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Do’s and Don’ts of Soil Health

Gardening is one of my all-time favorite summer hobbies. Not only does the process result in healthful and delicious fresh produce for my family, but it gets me outside for fresh air and some daily exercise.

In my opinion, anyone can grow a garden if they start out on the right foot. The most important foundation for a successful garden is healthy soil.

Believe it or not, not all soils are created equally. Some are better for growing gardens than others. The good news is that we all can do a handful of simple things to improve the soil in our gardens by following these do’s and don’ts of soil health.

Do get your soil tested

Having the appropriate pH is very important because some plants will not tolerate soil that is too acidic or alkaline. Additionally, soil can be tested to determine if fertilization is necessary.

The advantage of testing your soil to find out how much nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium is present is that you can administer the correct amount of fertilizer to reduce runoff and save money. You can purchase an at-home soil test kit or send a soil sample to the NDSU soil test lab ( Your results will include recommendations based on the test results and what you plan to plant in your garden.

Don’t overwork your soil

Garden soil is home to millions of microorganisms, insects, worms and other living organisms. Those living organisms create tiny holes throughout the soil that improve water drainage and moisture retention, as well as add space for air (did you know roots need air, too?).

When we overwork our garden soil by overtilling, raking, digging, etc., we actually destroy the natural structure of the soil through time, reducing the space for air, drainage and moisture retention. Consider adopting no-till practices by just digging holes for your new plants each year and not tilling your entire garden each spring and fall.

Do use mulch

Adding mulch on top of your soil and around your plants will help the soil retain moisture by reducing evaporation, maintaining a more consistent temperature around the roots and reducing weed growth. Additionally, some of the mulch eventually will break down and add organic matter to your soil. The best weed-reducing mulch I ever used was newspaper topped with grass clippings (however, if you use grass clippings, be careful to not use clippings after using a herbicide on your lawn).

Don’t walk in your garden beds

Walking (or driving) in your garden compacts the soil, and plants struggle to grow in compacted soil. Having a designated walking path through your garden can help reduce compaction near where plants are growing. This is also a great reason to use raised garden beds because you can walk around the space rather than through it.

Do rotate your garden crops

In an annual garden, you should move your plants from year to year. For example, do not plant tomatoes in the same spot every year. Instead, rotate them to a new location in your garden. Not only does this practice reduce disease, but it helps the soil replenish nutrients from year to year because different plants require different amounts and types of nutrients.

This can be a challenging practice in small gardens, raised beds and container gardens but should be attempted if at all possible. Check with your local Extension agent for rotation recommendations.

Don't work your soil when it’s wet

If at all possible, wait until your garden is dry before planting and working in it. Working in wet soil destroys the structure of the soil in ways that are similar to walking on your garden and over-working your soil. Ideally, we want to keep soil structure as natural and undisturbed as possible.


Brooke Thiel, NDSU doctoral candidate, Adult and Community Education

Filed under: fca newsletter

Sponsored in part by the Sanford Health Foundation.

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