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Northeast Gardening: Tips for Working with Our Soils

Brought to you by Lowe's Creative Ideas

Beautiful and productive gardens start with good soil. Learn how to deal with the various soils in our region.

sprinkling fertilizer on soil
muddy soil in palm of hand

By Jane Milliman

Spring is finally here, and we’re all eager to get our spades in the ground. Before you do, make sure your garden soil is friable, which means dry enough to work. How can you tell? Squeeze a ball of it in your fist. If water runs down your arm, wait. If you can crumble the mass in your hand, dig in. In my Upstate New York garden that’s usually around the end of April, but with the winter we’ve had I suspect it’s a little later this year.

purple flowers and pine duff under trees

How soon in spring you can work the soil depends largely on its texture and moisture-holding capacity. Your garden soil comprises some ratio of the following particles (smallest to largest size): clay, silt, sand, gravel, and rock. Lots of clay? You’re bogged down. Nothing but bone-dry pine duff and big rocks? You may be looking at raised beds if you want to grow anything other than lichens (or the crocuses seen here).

blue chicory flowers

Clay- and silt-based soils can seem to hold water forever. The larger the particle size, the better the drainage, so sandy and rocky areas may dry out more quickly than you’d like. Ideally your garden’s texture is a dreamy loam -- right in the middle. But near-perfect soils usually are made, not born.

What you find growing naturally can indicate the quality of the soil. Chicory (shown) tends to grow on a sandy, well-drained site or one that has been disturbed, such as next to a highway.

No matter the condition of the soil, the cure is the same: Add organic material. You can turn almost any manure or plant debris into compost. Making it at home is easy enough, but it takes time. If you want to improve your soil now, top-dress it with compost you buy in bags or even by the truckload.

Year after year, as you pile on organic matter -- mulch; composted cow, chicken, or horse manure; chopped-up leaves (my personal favorite); kitchen waste; and even just the clippings that fall when you trim your perennials -- your soil gets better and better.

Over time you find that each spring your garden greets you with a fluffier texture and earlier workability, and your plants root deeply, get more nutrients, and really start to thrive.