Build the best soil for a vegetable garden

soil on beets and carrots

Soil! It’s health (or lack thereof) is one of the most important factors in the success in you garden. But, what is the best soil for a vegetable garden?

There are a lot of different opinions out there, and plenty of internet ads telling you to buy bagged soils and compost that will solve all of your problems. 

The answer isn’t so simple because there is a complex web of life that lives under the soil surface, along with the nutrients your plants need to grow and flourish. Dumping a bag of compost onto a garden bed isn’t going to magically result in amazing plants. 

Believe me, I’ve tried that.

Instead, let’s walk through a little tutorial about soil and nutrients. I didn’t understand soil when I first started gardening and my plants suffered because of it.

You can absolutely have a thriving vegetable garden if you take some steps to understand what plants needs to grow, discover the quality of your garden soil, and learn the actions you can take to build up the nutrients in your soil.

Let’s dive in to the best soil for a vegetable garden!

best soil for a vegetable garden

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What is soil? 

Soil is made up of five different building blocks – minerals, organic matter, living organisms, water, and air.

Minerals are tiny particles of rock that have broken down over time. The size of the rock in your soil determines what type of texture you have – sandsilt, or clay. Most soils consists of a combination of all three of these sizes. 

Organic matter is partially broken down leaves, grass, mulches, and plants. It helps air and water move through the soil, retains moisture, and is food for soil life.

A teaspoon of rich soil can contain one billion bacteria! Living organisms like bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and earthworms help break down the minerals and organic matter into food for the plants.

Healthy soil is made up of almost 50% water and air.

nitrogen deficient leaves

On the left, nitrogen deficient bean leaf. Right, healthy and nutrient rich bean leaf.

What Nutrients Plants Need to Grow

There are three primary macronutrients that all plants need to grow healthy and strong – nitrogen (N)phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). They are often called NPK for short. Plants need these nutrients in the biggest quantities.

Nitrogen helps plants put on vegetative growth. If you don’t have enough nitrogen you may notice your plants turning yellow and/or stunted growth. If you have too much, your plants may grow big and green, but not produce any flowers or fruit.

Phosphorus stimulates flower bloom and root growth. If you’re lacking phosphorus you might notice leaves turning a bit red or purple.

Potassium supports the plants’ immunity to disease and also affects the quality of fruit. If your soil is lacking in potassium you may notice that some of your fruits are thin-skinned or small and your plants are more susceptible to disease.

If you go to the garden store and look at bags of fertilizer you’ll notice there are three numbers listed on the front. They stand for the percentage of the three macronutrients (NPK) it contains, like 4-5-7, or 12-0-0. (We’ll come back to organic garden fertilizer later.)

There are also three secondary macronutrients – calciummagnesiumsulfur.

And several micronutrients, which are needed in a lesser quantity by plants –chlorineboroncopperironmanganesezincmolybdenum, and nickel.

vegetable harvest

What Kind of Soil is Best for My Vegetables?

As we’ve learned so far, soil is a complex medium, so of course there isn’t a short answer. I’ve seen people grow successful gardens in all types of soil. But, here are some things to be aware of when you’re thinking about the best soil for a vegetable garden.

Soil Type

When describing garden soils, most people use the words clay, silt, loam and sand. Many garden soil are a mix of these things, but you’ll often hear people saying that loamy soil is best. But, there really are pros and cons to each soil type.

For example, where I live in Wisconsin, my soil is a pretty heavy clay, which means it’s generally pretty nutrient rich and retains water, but if it’s too wet it can be hard to work with.

Sandy soil is easy to work with, but can lack nutrients and you might have to water more because it doesn’t retain moisture as well as clay soil. But, you sure will have some nice, straight carrots!

In general, it’s good to know which type of soil you’re working with in your own yard. This is fun experiment to discover it!

pH

Vegetable crops grow best in soils with a pH of 6.5-6.8. If your native soil has a low or high pH, under 5.5 or over 8, your plants many have difficulty accessing certain nutrients. We’ll talk more about how to discover the pH of your soil later on in this article. 

Drainage

Vegetables don’t like to have wet feet. So, you should never plant a garden in a water-logged area of your property. This includes low lying spots that collect water and areas that are compacted from construction, heavy foot traffic, or the parking of large equipment or vehicles. 

How to you know an area has poor drainage? Take a look around your yard after a heavy rain storm. If you find areas that have standing water, take a long time to dry out, or experience a lot of run off, you’ve found a spot where you shouldn’t plant a garden.

Nutrients

When your soil contains all of the nutrients the plants need they’ll grow larger and be more productive, the fruit and vegetables they produce will be a higher quality, and the plants can better resist disease and pest pressure. The best way to determine the health of your soil is to get a soil test. (More on that below!)

vegetable garden healthy soil

How Can I Improve My Soil?

Organic Garden Fertilizer

Growing vegetable plants year after year demands a lot from your soil because they extract a lot of nutrients every season. While adding compost is a great practice, it usually isn’t enough to replace the nutrients that have been depleted. For that, you really need to be adding an organic garden fertilizer.

Even if you think your garden is relatively healthy, you should consider adding fertilizer as an experiment to see if it improves your plants’ health and vigor. Healthy and robust plants can mean more food harvested from your garden throughout the growing season. 

I’ve seen a HUGE different in my garden since I started incorporating organic fertilizer when planting seeds and seedlings. All fertilizers are not created equal, so I share everything I know about organic garden fertilizer, including a printable cheat sheet to take on your shopping trip. 

Compost

If you have a yard that has the space, it’s a good idea to start composting food and garden waste so you can use it on your vegetable garden. But, compost alone won’t solve all of the problems in your garden or create amazingly nutrient-rich soil by itself.

That’s why I recommend using fertilizer in addition to compost. Compost is great for increasing the organic matter and biological activity in your soil. Read more about compost for the vegetable garden.

garden harvest of summer vegetables

Organic Matter

As we learned at the beginning of this article, soil is made up of organic matter, minerals, gases, liquids, and organisms. Organic matter is decomposed material (plants, insects, food scraps) that exists in the soil in a relatively stable amount. Soil high in organic matter holds more water and air, releases nutrients to plants, erodes less, and houses lots of beneficial organisms. 

The best ways to build up the organic matter in your garden is to add compost to your garden beds on a regular basis, use vegetable garden mulch, grow cover crops, and add manure.

Mulch

There are lots of soil organisms that live in your garden whose job it is to break down nutrients and feed your plants.  Vegetable garden mulch breaks down over time and increases the organic matter in your soil, which in turn increases the amount of biological activity. 

That means you’ll have a diverse and populous community of microorganisms living in your garden that are constantly working to keep your plants healthy and helping your soil provide them with the nutrients they need.

Bonus! Mulch suppresses weeds (less time spent weeding!), helps retain moisture (less time spent watering!), and protects the soil from erosion and compaction from wind and rain.

healthy vegetable garden soil

Should I Get a Soil Test?

Vegetables need a lot of nutrients to grow well in your garden. How do you know whether your soil has all of these nutrients?

I don’t recommend taking a trip to your local garden store and throwing bags of blood meal, greensand, and other amendments into your cart willy nilly. (Been there, done that, too!)

Instead, if you’re having soil issues, think your garden could performing better than it is, or you just want to geek out on soil, you should get a soil test to learn exactly what’s going on in your garden.

Read all about different options for npk tests and the companies I’ve used for testing and interpreting my results for many years.  

What About Raised Beds?

If you’re creating a new garden with raised beds, you do want to pay special attention to the soil you’re putting in those beds. I’ve written a very extensive post about options for an easy raised garden bed that includes a discussion of the soil I’ve used in mine.

More Resources for Creating the Best Vegetable Garden

The best soil for your vegetable garden is healthy and nutrient rich soil. In order for your body to get the vitamins and minerals it needs, they must be present in the food you eat. If they’re not in your garden soil, then they’re not in the food you harvest…which means your body isn’t getting them.

That’s why the time you put into understanding your own soil and taking steps towards building it’s overall health will pay you back a hundred-fold!

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