My first volunteer experience at my daughter’s school garden involved removing approximately six yards of soil out of 10 raised beds. In the 90+ degree August weather in Texas, this was no small feat. We then had to move another 6 yards of new soil into those beds. Needless to say I had a great tan and added a bit of muscle that fall. Now why, you are probably wondering, would we completely replace our soil instead of just working to improve it?

The garden had been established the previous spring and all of the plants had really struggled. Over the summer, our lead garden teacher had sent a soil sample off to a local soil testing facility and discovered that the soil had a high pH and so little nitrogen that it did not even register on the scale. Bingo! Problem identified!

Removing the soil may sound like an extreme measure. The soil could be enriched with organic fertilizers and compost, right? The answer was probably “yes” to that question; however, the bigger challenge came when we looked at the soil composition using a simple “mudshake” test. The soil looked to be about 75% sand with a very miniscule amount of silt and clay, and the remainder appeared to be poorly processed compost that could best be described as mulch. (Also, surprisingly, there was a fair amount of rock scattered in. We suspect the truck that delivered our soil had delivered some kind of gravel on the same day.) You can check out my “before” soil picture above. If we had been dealing with in-ground garden beds and had years to slowly improve the soil, then working in compost and organic materials would have been a good solution. However, we needed to improve our growing conditions immediately to make sure our students did not experience another disappointing growing season.

So we went on the hunt for better soil and we found it at a local company called Nature’s Way Resources,  an organization established specifically to create superior soil mixes for gardens and landscapes. After a quick visit, we arranged for an order of their garden and flowerbed mix. Notice I said “garden and flowerbed mix.” Generally, the best choice for raised beds is not straight topsoil, but a lighter soil/compost blend that provides better drainage and aeration. Nature’s Way creates all of their own compost and carefully monitors nutrient and pH levels in their soils. Can you tell that I love this place? Just take a look at that beautiful soil in the “after” picture.

I know this information is not necessarily helpful to you unless you are located in the Houston, Texas region, so you may be wondering how did we go about finding a good supplier? Well, we talked to the Master Gardeners at our local Extension Office.

Master Gardeners are volunteers trained by Extension Offices and they are located in almost every county of the United States. Click here to find your local office. Their main mission is to help the Land Grant Universities in their state disseminate research-based gardening information into communities. Because of their network and enthusiasm for gardening, they usually have a great scoop on the best soil and plants around and are eager to share that information.

In addition to getting recommendations, I would also suggest that you go look at the soil before you purchase it. That may seem like a time consuming step when you have so many other details you are managing, and you may not feel like you are a soil expert, but with just a quick handful, you can determine if the soil has too much sand (does it feel like the beach), too much clay (is it heavy and clumpy) or un-composted organic materials (can you still see branches and leaves). Of course there’s more to soil quality than texture, so it’s also a good idea to do a soil test before you buy (or ask the supplier if they can show you test results for the soil you’re thinking of purchasing). You want to make sure that the soil pH is suitable for the plants you plan to grow; that there aren’t worrisome levels of contaminants such as lead; and assess whether there are any nutrient imbalances that need correcting.

Your next question for me is probably, “Was it worth it?” Yes, yes, yes! Having high quality soil has made all the difference. Being a school garden, we frequently have issues with watering (sometimes too much and sometimes too little) and overcrowding (as I mentioned in a previous blog, thinning plants is the most dreaded activity for any youth gardener). We also have to plan our planting schedule around what is the best fit for the curriculum rather than what is the best timing for the plants, but having high quality soil has helped our plants be a little more tolerant of all these challenges. Each season we incorporate a little more soil and compost into our beds to replace what was lost during the season. We also incorporate slow release organic fertilizers as needed.

What about soil donations you ask? Do you turn down free soil if it is not good quality? Trust me when I say I understand the struggles of trying to raise funds for your school (I feel like we have a different PTO fundraiser every week), but my answer here is yes, I’d turn it down if it wasn’t acceptable. Poor quality soil will end up costing you later down the road in terms of plant health and harvest. Insufficiently processed compost may also harbor weeds or disease-causing organisms – both of which you want to avoid.

So my third school garden tip for you is to invest in your soil from the beginning. I hope that you can learn from our experience and fill up your raised beds only once. Your soil truly is the foundation of your garden - don’t underestimate the power of soil!

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