How to Get Your Soil Ready for Gardening Season

Giving your soil a little TLC can result in healthier, happier plants.

March  5, 2022
Photo by Rocky Luten

I recently started thinking about what I’m going to plant in my garden this spring—it’s a nice mental escape from the current dreary New England weather—and as I’ve been researching different flowers and vegetables, I keep seeing references to “ideal soil quality.” For example, the growing guides in Almanac always say things like, “Dahlias thrive in rich, well-drained soil. The pH level of your soil should be 6.5-7.0, slightly acidic.”

It makes sense that soil has a pH, but it’s never been something I took into consideration as I planted my garden. I’ve always considered soil quality to be “advanced gardener stuff”—after all, my plants grow just fine—but seeing repeated mentions of it has piqued my curiosity. As a result, I started reading about soil quality, plant pH, and soil testing, and eventually, even reached out to Vanessa Dawson, a gardening expert and CEO of Arber, an organic, non-toxic plant wellness company, for expert insights on soil quality and why it matters. Here’s what I learned.

Does Soil Quality Really Matter?

Have you ever seen pictures of big, beautiful, flourishing plants and thought to yourself, “Why don’t mine look like that?” If so, there’s a good chance soil quality has something to do with it. Dawson explains that healthy soil yields healthy plants, and even if your plants are doing OK, chances are they could be better if you improved the soil.

“Soil provides a massive diversity of microbes, nutrients, and bacteria that plants are dependent on,” explains Dawson. “When plants send out roots, they expect to find this complex microbiology that they can work with interdependently, both feeding the soil sugars and attracting then absorbing the necessary compounds they need through their roots.” If they don’t find the nutrients they need, plants won’t grow as large and likely won’t put out as many flowers or vegetables as they could.

What Does “Bad” Soil Quality Look Like?

Naturally, my next question was, “So how do I know if my soil is bad?!” Dawson explained that there are several factors to look at, including the appearance of the soil, how it absorbs water, and whether there are insects present.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Are you people being rude on purpose? In my opinion its uncalled for.”
— Thankful

“Soil that is light brown versus dark and black is often void of microbial diversity,” she explains. “There should be a variety of different microorganisms in your soil. If you dig up a scoop, you should see worms and bugs and beetles—all beneficial insects helping to aerate and feed the soil keeping its microbiome thriving.” She also noted that soil should absorb and hold water easily and that plants should be deep in color with long, spread-out root systems.

If you still aren’t sure your soil is healthy, there are testing services that will give you a more concrete answer. “You can always send a sample of your soil to be tested,” says Dawson. “Most state universities provide excellent and affordable soil testing services through a cooperative extension service.”

What’s The Deal With Soil pH?

There’s also the matter of soil pH, a measure of how acidic or alkaline it is. “Soil pH runs on a scale from 0 to 14, with 7 being a neutral pH—over 7 is alkaline and under 7 is acidic,” says Dawson. “Most plants and beneficial microorganisms prefer a pH between 6 and 7.5.” The pH of soil affects how well plants can absorb nutrients, and while your plants won’t die if the soil pH is a little off, they again might not get as big or put out as many blooms. Soil testing services will tell you the pH of your soil, but there are also soil pH test kits and soil pH meters that you can use at home.

If you discover that your soil pH is outside the optimal range, there are various additives you can use to get it back on track, but be warned: it’s not a one-and-done task. “If you want to adjust pH organically, it needs to be done over time—it won’t be an overnight fix,” says Dawson. “Mulch, coffee grounds, and compost are all great ways to make your soil more acidic over time. Adding a dilution of baking soda and or crushed eggshells are two natural and gentle ways to make soil more alkaline over time.” There are also commercial additives that will adjust the pH of soil—garden lime will increase the pH, making it more alkaline, while a soil acidifier will decrease the pH.

How to Improve The Quality of Soil in Your Garden

If you’ve determined that your soil could use a little love, organic matter—aka. some kind of decomposing plant and/or animal matter—is going to be your best friend. The OSU Extension Service explains that organic matter will help improve soil structure, water retention and pore space, all while adding key nutrients that plants need to thrive. The most common types of organic matter used in gardening are compost, animal manure, and mulch, but you can also use things like leaves and grass clippings from your yard.

To incorporate organic matter into your garden beds, you’ll want to start by digging into the soil with a shovel or cultivator, turning the dirt over and breaking up large clumps to relieve any compaction. You can then add one or two inches of organic matter, whether it’s aged manure or compost, and mix it into the top layer of the soil using your garden tool. Ideally, this should be done on a yearly basis, typically in the fall, as this will give the organic matter time to break down in the off-season. However, you can also do it in the spring a few weeks before you plant—bagged compost is best for this application, as it’s already broken down. For more detail on this process, OSU has a comprehensive guide on improving garden soil with organic matter.

If it’s going to be overly expensive or labor-intensive to modify your existing soil, another option is to build raised beds, which you can then fill with better growing material. “If you want to purchase additional soil, focus on organic products,” says Dawson. “Look for products oriented towards professional growers, as the quality will be higher, and always look for a soil that contains a mixture of compost.”

What are you doing to improve the quality of your soil before gardening season? Share your best tips in the comments below.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • thedarkattitude
  • Barbara
  • Smaug
  • insan_art
  • Caroline Mullen
    Caroline Mullen
Freelance writer, product tester & baking enthusiast.


thedarkattitude June 10, 2022
All Kind Of Gothic clothing, Lolita clothing, Victorian clothing, punk clothing, corsets and accessories on very reasonable prices, is the best source for women's and men's alternative fashion clothing...
Barbara March 6, 2022
Thanks for the article. I’m in Sw illinois, bear StLouis, MO & have turned my raised bed garden once this beautiful week. The lettuce seeds are ordered and yesterday we staked out 3 potato towers. We’ll have another week of cold weather after this warm week and then the potatoes can be started while end of month the “cold@ seeds will be placed.
I’ve never done PH. However, I’ve never felt the need as we seriously compost. We make our own from food scraps and horse manure. Our garden soil is energetic. In fact, I cut my last lettuce and ate for Christmas Day dinner this past season. The tomatoes are hand started, heirlooms from my neighbor. My other actual garden beds are specific selections of greens. 3 herbs. Cucumbers, onions, bush green beans. I stagger plant greens and beans.
It’s an exciting time and wish you garden happiness.
Thanks again for sharing. It’s always a good thing and now I better look for more crawly creatures in my dirt 😉
Smaug March 6, 2022
A PH check is actually a pretty good idea with home compost, which has a tendency to be on the acidic side. I have trouble trusting home tests, though. Those I've tried involve either testing a very small amount chemically or pushing a metal probe into the soil. It seems to me that not only are the small samples not necessarily representative- soil, particularly that that has been conditioned, is not all that uniform- and both methods are liable to be affected by the soil's texture. Additionally, the probes are likely to be influenced by the soil's moisture content. Still, if you do enough samples you should be able to get some idea.
Smaug March 5, 2022
Leaves and grass clippings used as mentioned are mulch, in fact the best mulch. This article is pretty thin on actual information, but this is bordering on misinformation. We are now a few generations into an era where gardening is simply not something that people do, and the conception of a garden as something you buy and hire unskilled laborers to batter into submission with machines is just sad; I suppose soon people will come to realize that they get nothing out of such "landscapes" but a liability and will abandon the notion altogether.
insan_art March 6, 2022
"This article is pretty thin on actual information, but this is bordering on misinformation"

Yup. Thin and very clickbaity.
Smaug March 6, 2022
"Clickbaity"- a word so horrible that it's kind of charming.
insan_art March 6, 2022
I'd find it charming if it wasn't trying to sell things when people truly need to learn how to garden.
Perhaps it's just me. :)
Smaug March 6, 2022
Believe me, it's not. People frequently ask me about gardening, but generally back off in a hurry when they find out it involves going outdoors and digging holes and other such indignities.
insan_art March 7, 2022
Sheesh, I don't want to be near anyone who thinks those are indignities. What a shame.
Caroline M. March 8, 2022
Smaug, we'd love for all our articles to be encyclopedic but unfortunately that's not how it goes. Maybe one day we'll have the budget to hire you to peer review. For now, though, we'll keep doing what we can.
Smaug March 8, 2022
They used to have editors for that; them were the days. It's actually fairly hopeless trying to writer about gardening on a national level. Newspapers no longer seem able to hire specialist writers; bulletins from local nurseries can be helpful, but of course they're out to make sales. In the West, Sunset's Western Garden Books have been an invaluable resource for many years; I seem to recall hearing that they were going to do a Midwest version too, but I don't know exactly where the rest of the country can best look.
insan_art March 9, 2022
Here's a novel idea: just don't write articles about things you don't know about.

You're welcome.
Thankful March 14, 2022
Are you people being rude on purpose? In my opinion its uncalled for.
Smaug June 10, 2022
"We people" may vary- some of us are merely trying to mitigate the spread of misinformation. Despite its current commitment to all out commercialism, many people still regard this site as an educational resource. One which, by the way, made its reputation to a great extent on the contributions of its users.