Soil Improvement and/or preparation

What To Do If You Can’t Dig

One of my readers, a fairly new gardener, told me she gets bogged down trying to do everything properly.  I think a lot of people — especially beginning gardeners—do that.

Take Soil Preparation for example.

The reason for soil preparation is to give your plants the best possible chance to do their best for you.  If involves loosening the soil, adding organic matter, and mulching.

99.99% of the time, it’s the “loosening of the soil” that makes people hesitate or throw up their hands.

First, understand why the soil should be loosened.

When soil (topsoil and subsoil) is compacted it can keep roots and water from going deeply into the soil.  If you can loosen the soil down as far as 12 or 24 inches (only one time) by a combination of digging and/or tilling you create a better situation or environment for your plants.

Coupled with adding organic matter and mulching it will have a profound effect on the success of your garden. And loosening the soil to that depth only has to be done one time.

Suppose you are not able?

Now —suppose you – for whatever reason —- are absolutely not able to prepare your soil that deeply.  Should you give up your idea to garden?   Of course not!

Ok – you say — what do I do?

If it is beyond you to do something the very best it can be done —– just do what you are able to do the very best YOU can do it.  Believe me that will take you a long way towards getting to your goal.

An example

There have been times in preparing a bed —  that my clay subsoil was so hard, all I was strong enough to do was put the shovel in and move it.  I could not turn the clay subsoil at all.  So —– I did what I could do.  Added the organic material that I had and shoveled the top soil back. Raked out the clods, smoothed and planted.  After that I just kept adding organic matter each year and don’t ever remember turning it again after that.

I did my part.  Nature did the rest.  Everything worked out great.  Not a big deal.

Think about this:

Think about the thousands upon thousands of farmers and gardeners who just loosen the top soil, compact the subsoil with over-plowing, never add organic matter, and leave the soil exposed to the elements!

If they can get anything at all to grow —–then if you are doing the best you can towards proper soil preparation —–you’re ahead of the game already.

Organic Matter is the Backbone of your Garden.

The popular Lasagna Gardening which does not involve loosening the soil at all is no more than adding organic material to produce lots of organic matter in which to plant.

Organic Matter is the backbone of your garden.  Once organic material decomposes to organic matter it improves

  • fertility,
  • the condition of the soil,
  • drainage,
  • the ability of the soil to hold up to 90% of its weight in water,
  • and provides food for the living beings in the soil that are working to make your garden a success.

Then why bother with loosening the soil and subsoil?

To make it even better and to give your plants and gardens the ultimate chance to perform. Its up to you! If you use the Lasagna method to get started and then later decide you want to loosen the soil to a greater depth — do it.

Bottom Line

You need not be bogged down by any of it. You need only to work with nature and know that she’s pretty easy to get along with.  Her seeds and plants are user friendly.

If something doesn’t go just right — keep at it, do the best YOU can do and enjoy the journey. She’ll work with you if you work with her and all will be well in the end.

The soil in our front flower border was never prepared properly. In severe drought it suffers because of that. Other times it’s great.


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  • Wonderful post! Thank you. I can identify with the woman mentioned in this post. It is very reassuring to have the support of this post and to have the forgiveness to pull from yourself when things can’t be done exactly the way you’d like them to be done at the moment. Thanks again!

  • Dear Farming Bear,

    I’m so glad the post was reassuring and helpful to you.

    I think we all reach a point sooner or later in the process of gardening, where we realize that we can’t do or accomplish everything we want to do — all of the time. There are times that things have to be left undone in order that we may accomplish things higher on the priority list.

    The fact that we have high standards for ourselves is excellent. Being able to forgive ourselves when we find that it is not possible to reach our goal — at least this particular time — makes it easier for us to reach higher and do more next time around.

    I know how much you have on your plate Farming Bear and believe me you are doing a great job! Keep it up!



  • Margaret, the short answer for your short question is: The same way you keep all weeds out.
    The long answer I hope to address in a small book which takes lots of time. Hopefully I’ll have the time to get to it this year.

  • I just came back to read this post again & I’m glad I did. I’d gotten discouraged toward the end of summer because I hadn’t gotten anywhere nearly as much as I wanted to, accomplished. I realize now that I had been too hard on myself.
    I can only do what I can do & that’s all I can do. I will have to accept that I can not accomplish in a day what I did when I was much younger. Thanks again for all of the hard work you do to keep this blog so full of such helpful & encouraging information.
    Betty Dotson

  • I totally relate Betty. All of us get discouraged from time to time because we can’t do as much as we want. I too went back and read this post and was encouraged by it.

    If we keep at it — even little by little — it’ll all work out. And we’re still way ahead of folks who don’t work with nature.

    Thinking about you and always appreciate your comments.

  • I moved from Alaska to Virginia. The soil in Alaska is wonderful, friable and rich. The ground here in VA is concrete (clay and sand, compacted) around my house which sits on 3 acres. Even my small rototiller that worked great in Alaska is a tough slog here. I take encouragement from all I have read here regarding prepare soil. I am 76 so I don’t have 30 years to improve the soil, but I will give it a try.

  • Mary, welcome to Virginia. And you’ll be happy to know you don’t need 30 years.

    Most likely the reason your ground around your house is clay and sand is because when they build houses they scrap away all the top soil — usually sell it –and fill in with what you have around your house.

    Hopefully — the ground improves a little as your move out from your house.

    In my first garden – which I had for 20 years — the soil was hard clay. By adding organic materials each year to improve clay soil — it becomes the best soil — holding nutrients much better than other soils.
    My red clay soil became black “rich” soil after only a couple or 3 years of adding organic materials.

    My current garden (22 years) is sand in some parts and a mixture of sand and clay in
    other parts. Over 22 years of feeding the soil with crop residues, mulches, etc. my soil is black and friable.

    There is much on this website to help you and everything I recommend is from experience.

    A good number of TMG readers are in their 70s or 80s including me. So you’re in good company. 🙂

    If you have questions as you search TMG and read, feel free to ask. I’ll be happy to help when I can.

    Again, welcome!

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