick it up in the spring, try the special biodegradable paper mulches.  This thick, dark material holds weeds down for a season; it can then be tilled into the soil where it will rot away.

Lawn Mower Shredder 

A good way to speed up compost action is to chop leaves and plant material with a rotary mower.  Just run over the debris a few times, collect it in the mower bag, and throw it on the pile.  You can also dump chopped material directly onto the garden bed in the fall and rototill it in the soil.  the bed will be ready to plant by spring.

Oil Drum Compost 

An empty clean old drum can be a good container for compost.  Cut a 20x12-slit in the bottom of a 50-gallon oil drum, and hinge the lid.  Toss in coffee grounds, eggshells, peelings, greens, and a limited amount of grass clippings.  Add a shovelful of soil and mix together.  The compost will be ready to use in about eight weeks.

Compost in a Trash Can 

The advantage of making compost in a trash can is that it won’t have the smell of an open pile or bin.  Use a galvanized trash can, punch about 10 holes in the bottom, scrape off the ground, and set the can 1 inch into the ground.  Fill it up with grass clippings, leaves, soil, peat moss, and kitchen scraps.  The compost will be ready in about 8 weeks.

Spot Composting 

You can improve the soil for growing tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers by spot composting.  In the fall, bury kitchen scraps 3 inches deep in 19-20-inch-diameter holes wherever you expect to plant the seedlings.  These spots will be usable garden space the following spring.

Long-Term Compost 

If you have brush that’s too coarse or woody to compost quickly or to shred, heat it in a long-term compost pile.  It usually takes several years to break down, but this pile will allow you to get rid of material you can’t handle any other way.  Birds will like the pile.  You can hide the pile behind some shrubs or a fence.

Inner Compost Temperature 

Most gardeners hate checking the inner temperature of their compost pile.  Make it easy by mounding a candy thermometer on a 6-foot pole.  This allows you to reach into the pile (to make sure it is heating up) without burning your fingers.

Compost Pile Solutions 

Here are the most common problems that gardeners have with compost.

Organic Fertilizer Language 

Here’s how to calculate how much nitrogen is in your fertilizer.  Look for the percentage of nitrogen on the sack of blood meal or similar organic fertilizer.  Multiply that percentage times the weight of the sack’s contents.  For example, 10 pounds of blood mean (13 percent nitrogen) contains 1.3 pounds actual nitrogen.  You want about 1 pound of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet of soil.

Alkaline Soil 

You can tell if your soil is too alkaline without testing.  The plants will be stunted, with burned leaf margins and yellowing leaves.  The solution is to add sulfur.

Foliar Feeding 

Anytime you notice signs of nutrient deficiency in your plants, foliar feeding is a quick answer.  Make up a weak solution of seaweed or fish emulsion (follow the directions on the container), and spray it on the leaves.

Liquid Manure 

To make a quick liquid fertilizer, soak cattle or sheep manure in water until it just colors the water.  Drain the liquid through a cloth and pour it into a container to use on your garden vegetables.

I’m always looking for new tips to help gardeners.  If you have any garden tips you’d like to share you can email me at 

© Copyright by Karen Newcomb