Soil is a living, breathing, organism that can make or break your garden. If it is too sandy or silty, it will drain too quickly and your plants will die of thirst. If it is too hard and clay-like, it will take too long to drain, if it drains at all, and your plants will suffocate.
Here’s how you test what kind of soil you have in your yard: dig a hole about a foot wide and deep. Fill it with water. If it drains in 5 minutes or less, you’ve got a sand and/or silt problem. If it takes 15 minutes or longer, you’ve got a clay problem.
What you want is loam – soil that drains in about 8-12 minutes, and is loose, a bit moist, and crumbles easily. The best solution, if you’ve got the sand/silt problem or the clay problem, is adding compost.
If this is your first garden, you probably don’t have a compost pile yet. That’s OK, you can buy compost (organic, of course) at most garden supply stores in order to get started. In addition to correcting your soil structure, compost is also pH balanced, meaning that it will help keep your soil in the neutral zone, neither too acidic nor too alkaline.
You can test your soil’s pH yourself with either one of the testing kits pictured below, or you could get your soil tested by the county extension office. They will give you a detailed report of what your soil contains as well as their recommendations for correcting any imbalances – so make sure when you send them your samples that they know you will only be using organic fertilizers.
Our garden patch was, once upon a time, sitting beneath a metal shed at the end of a long, hard-packed dirt-and-gravel driveway. We had a definite sand/silt problem. We did no formal testing, however. We simply pushed the shed about 10 feet down the driveway and deep-tilled (with a garden shovel and a whole lot of sweat) the whole back-and-side-yard area to the depth of about 2 feet. The removal of stones and the addition of rotting leaf matter at the deepest level, then mixing organic compost with the soil above, immediately turned what was essentially dead dirt into a fertile compost-soil mix that produced spectacular bean, chili pepper, corn, cucumber, lettuce, pumpkin, spinach, tomato, and zucchini crops, in varying arrangements, year after year.