Before starting your garden, I highly advise getting your soil tested. Soil testing is relatively inexpensive, especially when you compare the cost of a soil test against the money and time you’ll spend cultivating plants that just won’t grow in nutrient poor soil.
Professional soil tests will give you the most accurate picture of your soil’s health. A professional test will provide you with your garden soil’s pH level (to within a tenth of one pH unit) as well as the amounts of phosphorous, potassium, calcium, nitrogen, and other nutrients in your soil. You’ll also be provided with specific recommendations for improving your soil for the plants you want to grow. Most city and county extension offices and agricultural schools offer soil testing for a small fee.
There are also home soil test kits you can buy online or at most gardening stores. These kits are generally cheaper than professional tests, but they won’t be as accurate. However, they’ll at least give you a baseline measure as to the health of your soil.
To get an accurate soil reading, follow all directions of the professional tests and home test kits. You’ll likely need to collect soil samples from multiple areas in your yard or garden. Once you have the results of your soil test, you can correct any nutrient deficiencies in your soil.
Most vegetable plants like their soil slightly acidic. To increase soil acidity, you can add sulfur or aluminum sulfate to the soil. If your soil is too acidic, you can mix lime into the soil to raise the pH level. Generally, the soil in moist climates is more acidic while the soil in dry climates tends to be more alkaline.
Try to correct soil pH before sowing your garden. Add high amounts of lime or sulfur into the soil after your plants are in the ground, and you risk killing your plants. In fact, these supplements are best added to the soil 3-4 weeks before planting.
There are a number of mulches and fertilizers you can use to add nutrients, like calcium or phosphorus, back into the soil. Many are plant specific, so pay attention to labels. To keep your plants healthy and producing throughout your growing season, it’s a good idea to fertilize on a regular basis.
There are also several easy home options for improving the quality of your soil. Egg shells are a good source of calcium. Epsom salts can provide your plants with magnesium. Kelp or seaweed, if you leave near the ocean, will add potassium to your soil. And, vegetable plants love coffee grounds, which makes a great deal of sense.
Aren’t we all more productive once we’ve had a little coffee?