Dirty Details: Improving Your Soil For Better Plant Growth

If you are having a hard time getting grass and other plants to grow well in your yard, there are many reasons why they might be struggling. A common reason is because your soil is nutritionally depleted or does not have the right texture to support rich and healthy plant growth. Here are some signs that your soil might be lacking and what you can do to fix it.

Trouble Signs

The composition of the soil in your yard is affected by many factors: the type of plants, climate, rainfall, drainage, and geography. For example, growing the same type of grass year after year without supplementing fertilizer or providing aeration depletes the soil of vital nutrients, and geography affects composition and the types of inorganic and organic material present in your dirt. However, the signs of poor soil quality are similar, no matter where you live or what your weather is like:

  • Discoloration. Unhealthy soil will have a yellowish, grayish, or even blue-green in color. Soil that is rich in organic matter and nutrients should have plenty of warm reds and browns. Grey soil can also indicate a high clay content, which affects the ability of plants to root deeply in the soil.
  • More weeds grow than grass. The occasional dandelion is no cause for alarm, but if your lawn is more dandelions and other broad leaf, tap-root type plants than grass, you know you've got a soil problem. Weeds are hardier than lawn grasses and have much more aggressive root systems. They can handle poor soil quality better than grass can.
  • Few insects. Soil that is healthy provides a habitat for decomposing organisms, including earthworms, beetles, and grubs. If you dig up some of your soil and see very few, if any, your soil health is suffering.
  • Hard-packed sub-soil. Depleted soil often has settled into hard layers--the sandy, loamy portions of the dirt that help to support drainage have separated and created hard areas that are difficult for roots (or shovels) to penetrate. 

What You Can Do 

Once you know that your soil is the problem, it's best to begin amending your soil. Usually, this means adding in new material to help bring new life into the old dirt. What you add depends on many factors, including your soil composition and pH levels. Common additives include the following:

  • Compost. These bring in the nutrients that your soil is desperately lacking. Plants cannot grow effectively in compost alone, however. They need siltier mineral aspects of dirt in order to provide a sure foundation for a complex root system.
  • Peat moss. Dense, packing soil needs peat moss to help increase oxygen levels in the soil. Peat moss naturally improves natural aeration of the soil. 
  • Vermiculite. This is a mineral that helps to improve water retention for dry soils, while improving air circulation in heavy, moist soils. 
  • Sand. Sand is added to soils that are heavy in clay. Clay prevents water from draining, which can cause root systems to fail. Heavy watering or rainfall drowns roots planted in clay-based soil. 
  • Manure. Rich in plant fibers and nutrients, manure is one of the best fertilizers and can help adjust the pH level in soil. 

After you have selected the best additives for your soil problem, you can begin by breaking up your current soil, mixing in the weeds and plants. You can spray some weed killer to help prevent them from returning after your soil is amended. It's easiest to mix new material into the old by spreading it over the broken up ground in an even layer. Then, use a rototiller to distribute the additions into the soil. Afterward, you can lay some topsoil over the amended soil to support the seeds or sod of your new lawn.