Posted on 16 April 2008 by

Getting Down And Dirty: Your Soil

SoilBy Cindy Naas

Previously on Urban Garden Casual, there was an excellent post about having your soil tested for contaminants, which is a very good idea.

Assuming that your soil has gotten a clean bill of health, the next step in getting your own urban garden growing is to make sure you have the best soil possible.

Nothing you can do later will be as important to the success of your garden as preparing the soil correctly now.

First, decide whether you will be gardening in the earth or in a collection of pots and other containers. Soil preparation is very different for those two growing conditions. This post will address preparing your own patch of dirt for growing vegetables, and later I’ll tell you how to grow anything in a pot!

Get ready, squeeze!

Dig up a handful of the dirt where your garden will grow. Is it sandy? Hard? Does it stick together? Here’s a way to tell if you have sand, loam or clay soil: wet the earth and then give it a squeeze. Sandy soil won’t hold together at all, loamy soil will hold together after it is squeezed but won’t hold a shape for long, and clay soil will hold its shape.


Sandy soil will drain easily but needs more organic matter to grow really good vegetables and to retain water during the hot summer. Add in composted manure and compost if available. Loamy soil is nearly perfect and is the goal when amending other soil types. Clay soil will sometimes need the addition of sand in order to provide proper drainage and composted manure to enrich it.

Dig It!

Once you’ve determined your soil type and bought amendments, it’s time to dig. Mark the shape of your garden with a garden hose or with chalk, or even with a handful of flour. Taking a good garden spade, lift off the grass if there is any. Slicing off the top layer of grass will leave most of the usable soil and will keep grass from invading your new garden.

After you remove the grass, take a sturdy shovel and remove one shovelful, piling it at the end of the garden. Keep doing this one shovel at a time, working toward the end of the new bed. After the bed is mostly dug, add in some of whichever amendment you’ve chosen and begin tossing the dirt back into the bed. Mix the amendments in with each shovelful of dirt. As you mix in the sand, manure etc., chop any big lumps of soil with your shovel blade. Note: even when gardening with children this is a job for an adult. Having your foot whacked by an enthusiastic young gardener armed with a garden tool is not a lot of fun.

After you’ve finished adding in your soil amendments and chopping up any clumps of soil, the last thing you should do is to use the garden rake. Lightly rake the amended soil, pulling up any remaining clumps of soil and breaking them up with your shovel. By the time you finish, you should have a nice-smelling rich soil which holds together when squeezed.

Good job!

When you’re done cleaning and storing your tools, give your new garden bed a quick watering. Let it sit overnight so it can settle. In the mean while, why not go inside and open a nice bottle of wine, and maybe browse through a new seed catalogue? Preparing a new garden bed is hard work, and so you deserve a reward.

Next: preparing to container garden

14 Responses to “Getting Down And Dirty: Your Soil”

  1. Sara Says:

    Excellent advice. I can dig it!

  2. Aileen Says:

    Thanks for the timely advice, Cindy! Have several urban friends asking me how to begin their gardens, will send them straight here! Have added your site to my blogroll, there’s always something interesting to learn!

  3. Patsy Says:

    Great thoughts and advice. I’ve found using landscaper’s spray paint to mark the garden area helpful. It’s easy to apply and disappears the next time I mow. So, what do you recommend doing with the clumps of grass that you remove?


  4. Mark Says:

    What sort of soil would I use for herbs? Anything in particular I should keep in mind?

  5. Cindy Says:

    Patsy, I use the clumps of grass to patch bare spots in my lawn, since I have dogs. I also have composted excess grass, and have used the sod from one large project to create a terraced garden in another spot in my garden as well. There is always a use for more dirt and more organic material in my garden! Thanks for stopping by, and thanks for the tip about landscaper’s spray paint.

  6. Cindy Says:

    Aileen, thanks so much for your kind words! Your site looks really interesting, too. I’m glad you stopped by.

  7. Cindy Says:

    Sara, thanks for reading!

  8. Cindy Says:

    Mark, that’s a really good question. If you intend to grow your herbs in a raised bed, make sure the soil is on the sandy side and don’t add too much manure or compost. Most herbs like poor soil. If you will grow your herbs in pots, stay tuned. An upcoming article on Urban Garden Casual will feature advice for those gardening in containers.

    I hope this helped, and thanks for reading!

  9. Delia Says:

    The timing of this information is GREAT! I recently moved from a no-soil all-sand environment to the midwest. I’m buying a new home and planning my landscaping and gardening. I know nothing about the soil type and plant selections that will work in my new yard, and appreciate all the info I can get! I hope you’ll be sharing more helpful hints!

  10. Sandy Says:

    I found this article to be very helpful. I know only a little about gardening, and even less about soil types (and how to ‘fix’ them!) I was actually able to understand the different kinds of soil as you described them!
    Maybe I’ll try fixing up a garden of my own this year, now that I know what to look for!

  11. Gardening Advice | Winter Gardening | Indoor Gardening Says:

    Most people think that gardening is just for spring and summer, which is not the case. Winter is a great time to start a garden indoors and soil does play a big part. Great post. Thank you very much!

  12. Cindy Says:

    Winter is a busy season for most gardeners! Going through advice columns like this one and planning out the next year’s garden is an important job. Thanks for stopping by, GardeningAdvice!

  13. Ben Says:

    Good advice, except for one bit. Sand, especially play sand instead of coarse, is often the wrong thing to add to clay soil! Any soil type can be improved by adding compost over time or building up raised beds. It’s just not a ‘quick fix’ that many come to expect.

  14. bazinga! | Blog | How Does Your Balcony Grow? It’s as Easy as 1-2-3 Says:

    […] of soil that you need depends on a number of factors, one being whether or not you are planting in the ground or in a container.  If you intend to plant in containers, then the type of soil you need also […]

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