You’ve prepared your garden bed for fall. Now how do you amend the soil so that your autumn plants thrive, the ground retains moisture (yet drains well), and you don’t have to pull weeds every day?

Amending soil

Adding amendments is a key factor in gardening success.

Amending rewards

Amend your soil, and reap the garden rewards!

Photo Credit: Mark A. Miller

Big order, right? Sure, but remember that the best soils produce the best plants, and your main job now is to make certain that your growing medium – don’t say, “dirt!” – is pliable, free of weed seed, high in organic matter and supports the root systems of your plants.

In other words, it’s worth the trouble to mix the right stuff first in order to produce the best plants later.

Right away, you can see that your native soil is not the answer. Whether you have sand, loam or clay, the soil in your back yard needs help. It’s either gummy or porous, and it’s deficient in nitrogen (and probably some other essential nutrients). Your best bet is to visit your favorite garden center and buy some amendments and fertilizers – but which ones? And how do you apply them?

The first step is to exorcise all those fears of getting your fingernails dirty. Hey, gardening is dirty work – that’s why it’s so much fun! So get down on your knees and force some grime between your toes and fingers. (Feel better already, don’t you?)

You’ll need to know the amount of organic matter (OM) in your soil, expressed as a percentage. (To get an idea of how much is needed, 5 percent is a lot.) OM makes soil easy to till; it lowers the pH (acidifies), and it increases the soil’s ability to hold nutrients and water. Soil is said to have “good tilth” when its physical properties are suitable for planting.

If you haven’t done so before, have a soil test done by your state Extension Service. (To do so, call your local county agent’s office and ask for a soil sample kit.) This test will reveal your soil’s deficiencies and suggest additives. Don’t be surprised to learn that your soil is nitrogen-deficient – all soils are. Nitrogen, the fertilizer element plants need in the greatest quantity, “leaches” (drains) from the surface and deeply underground, far from the reach of thirsty roots.

Does that mean you should pour nitrogen into your garden soil? Not by any means. Some garden vegetables (such as snap beans) will flower, but they won’t develop fruit in the presence of excess nitrogen. Here’s the best plan: Remember that compost you started last fall or spring? Well, it’s ready to be used now. Mix it into the soil thoroughly (a motorized rototiller does wonders). Mix it into the soil thoroughly (a motorized rototiller does wonders). This way, you’ll make use of the natural organic substances, and they won’t “burn” your crops.

In case you somehow forgot to compost your garden wastes last year, here’s an alternate suggestion: Mix in Canadian peat or decomposed organic matter. You can also use finely shredded bark mulch and rotted manure. (And while you’re at it, you should mound your beds for better drainage.)

So get out there and get your fingernails dirty! You’ll be glad you did when your garden rewards you with lovely flowers this fall.