Compost Garden Organic Gardening Soil Improvement and/or preparation

A Reader’s Questions on Soil Preparation

I received an email yesterday from Bill, a new subscriber living in Pennsylvania. He writes,

I have wet and heavy clay which means I need to raise my beds in order to promote proper drainage.

I was thinking of bringing in topsoil, manure and compost and just mixing it together right on top of the existing soil. The existing soil has grass right now.  

Should I rototill the existing turf or just pile the new materials right on top?

Since I’ve received quite a few emails along these lines, I decided to answer my reader’s email via this post for the benefit of all readers who may have similar questions.  Also, there’s an important comment I’d like to make regarding purchased soils.

Following Nature’s Principles

Although I can’t tell other folks what to do in detail because only they know all the facts of their situation, I can advise people on principles of nature.  Nature’s a pretty dependable source and her principles are foundational truths that apply to everyone, everywhere.

What makes things even better is that although her laws/principles are fixed, the methods to accomplish what those laws and principles require are endless.  Each person can tailor the methods to their own needs and situation.  After you have all the facts, then you can choose your preferred method of carrying out the plan.

(You will recall I discussed this at greater length in a recent post Organic Organic Gardening the Laws /Principles are Fixed/ the Methods are Endless.

Below are my comments to the statement: I have wet and heavy clay which means I need to raise my beds in order to promote proper drainage.

Raised Beds

Although I’m not 100% sure, I would probably have a 99% chance of being correct if I said that by “raised beds” my reader means framed beds that purchased material will be poured into.

In my book, I explained at great length about naturally “raised beds” and why they are preferable to framed raised beds in the majority of cases. I also listed times that framed raised beds may be helpful or necessary.

All the advantages of raised beds like ease of working, improved soil conditions, and higher yields can be reaped without having the beds contained; thereby totally eliminating the disadvantages which I discussed in the book.  (I’ve also mentioned some of that here on TMG.)

Promoting Proper Drainage

Adding organic matter to the soil improves drainage.  The quickest way to improve hard clay soil is to properly prepare the soil which involves loosening the soil.  If you have the time to wait, you can pile things on top and eventually the soil will become friable and drain well.  It’ll take some time.

The “added” ingredients  (hopefully) may drain at least to the hard clay soil. Drainage has really not been improved.

My first garden was one foot above sea level and heavy clay soil. Much of the area looked like a pond in the rainy season. It was brick-hard in the dry season. I told in detail exactly how I dealt with that in my post 3 Things of Primary Importance When Starting a Garden.

 Clay Soil

When clay soil is improved it’s just about the best soil there is.   I saw a difference immediately after I improved my clay-soil beds, but it took about 3 years to really get to where I wanted to be with the soil.

Below are my comments to the statement: “I was thinking of bringing in topsoil, manure and compost and just mixing it together right on top of the existing soil. The existing soil has grass right now.”

Purchased “topsoil”

Years ago, “topsoil”  meant the first few inches of good soil that was high in organic matter.  I think most of us think in those terms when we speak of topsoil.

Unfortunately, when you buy something called “topsoil” today, it may not be what you think it is.  It’s very common for some sellers of these “soils” to take heavy clay soil and put it through a machine that cuts it up and makes it look and feel friable.  The buyer doesn’t realize he’s been “had” until he gets the soil where he wants it and it rains.  Then he knows he has unimproved clay soil, not topsoil.

Even if that’s not the case, it can still be very poor soil that is “unimproved.”

The bottom line here is: be careful what you buy.  Know the seller well if possible.  Ask a lot questions.  Do your homework.

Manure and Compost

Good if you can get  stuff without residual herbicides.  Always a good idea to do your homework before you spend your money.

These posts will give you the information you need to decide wisely:

Residual Herbicides in Composts – Part I

Residual Herbicides in Composts Part II – on grow mix, potting mix, compost, manure, mulch

Manures – Good or Bad for the Organic Garden

Placing Manure, Topsoil and Compost on Top of Existing Soil

I touched on this previously.  Bill, after you read all my information on how to properly prepare soil and the advantages of that, you can better make your decision.

Below are my comments to the question: “Should I rototill the existing turf or just pile the new materials right on top?


The only time I would recommend a tiller is when ground is first being prepared. (Like now, Bill, if you decided that is what you are going to do.)  After that, if you follow nature, there is no need to till ever again.

Preparing Your Soil

Here are the posts that will give you a lot of detail on preparing your soil:

Soil Improvement – Your Foundation for Success

Soil Preparation – 1st Key to Soil Improvement

contd’ Soil Preparation – 1st Key to Soil Improvement

Adding Organic Matter – 2nd Key to Soil Improvement

contd – Adding Organic Matter – 2nd Key to Soil Improvement

Last Part – Adding Organic Matter – 2nd Key to Soil Improvement

What to Do If You Can’t Dig

Final Thoughts

Proper soil preparation is one of the best things you can do to help yourself be more successful in organic gardening.


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  • I usually enjoy your posts very much–but found this one lacking. In my opinion, if you’re going to answer reader questions, answer them, at least briefly, in the space and add links to expand on the details. This post had too many links, and, for those of us who follow religiously, could have been a nice, brief refresher. But, in its current form, it poses a tedious task that I probably won’t find time to get to. I would have liked to know, briefly, what you did to the clay over the years to make it “just about the best soil there is.” Was it simply the addition of organic material, or was there more? If so, I may want to be sure I find time to check out all those links.

    Thank you so much for the great work you do and for sharing information. I intend to continue following and recommending your work, and I hope you find my comments useful.

  • Thanks, I have clay and it has formed a brick…wish I knew you before I had wooden raised bed made for me! Will do this your (nature’s) way my garden goddess!
    Sister in spirit!

  • Yes Connie, I did find your comments useful.
    And it would be a tedious task to follow all those links. But for the reader who asked the questions, it would be needed for him to get the information necessary to make a better decision about what he wanted to do. Learning and getting the information you need, can at times be tedious.

    It’s definitely a different post than what I usually put up. Also, I usually put related posts at the end – but in this case I wanted Bill (who asked the questions) to know specifically that for more information he should read those posts.

    In answer to your wanting to know briefly what I did to the clay, it’s in this post:

    Thanks for taking time to comment.

  • Don, a friend and reader in Michigan emailed be with comments about this post.

    I wanted to share part of what he said because he brought up two excellent points.

    He wrote, “As I run and walk in the city, many homeowners have a small garden that is only 10 to 15 feet, or 10X15 feet.  It is in the middle of a beautifully manicured lawn.  They may want a traditional raised bed with sides to separate the garden from the lawn, to make a very clean line.”

    My thoughts: Yes, there is always a time for anything including raised beds.  And of course, one of those reasons is just because the person likes the look. Depends on your purpose and what you like and want to do – as with anything.

    Don brought up another excellent point about if Bill (my new reader) raised the beds high enough wouldn’t that be the same as deep preparation.

    I don’t think anything takes the place of deep soil preparation. Think in terms of good, better, and best. Then take your pick.


  • The hidden dangers of topsoil: I bought a load of topsoil a contractor friend had been scraping off his own property to make pathways. It looked great when I saw it in the early spring. After spreading it in my garden, I discovered in a month that it was, hands down, full of more weeds than anything I have ever seen (no wonder he was scraping it off). It has taken me more than two years, and I am still not done cleaning it. What a waste of time!

    My heavy clay soil (which is also chock full of rocks) has been slowly improving with the addition of manure each year for the last five years. but I am not gonna lie – I still love my raised beds where I used bagged soil best!! No weeds, no rocks, just lovely dirt! And my carrots grow without going all wonky from trying to burrow around rocks!

  • Appreciate your input Kate.
    You’re one of the lucky ones who got some good stuff when buying bagged soil.

  • How easy it is to come to expect Theresa to do all the hard work, and to present it exactly as we would like to see it. How easy it is to forget the amount of time and energy that goes into answering questions and researching posts for the blog – not to mention the actual gardening, photography, etc. Oh yes, and all the other stuff that life may be throwing her way at the time. Thanks Theresa for your hard work and for your gracious response to us regardless of our expectations. There is so much content buried in this blog, that it is well worth visiting these links, and it would be a lot of extra work (for Theresa) to restate what has already been written.

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