There are a couple of different methods of preparing soil for a garden bed, both of which have their uses.
Once you’ve dug a hole, played around with your soil a bit, and learned about your soil texture, it’s now time to start making your garden.
The first thing I want to briefly mention about how to prepare soil for a garden is what to do if you have a very extreme soil texture, i.e. very sandy or clayey.
If your soil has a lot of sand, you know it will drain well, which is great, but there is definitely some concern as to how well it will hold onto water and nutrients.
On the other hand, if it has a lot of clay but not much sand, all that water may run off before ever having a chance to infiltrate, or conversely, it may soak in and stay right there, depriving plant roots and the soil food web of oxygen. The good news is that clay holds onto many more nutrients.
The typical advice for these situations is to add clay to a sandy soil, or sand to a heavy clay soil, but this may be a bad idea, because what do you get when you mix sand and clay together?
Concrete! Not always of course, but it happened to me a couple of times and I won’t do it again.
The good news is there’s a much better way to improve both clay and sandy soil, and that’s with organic matter in the form of compost and sheet mulch.
So how do we actually go about preparing soil for a garden? There are 2 methods I’d like to introduce…
Preparing Soil For A Garden By Tilling Or Double Digging
There’s plenty of debate on whether or not we should till. The bottom line is sometimes we should till and sometimes we shouldn’t.
We don’t want to till too much in the long run because it disturbs soil structure and the life in the soil, especially harming fungi and earthworms.
But sometimes we want to do it in order to get lots of new organic matter and fertilizers incorporated down into the soil right away. I’ve tilled as much as 6 inches of compost when building a new garden, which is probably a little extreme, but I just wanted to get it in there and then not till again in the future.
Double digging is also a great way to do this, which is a less invasive way of tilling, using a garden fork instead of a gas-powered rototiller. I show you how to double dig in the video up above.
Prepare Soil For A Garden By Sheet Mulching
Phil’s Simplest Sheet Mulch
- Layer of cardboard or newspaper
- 3″ Layer of manure and/or grass clippings
- 9″ Layer of straw and/or leaves
Sprinkle in your fertilizers, mix the top 2 layers together to speed decomposition, top it off with at least a couple inches of straw or leaves, and then moisten the whole thing.
If you can wait a season before planting, sheet mulching is another good tip for how to prepare soil for a garden, and it can produce amazing results, too.
It’s also known as lasagna gardening – it’s like composting right in your organic garden. It’s common advice for how to prepare soil for vegetable garden. It’s mostly done to create new garden beds, and sometimes in existing beds that are fallow.
It saves you from having to dig out grasses and weeds. Instead, you just smother them under a nice thick layer of soaking wet cardboard or newspaper, and then pile 12-18 inches of organic matter on top of that.
If possible, use a good variety of materials just like you would when building a compost, like fresh grass clippings, food scraps, manure, straw and leaves.
It’s nice to get some compost in there too, and to spice it up with some seaweed for micronutrients if you’re lucky enough to live close to the ocean (I miss it!).
But you can also keep it simpler and just use grass clippings and straw.
How To Prepare Soil For A Garden – Which Is Best?
Really, it’s difficult to choose between digging/tilling in compost or sheet mulching, because they’re both useful.
Tilling or double digging is best when you need to increase soil organic matter right away, such as when you’re preparing soil for planting, while sheet mulching is less invasive for the soil and does a good job long term.
There are exceptions, but here’s how I often go about preparing soil for a garden that is brand new:
- Till or double dig in some compost and organic fertilizers right at the beginning
- Sheet mulch on top of that
- Hardly any more tilling in future years – ideally I topdress annually with compost (I may lightly work it in with a hoe or fork) and then mulch on top
The exceptions? Well, if it’s a big area of lawn, I may not want to go through the hard labor of taking up all the grass, so I might just go right to the sheet mulch.
Or if after 5 years I find the soil is still compacted and low in certain minerals, I may bring out the tiller or the garden fork to bring in some more compost and specific fertilizers.
When thinking about how to prepare soil for a garden, our main goals are usually to:
- Increase organic matter with compost and/or mulch
- Improve soil chemistry/biology with organic fertilizers/microbial inoculants, which you can read about here.
Feel free to ask any questions down below.