As a gardener, I dream about soil the way some people dream about food, cars or clothing. I long for the perfect loam, often described as resembling chocolate cake. Loam has a crumbly, but moist, texture that holds water well without drowning plants. It is usually dark brown and has a rich, earthy smell. Earthworms, plants, microorganisms and gardeners adore loam, myself included.

I’ve gardened in several locations, and never found naturally occurring loam. My first garden had clay soil. This soil was dark gray, sticky and thick. When I worked it, it turned rock hard or developed clumps. It was fertile and held water, but it was so heavy that it deprived plants of oxygen.

My current garden has sandy soil. It’s light in color and has a rough texture when I hold it in my hand. It’s easy to work, but water drains out of it at lightning speed. The rapid draining action also leaches nutrients from the soil.

Perhaps you’ve encountered similar frustrations in your quest for the perfect loam soil. Not to worry. Even if you don’t have ideal soil, you can make it better through the addition of soil amendments. Fall is the ideal time to start amending your soil so it’s ready for spring planting.

Here’s How To Be Ready For Spring Planting

Get a soil test. University extension offices or commercial labs offer soil test analysis. The process usually costs less than $20 and takes two or three weeks. Send a sample of soil from several areas of your garden to the extension office or lab. You’ll receive a detailed analysis that tells you what kind of soil you have, what nutrients are missing and the pH level of the soil. The analysis may even make recommendations for soil amendments and fertilizer. Fall is the best time to conduct a soil test. Extension offices are less busy and some amendments, such as sulfur or lime, take several months to be effective.

Add 2 to 3 inches of aged manure to the soil and till it under. Aged manure is a great resource if you live in an agricultural area. It’s usually free for the taking, but there are a few things you should know. First, fresh manure is very “hot,” meaning that it gives off ammonia that can burn plants. Seek out manure that has been composted, or at least allowed to sit around for several months. Manure may contain pathogens that can cause disease. That’s why it is best applied in the fall to allow it time to decompose completely before spring planting. Some manure, such as horse manure, may contain weed seeds that can crop up in your garden. The use of mulches reduces the amount of weeds that will sprout.

Use compost if you have it. Compost is an ideal soil amendment, but most home gardeners must supplement their home compost pile with commercial compost to amend the soil in sufficient quantities. If you buy compost, look for organic compost that doesn’t contain sludge or municipal waste.

Leave grass clippings. Grass clippings make an excellent soil amendment. Use a mulching lawn mower and leave them on the lawn to break down into nitrogen, or add them to the vegetable garden, where they’ll add nitrogen, improve soil texture and keep down weed growth. Add 1 inch or less of grass clippings each week, and don’t use clippings treated with herbicide.

Store extra bagged compost in a shed or storage garden benches. Use the compost as a mulch or side dressing in addition to a soil amendment.

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