My house sits on a half-acre of some of the best soil in Kansas. The sandy-loam soil texture is enough to spoil a gardener. It seems that with the addition of water, most plants will do well, which makes me a fortunate gardener.
I'm lucky that the home my wife and I bought happened to have good soil. However, that's not always the case. Unless you're somewhat obsessed with gardening, what lies below the grass is an afterthought to the style, location and price range of that perfect house you'll call home.
No matter what kind of soil you have, there are a few things you can do to help your plants thrive.
As the frost begins to come out of the ground this spring, get the vegetable garden worked for the coming planting season. Many gardeners probably tilled this area last fall, which has allowed the freezing and thawing actions of the soil to create a nice planting bed. For those of us who didn't get it done before winter set in, the time to do it is as the frost leaves and the soil is dry enough to work.
One of the worst things a gardener can do to the soil is to work it when it's too wet. Doing so breaks down the soil structure and eliminates the natural voids in the soil that are necessary for oxygen and moisture retention for the roots of the garden plants. It's better to not work the soil at all than to work it when it's wet.
When working in the garden this spring, take note as to the condition below where the garden tiller stops working in the soil, especially in vegetable gardens that are planted in the same area year-in and year-out. A hard-pan - a compacted layer of soil that develops because the soil is worked at the same depth every year - can develop in these areas, which will be detrimental to the development of garden plants. Not only does this type of condition inhibit root systems from developing deep into the soil through the compacted layer, it can also create a 'bathtub' effect by not letting rainfall percolate away from the root system, causing plants to stress.
To prevent a hard-pan from developing, make a conscious effort to vary your tilling depths each year. To remedy an existing hard-pan problem, till deeply enough to break through this hard layer, or plow it deeply once.
All soils - either sandy at one end of the spectrum or clay at the other end - will benefit from the addition of organic matter.
Composted plant material from the yard is the most common type of organic matter we add to the garden. Compost will benefit sandy soils by giving nutrients and water a place to attach rather than being quickly passed on through the soil without being a benefit to garden plants. The organic matter will help clay soils loosen up and let root systems take in oxygen, making it easier for the roots to spread.
Several inches of compost can be applied to the garden and worked in to improve the soil. Leaves and grass clippings can be worked into the garden rather than a finished composted product if it's done in the fall. In the spring, these unfinished products can compete with the garden plants for nutrients, since nitrogen is required for the soil microbes to break down these products.
There are also some things you should know not to add to the soil in an effort to improve the garden's quality.
Sand is a great component of many garden soils; however, do not add sand to a heavy clay soil unless you are willing to add enough to make the amended soil at least 80 percent sand. This is an enormous task to undertake, and not amending with enough sand to meet this ratio will result in a soil you can make bricks with as it bakes in the summer sun. Composted organic matter would be a better choice for an amendment in this case.
Wood ashes are another amendment that often get added to the garden soil this time of year. Wood ashes do contain potash, but the majority of soils that have been gardened have good levels of this nutrient already from naturally occurring sources in the soil and additions from gardening fertilizers. Wood ash is also high pH, so if you are striving to keep your garden soils slightly acidic, like most garden plants prefer, you're shooting yourself in the foot by adding ashes to the garden.