If you get the soil right, your garden is likely to thrive. Vegetables can only be as healthy as the soil they grow in.
It pays to build a raised bed and add good soil if your existing soil is hard, rocky, soggy, or nutrient-poor.
To fill a raised bed, use a mix made to combine with native soil (bags are often called garden soil) or create your own combination of equal parts dehydrated manure, soil conditioner, and compost along with your native soil. Avoid using potting mix in raised beds—it’s more expensive and not quite bulky enough, as it is designed for the special needs of plants in containers.
For in-ground gardens, prepare the spot for a rich, soft soil, where roots grow deeply and soak up nutrients for healthy, productive plants. After clearing the spot for your garden, loosen the soil to a depth at least 8 inches (12 is even better) with a power tiller or garden fork. Improve the soil with several inches of compost or soil conditioner into the soil with a tiller or fork. This helps drainage, the ability to hold nutrients, and promotes beneficial micro–organism activity. Use a steel garden rake to rake the soil smooth and level before planting.
Your soil will improve as you add lots of compost and organic matter each season. In time it will be a rich, dark, organic soil that holds moisture and nutrients to grow lots of healthy food.
Check the pH »
The pH is the chemistry of the soil that affects whether plant nutrients in the soil are available to your plants. It pays to test the soil every two to three years to make sure the pH is in the range of 6.2 to 7.0, which is right for most veggies and herbs. Test results may recommend adding lime or sulfur to adjust pH. Lime raises pH, while sulfur lowers it.
If you don't have time to send off a soil sample to the local Extension service for testing, use a purchased soil test kit to test it yourself. You can also take your chances that the pH is okay (most of the time, it is), and test it later. Humid climates with sandy soil often have soil that needs a little lime, and gardeners in arid regions or with limestone soils often have soil that needs a little sulfur.
Here’s another advantage of raised beds—bringing in bagged garden soil, which should have the appropriate pH, bypasses the pH question.