Do you have soil that is high in clay or sand? Here are some of my favorite organic soil amendments that can improve conditions for growing vegetables.
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Gardeners often complain about having unworkable clay soil or sandy soil in which nothing will grow. We tend to think that our plight is totally unique compared to all of those *lucky* gardeners out there who naturally have perfect soil.
Truth is, the majority of gardeners have challenging soils that require improvement for cultivation. We are all special by not being unique!
Ideal garden soil will bring these two spectrums into balance. Loamy soil balances clay, sand, and organic matter. Organic soil amendments can help us do this.
Improving Soil Using Soil Amendments
Organic soil amendments can increase beneficial soil organisms, organic matter, and improve moisture retention. The following list contains a variety of soil amendments from animal, mineral, and plant-based sources. Some items are free and easy to find locally, while you’ll have to purchase others.
In general, add soil amendments in the fall, or in the spring before planting the garden.
I’ve divided soil amendments into three categories: Animal-, mineral-, or plant-based amendments.
Get my free 19-page Guide to Organic Soil Amendments!
Animal-Based Soil Amendments
Some animal-derived soil amendments can increase beneficial soil organisms in addition to improving soil structure. Safely apply untreated animal products nine months before harvest, or at a minimum of two weeks before planting.
Mineral-Based Soil Amendments
Use mineral-derived soil amendments to correct mineral deficiencies. Mineral-based amendments do not break down easily, so they can be over-applied when results aren’t apparent. That’s why it is essential to get a soil test beforehand so you don’t over-apply them.
Plant-Based Soil Amendments
Use plant-based soil amendments to improve soil structure. It is important to source herbicide-free plant-based amendments in order to avoid contaminating the soil. Herbicide contamination results in low germination rates and curled/yellowing leaves.
Here are a few of my favorite amendments from each category:
1. Bat Guano:
Bat guano is a fast-acting, organic fertilizer high in nitrogen and phosphorus, which promotes strong and healthy plant growth. It can also improve the texture of soil, improve drainage in heavy soils, and help to neutralize soil contaminants. By increasing beneficial bacteria in the soil, it helps to protect plants against disease.
Bat guano is highly concentrated, so a little goes a long way. As with other animal manures, mix into the soil in the fall, or at least two weeks before planting. This allows time for the nutrients to break down into a form that plants can absorb.
Use livestock manure mainly as a slow-release fertilizer. That’s because it contains most of the elements required for plant growth including nitrogen and many other nutrients. It can also condition the soil, increasing beneficial soil organisms and moisture retention. The manure can come from nearly any livestock animal, NOT dogs or cats.
When looking for livestock manure locally, seek out farms that pasture-raise their animals and feed them organic feed. Manure from other types of farms can include herbicide residues that will stunt plant growth.
Spread fresh manure at least 3-4 months before harvesting a crop to avoid potential pathogens. Spread it in the fall or one month before planting. This will also prevent it from burning plants. The aged manure contains less nitrogen than fresh manure, but it will make an exceptional soil conditioner.
Turn manure into the soil within 12 hours of the time of spreading to capture the nitrogen in the soil. This will prevent it from leaching away. Spread fresh manure on ground that isn’t frozen or oversaturated by a recent rain. If a heavy rain is in the near forecast, wait it out.
Many state laws include these common agricultural prohibitions, which is helping to reduce runoff from farm fields. This in turn keeps waterways clean. Plus, you don’t want all of your hard work and valuable nutrients to wash away!
3. Worm Compost:
Worm castings are the richest fertilizer known to humans, and is high in minerals. This soil amendment is also high in nitrate, a more bioavailable source of nitrogen than that found in commercial fertilizers. Worm castings help plants regulate water usage, improve soil structure, and increase plant vigor.
You can even use worm castings in place of potting soil.
There is no upper limit to how much of this amendment you apply at one time.
Greensand is a slow-release soil conditioner. It is largely composed of glauconite, a mineral harvested from ancient forest floors. Greensand is considered high in potassium and trace minerals such as iron and magnesium. Its main benefit, however, is loosening clay soil and improving moisture retention.
Get greensand here.
Do not confuse greensand with regular sand, which when mixed with clay soil, can produce a cement-like mixture. Apply it in early spring before planting.
Would you like to learn more about using natural amendments to improve the quality of your soil, reduce maintenance, and increase yield?
You’ll find loads of information just like this in my book, The Suburban Micro-Farm.
Comfrey is a perennial herb with large green leaves and purple, pink, or white flowers. Comfrey’s deep roots condition and mine the subsoil for nutrients and accumulate those nutrients in its leaves. Its nutrient levels rival those of animal-based amendments.
Comfrey is used in many ways to fertilize soil. It can activate a compost pile due to its high nitrogen content. Use the chopped leaves as mulch around fruit trees and mature fruiting vegetable plants.
To use comfrey as a green manure, spread chopped leaves in garden beds in the fall. Then turn them under in the spring before planting.
Get comfrey root cuttings here.
6. Compost (Homemade):
Homemade compost made from food scraps and yard waste is an inexpensive, slow-release fertilizer and soil conditioner for the garden. It’s also a great way to keep household waste out of the waste stream.
Only use compost that is completely decomposed in garden soil. That’s because the biological activity in compost that is still decomposing can compete with crops for nutrients. This has the potential to substantially reduce germination rates.
Got a compost pile that is slow to break down? This happens when there is not enough nitrogen, or green matter. It’s a common problem in backyard compost systems. Get your compost heating up with this organic-certified compost accelerator.
Homemade compost improves the structure of soil by aerating existing soil, improving drainage as well as moisture retention. Add 3-4 inches of compost to garden soil each spring before planting and work it in with a digging fork. For perennials, spread compost annually around trees and shrubs without working it into the soil.
To learn more about composting, see my article Building the Right Compost Bin.
7. Cover Crops:
Cover crops increase soil fertility, improve soil texture, and increase beneficial soil organisms and fungi. All of these benefits together can help to reduce pests and disease. Sow cover crops in garden beds in the fall, about four weeks before the frost date.
Overwintered, by springtime cover crops are full and lush, outcompeting early spring weeds. When they begin to flower or set seed heads, cut them back just above the soil line. After a couple of days, incorporate the “green manure” into the soil with a digging fork, breaking up roots.
Many micro-farmers use livestock such as chickens to help turn cover crop residue into the soil.
Wait three weeks before planting in the bed.
There are many kinds of cover crops. The mixture that is right for you will depend on your local climate and your goals. If your garden is a no-till garden, avoid grass-type cover crops since they will be a challenge to hand-turn into the soil. Your local extension office can help you choose appropriately.
When cover cropping, alternate keeping a few garden beds for overwinter vegetable production, while planting the rest in cover crops.
8. Leaf Mold:
Leaf mold is simply leaf mulch that has aged for two to three years. It can benefit the garden in many ways. The consistency of leaf mold lies somewhere between shredded leaves and leaves that have composted completely into humus. It is effective as a water-retaining mulch or soil conditioner.
When hot weather strikes, lay leaf mold over the garden as mulch, keeping it away from the stems of plants. It has a cooling effect on soil. As the mulch breaks down, it will attract beneficial soil organisms while transforming into humus.
To make leaf mold, shred the leaves first by running over them with a lawnmower, or by using a leaf mulcher. To make “quick” leaf mold, make a rectangular pile of shredded leaves that is 5 feet square by 5 feet high. Turn the pile monthly, and you might be able to make leaf mold in as little as 12 months, though the process usually takes a couple of years.
As a soil conditioner, add finished leaf mold to garden soil in the fall, then mix it in with a digging fork in the spring before planting.
9. Wood Chips:
With the growing popularity of the film Back to Eden, gardeners are adding wood chips at an accelerated rate. However, it is important to know how to use this soil amendment correctly.
Adding wood chips is like mimicking the forest floor, where leaves and twigs naturally decompose on top of the soil. Wood chips increase organic matter, improve nutrient levels, and increase the numbers of beneficial soil organisms as they break down.
They hold in moisture, reducing irrigation needs. Covering the ground, they reduce weeds.
Wood chips create a stable growing environment by insulating against the hot summer sun and freezing winters.
Use wood chips as mulch rather than tilling or mixing them into the soil.
To use wood chips in the vegetable or perennial garden, age them for two or three years before mixing them into garden soil as an amendment, and add a teensy amount of blood meal with them to make up for lower nitrogen availability. Or lay fresh wood chips on top of the soil as mulch without mixing them in.
I prefer to use wood chips in the pathways of my vegetable garden. That’s because beneficial soil organisms and fungi will enjoy plowing through my beds between the pathways.
Tree trimmers often deliver wood chips for free if they are working in your area. I have access to an arborist who delivers a trailer-load for a $20 fee.
Focus on increasing soil life and soil structure to help your growing conditions. First, focus on those soil amendments that you can make for free. They will often have the biggest impact because they will jumpstart biological activity. Later, if you choose to add a store-bought amendment such as bat guano or greensand, you can purchase less of it. This will maximize the efficiency of your efforts and reduce your micro-farming costs, too.
Need more ideas for building soil in the permaculture garden?
- 5 Ways to Prevent Soil Erosion
- Mulching in the Permaculture Garden
- 4 Berry-Producing Shrubs that Fertilize, Too!
- Soil Biology Primer by Elaine Ingham
- Teaming with Microbes by Jeff Lowenfels
- The Suburban Micro-Farm: Modern Solutions for Busy People by Amy Stross (shameless plug!)
Whether your challenge is sandy or clayey soil, these amendments will help improve your gardening success.
What type of soil do you deal with? What soil amendments have helped improve it?