Improving the soil in your garden will lead to healthier plants and better production of crops. There are lots of things that you can do to improve soil, including adding organic matter, reducing compaction, and building a raised bed.

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Improving Soil for Gardens

There are reasons that you may want to use a raised bed. First, it helps get the soil up higher, and you have better drainage. That’s often a problem with clay soils, they get water logged and the plant’s root systems are in essence drowning in the water. You need to build the soil up higher for water drainage.

The other thing with a raised bed is that you can also completely replace the soil you have by bringing new soil in. Or, you can improve your soil by adding different amendments to the soil.

Obviously, adding organic matter is one of the simplest and easiest methods of improving your soil. It does take time, and it will improve over the years as you continue to add organic matter. But this is something that any gardener can do on a regular basis.

We have a wide variety of different types of organic matters that we can use. You can use compost. You can use composted manures. You can add rotted straw. You can use grass clippings. These are all types of organic materials that you can add to your soil.

If you’re using manure on your garden for your organic matter, you do want to make sure that you use fully composted manure. If you’re going to apply fresh manure, you’ll want to wait at least 120 days after you apply that manure before you harvest those crops. You’ll want to avoid any potential soil contamination that could lead to a food born illness.

You can also use organic matter to improve your sandy soils. Sandy soils almost have the opposite problem of clay soils – the water leeches through very quickly. But by adding that organic matter, it increases the water holding capacity. It also improves the texture and the tilth of the soil. So, adding organic matter to sand is also a good idea.

You can build raised beds out of a variety of materials. You can use lumber, bricks or blocks. Sometimes, you can make your own raised area by doing what we call hilling or pulling in soil up high to make that kind of hilled, raised area. So, this is a very low cost option of doing raised bed planting without going to the expense of building a raised bed that you can construct with boards, bricks or blocks.

You’ll need to make sure that you incorporate the organic matter well into the soil. You’ll need to dig it in deeply. Make sure that the whole soil profile is incorporated into that mix. And, you’ll need to do that before the planting. You may also want to incorporate the organic matter in the fall so that it has the winter to break down and mellow out that soil. Then, in the spring, you’ll be ready to garden.

One other way that a gardener may have problems with a clay soil is from walking on it too much. Compacting that soil and working it too much can cause problems. If you’re working on a raised bed, you’ll want to make sure that you build it narrow enough so that you can just reach in from either side. Then, you don’t have to walk on the bed. If you do have a clay soil, try to stay off of that soil bed as much as possible. If the soil is damp and wet, you’re compacting it and doing more harm than good. So, the less compaction that you put on the soil, the better you’ll be.

In a situation like this where we’re in a community garden, they may have a policy that at the end of the year, they will till all the ground. They’ll bring in equipment and till the whole thing. If we all had raised beds in every plot, it would be much more cumbersome to do those tillage operations. And, they may try to keep the isles clean, the paths clean, doing all the trimming and more. In some cases, it can be a disadvantage to have a raised bed.

Improving a clay soil does take some time and energy. It may take you a few years to develop a good soil for your garden. But all that energy and time you’ve spent is going to pay off in healthier plants in your garden which will lead to better production.

This feature story prepared with Evelyn Neier, Kansas State University Research and Extension 4-H Youth Development. For more information, visit your local county extension office or visit our website at

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