Smart gardens begin with healthy soil

Cultivating a robust vegetable garden or a dazzling flower bed starts with healthy soil.

Organic matter can be increased by spreading compost or top soil around garden plants. Photo credit: Joy Landis, MSU
Organic matter can be increased by spreading compost or top soil around garden plants. Photo credit: Joy Landis, MSU

Smart Gardening LogoSoils are a combination of different-sized mineral particles, organic matter and living organisms. The non-living or mineral part of the soil is made up of sand, silt and clay. Sand is the largest of the three particles and is big enough for us to feel and see. Silt and clay, however, can be over 100 times smaller than sand. The proportion of each of these particles mixed with the living or organic component creates that magical ingredient to gardening success – soil!

What do healthy soils provide to plants?

Some of the beneficial aspects include:

  • Physical composition that provides a place for the plant’s roots to anchor.
  • A reservoir for essential nutrients and water that promotes plant growth.
  • Pore spaces to allow oxygen movement needed for healthy roots, nutrient uptake and support of living organisms.
  • Organic matter that sustains the living component of the soil and releases nutrients as it breaks down.
  • Promotes plant health and resistance to disease and decline.

What is healthy soil?

The organic content is a critical key to healthy soil, whether it is sand or clay. Like clay, organic matter acts as glue, holding soil particles together that provide pore spaces needed for oxygen and water exchange. Sandy soils have large pore spaces between particles, but larger pores also lower the soil’s ability to hold water and nutrients. Organic matter added to the soil helps to hold moisture and makes nutrients available for plant use.

Clay soils, with their minute particles, have very tiny pore spaces that drain slowly. This can leave soils saturated with water, reducing space for oxygen. Since oxygen is a key element necessary for most growing plants, any soil with poor drainage can lead to damage or death of plant life.

Water collecting in soil
Too much clay causes soils to drain slower, leaving soils saturated with water and little space for oxygen.
Photo credit: Joy Landis, MSU

How much organic matter do I need?

Organic matter in soils can range from 5 percent to as high as 15 percent. Soils with less than 5 percent of organic matter tend to be less productive, often promoting deficiencies in plant tissues. Organic matter can be added to soils through composting, including well-composted animal manure, broken down leaves, grass clippings and organic mulches, or by planting cover crops.

Adding grass clippings
Grass clippings are another option to add more organic matter in vegetable gardens or flower beds. Photo credit: Joy Landis, MSU

How to find out about a soil’s organic matter content, soil pH and nutrients

A soil test from Michigan State University Extension for a home garden will provide a measure of the organic content of the soil as well as information on soil type, nutrients, soil pH and recommendations to improve the soil. An annual application of compost, leaf mold and other material may be recommended to maintain ideal levels of organic matter that is slowly depleted each year by micro-organisms. If the soil has less than 3 percent organic matter, additions of 3 cubic yards of organic amendment per 1,000 square feet will help keep levels stable in the soil. Soil test self-mailers and information on how to take a soil test is available at

The MSU Extension publication “Advanced Soil Organic Matter Management” recommends the use of a diverse mixture of residues of organic matter which will provide some materials that are slow to break down along with others that release nutrients more easily.

Cover crops or green manures are plants specifically grown as a ground cover to be plowed under while still in a green, vigorous stage to add organic matter and nutrients back into the soil. Legumes like clover and hairy vetch have the ability to fix nitrogen for plant use which adds the nitrogen in organic form back into the soil for future crops. For more information on cover crops, read the MSU Extension article “Consider cover crops to improve soil for prevented planting situations.”

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