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Improving your garden soil

By Tina Rosenbalm

Gardeners have truly appreciated the recent rain and are watching the weather and the calendar for opportunities to get to work outside.  Be it your yard, landscape, or vegetable garden, many of us can’t wait for the sun to shine so we can start digging, prepping the garden, and planting! 

But your ground isn’t the best. Can you really improve or “build” your soil? Indeed, we can. We build it by incorporating organic matter and lime if needed.  

When it is empty and the weather is such that we can work it, be sure your first step is to add organic matter.

Is your soil too sandy?  Add organic matter.  Is it nothing but clay?  Add organic matter.  

The benefits of adding organic matter are numerous.  Composted organic matter adds nutrients, increases water holding capacity in sandy soil, improves soil structure, and is loaded with beneficial microbes. Organic matter really is the miracle cure for bad soils and an obvious addition to whatever state in which you find your ground.  

Compost can be from manures, lawn clippings, leaves or anything natural you can find.   Many seasoned gardeners will till in leaves, pine straw, or other raw material into the soil months before it is to be used.  This allows the soil to create its own compost.   

Now if you are looking to start at a new garden site, one of our biggest challenges is finding well drained soil. So much of our ground has clay as a subsoil.  And well-drained soil is a must for many desirable shrubs, perennials, and vegetables. 

Well-drained soil has everything to do with how quickly water will percolate through the soil.  Many homeowners think that a sloping ground area that “sheds water” is “well drained”.  Not so.  Water must be allowed to move into the soil and then move through it. A few old timers may remember the percolation test that was required before the old septic field lines were laid. That is the type of test we need to perform.

If unsure that your garden site is poorly drained, there is an exacting, small sized test to see how well drained it is. Here is the method to follow: 

Step 1: Dig a hole at least 12” in diameter by 12” deep, with straight sides. If you’re testing a large site, dig several holes scattered around, since drainage can vary.

Step 2: Fill the hole with water, and let it sit overnight. This saturates the soil and helps give a more accurate test reading.

Step 3: Refill the hole with water the next day.

Step 4: Measure the water level hourly by laying a stick, pipe, or other straight edge across the top of the hole, then use a tape measure or yardstick to determine the water level. Continue to measure the water level every hour until the hole is empty, noting the number of inches the water level drops per hour.

The ideal soil drainage is around 2” per hour. With readings between 1”- 3”, this is generally fine for most plants that have average drainage needs. If the rate is less than 1” per hour, your soil is poorly drained.

For exceedingly poor-drained soils, a solution for vegetables and many perennials is a raised bed.  Whether in rows down your garden or landscape beds edged with timber, stone, or other material, raising the level of the soil, in which the desired plants will grow, should aid greatly. 

The question is often asked, “Can I just dig out a deep hole, fill it full of good soil and create a well-drained soil that way?”  Digging a hole like that will only create a big “clay bowl” that will still hold water quite well.  

To overcome any uncertainty in the application of lime and additional fertilizer, you must take a soil test.  Texas A&M has a laboratory that tests soil for liming and fertilization. You can pick up a form at our office at 301 East Butler (Rock Building). 


Tina Rosenbalm

Upshur County Extension Agent

Agriculture and Natural Resource




The members of Texas A&M AgriLife will provide equal opportunities in programs and activities, education, and employment to all persons regardless of race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age, disability, genetic information, veteran status, sexual orientation or gender identity and will strive to achieve full and equal employment opportunity throughout Texas A&M AgriLife.



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