Compost pile that is healthy and ready for the garden
GROW-IT-YOURSELF

The Best Ways to Improve Soil for any Garden Type

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Each season garden soil will need to be refilled with nutrients after the season’s depletion of in ground, raised beds or container gardens. The process of improving soil is not as complicated as most think. Follow the tips mentioned below and you will be on the path to a productive season!

Finally Get a Harvest After Learning The Best ways to Improve Soil in the Garden From a Plantaholic.

Topics covered in this reading:

  • How to apply compost
  • Making compost tea
  • Caring for your compost pile
  • How often to turn your compost pile
  • and lot’s more! So keep reading.

If you have ever wondered how to improve clay soil or the best ways to improve soil drainage, the short answer is you need compost.

So there you are, outside in the sunshine, finally starting your spring garden after the winter months that never seemed to end. Only to find that your soil is not up to par…again.

Between last season’s crop depleting the soil of the precious nutrients, the season can feel off to a rough start before even getting started!

Well if you have ever found yourself in this situation don’t get discouraged because there are some methods to replenish soil without breaking the bank. While it sounds kind of silly, the best way to improve soil is with manure from grass fed animals, compost or fertilizer. 

If you haven’t taken the plunge into gardening here are a few reasons to start a container garden, without feeling overwhelmed or like space is a valid reason to avoid the subject.

Related: Ready to start seed shopping? Visit my friends at SeedsNow. They are stocked and have flat rate shipping!

Pointers for getting your compost bin or pile set-up

If you are starting to journey down the path of setting up a compost bin in your backyard, you’ll need to get some basics of the process first. To begin, when selecting your site aim for a shaded area. Sun will dry out your pile, making the decomposition process all that harder. Most gardeners/zero wasters opt for compost piles near the garden, like behind the shed. Wind is also something to keep in mind. On breezy days you will get the draft of composting leaves and manure, so try to place your pile as far away but within reasonable distance. Not confusing at all right?

Once you have the location, you’ll need to figure out if you will place compost on the ground within a fenced area, if you’ll use a compost bin or what. There are tons of options out there will all kinds of price tags. Here are some options Amazon offers just to name a few.

Personally, I love the look of the wood compost pile. It just feels more natural compared to the plastic. However, black plastic gets hotter and can help speed along the composting process. So, I am of no help in your decision making (sorry not sorry). You don’t have to buy a bin but could instead making one out of a large tote, repurposed cheeseball bin or whatever you have on hand. Heck, I made mine from some leftover trim work and 3 ft. fencing spikes. It’s literally only 2 panels that make an L shape.

In the end, the three factors to consider when setting up your compost pile is location, wind and container. Don’t stress over the details because you will eventually change or add as you learn what works.

Caring for your compost pile so it doesn’t stink up the yard!

Ahh, the initial thought most beginner gardeners have it that composting stinks. I am here to tell you that is a big fat lie! In fact, a stinky compost means something is off balance and is signs of an unhealthy rot. Obviously there will be exceptions, for example, if you just added green (aka fresh) manure to your pile, it’s gonna have some smells. But as the manure breaks down from the worms and healthy organisms being spread by stirring/rotating your bin, the smells subside.

If you don’t have access to fresh manure to get your pile started, there are some compost starters you can buy that introduce healthy organisms and bacteria to get the composting started. I have personally not tried a starter just because I started my pile in winter so I didn’t mind waiting. But now that it’s getting warmer, I may give one a shot! (there is no shame is having a few compost piles. In fact it’s good practice! One pile can “bake”, while you collect from the ready pile).

Psst…when I worked at the Lowe’s garden center, the brand Jobes was a popular one!

Composting care made simple

Here are some of the frequently asked questions when it comes to maintaining a healthy compost pile.

  • How to add compost to soil – Depending on your bin or pile, scoop mature compost into a bucket or wheelbarrow. Add compost to weed free soil by sprinkling a 2 inch layer. You can turn the compost into the soil with a shovel or by hand in the beginning of the season. Add another 2-4 inch layer in 2 months or when plants are ready for weed protections and a way to hold in moisture better.
  • How long for compost to mature – Typically it takes 12 weeks for most compost piles to mature, but it varies depending on the material. Yard leaves take 1-2 YEARS to breakdown on their own. The best way to speed up the process is by cutting food, yard or paper waste into small pieces.
  • How much compost manure to use – The best way rule of thumb is to add 2 inch layers at a time. If you are using straight composted manure (no cardboard or food was added) then it’s still good to do a 1-2 inch layer for raised beds, containers or in-ground gardens.
  • How often to water compost pile – Once a week is the general recommendation. But check your compost pile to ensure it’s not soggy or dry in the middle. Select a day to add a splash of water at time as you stir your pile. For most gardeners the weekend is designated for chores like fertilizing and turning the compost pile.
  • How often to turn compost pile – Turn the pile every 1-2 weeks, basically when you water. It isn’t necessary to mix in the scraps each time you add a layer. Instead you can add greens and browns each day, then mix layers after a week or two. The reasoning behind this process is because the center of the compost pile is “hot” and where the “cooking” process takes place. So if you aren’t rotating your pile, you’ll end up with a center of composted material, but outside edges that are still untouched.
  • How to apply compost tea – To make a simple version of compost tea, blend food scraps (banana peels or veggie scraps) with some water and shredded paper. Mix this concoction in a blender until you get a smoothie consistency. Our compost tea straight into containers, potted gardens, raised beds or anywhere needing a quicks boost.
  • How to clean a compost bin – There are two ways to clean out your compost bin and it depends on why you are doing so. First, first if you are scrapping a compost pile gone wrong, you will need to clean the bin with vinegar water to kill any bad bacteria. To a gallon of water mix 1/4-1/2 cup of vinegar and rinse your bin with a small cup to reach all the sides. On the other hand, if you want to clean a compost bin that is empty from a healthy compost, you don’t need to clean anything. Rather, leave some of the compost behind to “start” a new batch by introducing organisms back into the pile. If it worked once, keep that momentum going.
  • How to add compost to potted plants – Adding compost to potted plants is rather simple, take your pile or bagged compost and scoop out enough to add a 2 inch layer to your pot. No need to mix in, this will only cause roots distress and harm your plant. The compost will gradually settle in as you water.
  • How to avoid maggots in your compost bin – Ah, this can be a tricky thing to master, but for the most part if maggots are in the compost bin you 1) too soggy of a pile or 2) added food scraps that are greasy, meaty, a type of bread or other material that doesn’t belong in the compost pile. For a list of safe materials, check out this article from The Spruce on 50 Things You Can Compost.

What’s the difference between manure, compost and fertilizer?

Manure and compost are similar in function to improve soil, while fertilizer fixes a specific problem for a short period. A good manure/compost will give the soil proper aeration by keeping the soil light, (a problematic symptom in clay or sandy soil) while fertilizer can help provide specific vitamins.

I think to think of fertilizer as your daily vitamins, compost as your veggies and manure as the protein and starch dietary portion. Soil will need a healthy balance of all three to provide optimal conditions for growing fruits and veggies.  

Let’s dive into a few sources on how to add nutrients to your garden soil that will keep you on budget.

Animal manures that are safe to compost or use on the garden

Finding a source of manure can be as simple as store bought, farm fresh or home grown, as long as you know what to look for. Not all manure is created equal, in fact if not allowed time to cure some manures will burn your plants! (more on this below).

The basic just is manure is the best thing for to improve soil so shop sales (spring black Friday) or invest in some backyard chickens.

Those who live within city limits may have to get more creative with sourcing ideas. If calling around to local farms doesn’t sound appealing, just try to opt for options in the garden center like Black Cow. 

Sources: cows, chickens, rabbits, ducks, goats, horse, alpaca or pony

Some manures are considered “hot” and can actually burn plants from the high nitrogen levels.

For example, chicken manure is considered very hot and requires a six to eight week cure time before adding to soil where plants are growing. A good time to add the chicken coop contents would be after fall harvest or early spring before planting begins.

Cow manure however only requires a two-week downtime before adding to soil. Take care when adding to soil as a top dressing though (where 2 inches is added for a quick food release) as this can be hard on developing root systems.

Aged manure for purchase at the garden center has had the proper time to decompose so direct dressing is perfectly fine. 

The art of adding the magical ratios of browns and greens to your compost bin care routine

Compost is the process of breaking down nutrient dense, but otherwise deemed waste, into usable product. This is achieved from a mixture of brown and green compostable materials.

What all is considered a compostable material? 

Let me feel you in. This compost magic happens when a ⅔ brown to ⅓ green is cooked for a 12 week or more period.

compost ideas to improve soil

The process of composting requires quite a bit of time moisture and rotation of material. This material invites organisms such as worms to come in and break down material. intern brown and green sources are broken down and turned into a lovely compost AKA soil addition.

Brown sources: cardboard, paper, cereal boxes, pine needles or leaves

Green sources: grass clippings, weeds that have not gone to seed, old plants, banana peels, potato peels, coffee grinds, manure of grass fed animals

**Avoid fatty or acidic kitchen scraps as these can prohibit the decomposition process. 

Remember compost is a way to invite organisms to break down material in a natural way. Acidic or greasy scraps bring in animals or smells that are less pleasing and can be somewhat damaging to this process. 

Bonus: compost is a great way to top dress vegetables, especially raised beds, to provide a layer of nutrients without disturbing the developing roots. This process can also be a great way to mulch as compost is known for keeping moisture retained and protecting roots that have surfaced from the hot sun.

Want to start your own compost? Try this compost bin for easy turning and filling when repurposing your garden and kitchen waste into a garden essential!

You can still use a fertilizer in the garden along with your compost

Up down and all around. Ever notice on the box and bags of fertilizer there is a three number pattern? For example 10 – 10 – 10 or on the box of miracle-grow usually 3 digits can be found in the corner. These numbers are the nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.

The best way to remember what these names and number represent is by the up, down and all around chant.

Nitrogen is responsible for the growth of the leaves, or the upper part of the plant that is seen. Phosphorus is responsible for a good strong root system under the ground portion of the plant. Potassium is responsible for overall general health or the all around. 

Special climates and soil exception

So clay or sandy soils will prove to be especially challenging and require an extra layer of love when preparing your garden soil. While manure and compost are still the best options you may need to add a few other things to get the best out of your harvest. 

If you are struggling to get anything to grow because of your poor soil, it’s probably time to get your soil tested by your local extension office. While it can seem like a pain, getting a proper analysis of your specific locations needs will save you a ton of time and money doing it the trial and error way. A soil test is usually less than $10 and only takes a few days. The results will tell you exactly what to add so you get your garden soil drainage on track. If you just need some direction, clay soils will need compost or sand added to give proper drainage and to prevent clumping which makes it hard for roots to grow. Sandy soils need compost or clay added so nutrients don’t just float away.

The goal is for soil to form a small ball when squeezed in your hand, but would fall apart easily. This will give tender roots the ability navigate with ease, but will hold water and nutrients.

When to add soil enrichments

Giving your garden some extra love is always a good habit. Anytime a plant is added, seeds sprout or transplants brought home, add an inch or two of compost or aged manure. This will give the stunned roots the boost of good to spread out and produce strong root systems. You can “top dress” or mix the compost in with the roots.

Term definition: top dressing is you just add compost, fertilizer or mulch to the top of the soil and don’t mix it in.

Let nature lend a hand and after the final harvest start tossing the brown and green compost ingredients right into the garden, nature will take care of the rest!

The same can be done with hot manures, making a fall chicken coop mucking a double win. Just remember to stop adding 12 weeks before the average last frost date to allow proper breakdown time.

Not sure when your last frost date is? Learn how to find that and your garden zone so you can get the best out of your labor using the Farmers Almanac!

When in doubt- use compost

Garden soil can improved with manure, compost or fertilizer, but a healthy balance of the three is always good practice. When in doubt use compost for the quick, nutrient dense snack to keep plants growing strong. 

If you are interested in starting a compost bin I would highly recommend this bin. The black plastic makes it heat easier, which “cooks” the material faster. When it’s time to collect the bottom openings make it so easy to scoop out.

**This post may contain affiliate links where I earn a commission at no extra cost to you. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.**

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