Building Your Soil


As sure as a concrete slab is the foundation for a typical modern home, good soil is the foundation for a successful garden.

Dirt is the stuff under your fingernails and that which you sweep into the dustpan after cleaning your floors. But soil, now that is a rich, diverse and living medium from which flowers bloom profusely and produce is abundant.

Soil can be wasted, lost, deteriorated, and eroded.

Soil can also be built, developed, enhanced, and conserved.

Good soil can take a few simple seeds and feed a family.

How does one go about obtaining this soil? Doesn’t it just come with whatever plot of ground your house also resides upon? Not at all. Gardeners, whom I am presently targeting, take whatever meager soil they currently have and build it up with the addition of organic matter.

Added organic matter for a gardener can be most any composted material. Go to any gardening center and you’ll find a number of products that have composted manures in them. Don’t buy sand and compost, just buy the good stuff.

I’m asked from time to time if one should buy some good “topsoil”. I typically say no. Truly good topsoil is only the top few inches off of any site. And chances are slim that you’d actually be getting the top few inches from another site.

And buying soil from somewhere else may also bring new weeds or pests to your landscape. Your site has enough weeds and pests of its own and doesn’t need to be comingled with more. Only if you need to fill a major depression or low-lying area in your landscape would I suggest the addition of someone else’s soil.

Instead, take whatever soil your site has and simply make it better. We make it better by purchasing composted products an adding it to the site. Compost such as mushroom manure can be bought in dump truck loads or by the bag.

Got sandy soil? Add compost. Got clayey soil? Add compost. Got soil…with some other problem? In all circumstances, add organic matter in the form of compost.

If you garden are large piece of ground and your budget simply doesn’t allow for the addition of compost or it is simply too much bulk to spread out, consider cover crops. Cover crops are the intentional planting of a crop that may will be incorporated into the ground after it has grown to certain stage to increase the amount of organic matter.

In the summer after all your spring garden is completed, consider planting a variety of southern peas. Southern peas, such as purple hull peas, can certainly provide you with more to eat, but will also put nitrogen into the soil as a legume and can be turned under with a tiller or disc after the crop is done.

In the cool season, plant a cover crop such as radishes, one of the many varieties of greens or Elbon rye. Radishes and greens (mustard, turnip or others) can be broadcast over an area, and lightly covered with soil to create a lush vegetative cover. Later after harvesting what you need, the remnants can be incorporated into the soil, thus increasing organic matter.

Elbon rye (a grain much like wheat or oats) is an excellent trap crop for nematode infested sites. Only the Elbon variety of cereal rye lets the harmful root-knot nematodes in to infect its roots but traps them and not allow them back out to damage other crops.

Going a step further, if you still have oak leaves in some parts of your landscape (as I do), put them to use between rows as a pathway that will slowly decompose as the season progresses, allowing for nutrients and organic matter to work their way into the garden soil.

I hope you look at your garden soil as something that can be improved and is being built over time. The use of cover crops at different points in the year, or the addition of compost, where feasible on smaller areas, will help you see a dramatic improvement in your garden’s health and productivity.


Cary Sims
Cary Sims
Cary Sims is the County Extension Agent for agriculture and natural resources for Angelina County. His email address is

Educational programs of the Texas AgriLife Extension Service are open to all people without regard to race, color, sex, disability, religion, age, or national origin.

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