There is nothing more important to the success of your garden than the condition of the soil.  It doesn’t matter how much NurturingCredit: © MaksymFilipchuk - Fotolia.comyou water, stake, or talk to your plants, if the soil is not good, they will not thrive.

The first step in building great garden soil is to get a soil test.  There are several different varieties of test, but I recommend getting a complete test through your local county extension office.  They will make recommendations as to which fertilizers to use.  They will also tell you the percentage of organic matter in your garden soil.  Five percent is considered ideal, though very few gardens can boast numbers that high. So how can you raise the percentage of organic matter in your soil? 

Plant a Cover Crop

Planting a cover crop is a quick and cheap method to rapidly increase the quality of your garden soil.  The biggest drawback of cover crops is the space they take up.  Here in Florida, we have a long growing season.  I can plant a quick growing crop like buckwheat and till into the soil in eight weeks.  For cooler climates, you can use a rotation plan to plant cover crops in different areas of your garden, or even in boxes or containers.

Buckwheat is easy to grow and easy to turn in. One problem that you may have is deciding when and how to turn in the cover crop.  Turn in your buckwheat early, when about 10 percent of it is in flower. And you don't have to do it all at once; just begin digging in strips when it reaches that point.  With buckwheat, the harvesting is easy. Just chop it off at ground level and lay it on the ground to serve as mulch. Or, you can cut it off at ground level rake it up, and compost it. The most efficient way to use all of the nutrients is to cut the top growth and dig it into the soil along with the roots.  Once it's all turned in, you can immediately replant with a crop.


Composting is another very effective way to improve the soil. Compost comes in many forms, you can use composted manure, homemade compost, municipal compost, sawdust composted with manure--they're all good. If you work in a good amount in the spring, it will improve the soil structure when you're planting.  It's important to use only finished, completely decomposed, compost in spring.

How much to use?  Use an amount equal to 1/4 to 1/3 the volume of the soil you are treating.  Simply add the compost to the soil and work it in thoroughly with any tool available

With a little work and patience, you can raise the organic content of your garden soil.  The difference in the quality, health, and yield of your garden plants will amaze you and make the extra effort more than worth it.