Although many vegetables will grow well in soils that are less than ideal, using soil amendments to create a better garden bed can help to improve your vegetable plants' health and help increase vegetable production. Understanding what vegetables need from a soil is a good first step to, if necessary, amending your vegetable garden soil for optimal production.
Unless you are already familiar with the soil in your garden, do not plan to add amendments until you have rototilled it or turned it with a shovel. Many people are anxious to start work and do this too early. Wait until the soil is dry enough to crumble when worked.
Once you have worked your soil by tilling or spade turning, water the area and watch the soil's drainage. Vegetables need good drainage to grow well. If the soil drains too slowly, root rot can result. If you see water standing, consider using raised beds. If the soil is not draining well, work additional compost into the soil to help the soil drain better. In extreme situations where you have deep, hard packed clay soils, consider growing your vegetables in raised beds.
In addition to helping drainage and moisture retention, compost is a good organic fertilizer that can help provide good nutrition for vegetable gardening. Compost can be made either from vegetable products, such as kitchen waste or yard clippings, or from animal manure that has been allowed to break down. In addition to offering solid nutrition, compost can help encourage beneficial organisms in the soil.
Other Organic Soil Amendments
You can add sawdust, wood chips and shredded bark to help soils that are too low in organic materials. Heavy clay and soils that are primarily sand benefit from these materials. However, if you add these just before planting, you should add nitrogen to the soil to compensate for a nitrogen deficiency that occurs as these materials break down. Add 2 pounds of balanced fertilizer per bushel of sawdust, wood chips, shredded bark or other mulch material that is worked into the soil.
Dry leaves or straw can be good mulches for soil. The purpose of mulch is to prevent weeds and to help prevent evaporation from the soil. However, mulch can break down to add good organic matter to soils to help with soil conditioning. In some heavy clay soils, mixing dried leaves and compost may result in a better soil for vegetable growing. The amount and ratio will vary greatly, depending on the soil you are starting with.