5+ Tips for Building Great Garden Soil for Thriving Veggies

I’ve learned a lot about gardening over the years. Gardening methods can be very flexible — every gardener I know has their own ideas about how to grow the best tomatoes — but one thing that’s non-negotiable is that a garden needs good garden soil.  Mulch and composting are two key elements of good soil. Take a look at how you can implement this and more to improve your soil.

One of the best places to start? Stop using poisons to control weeds. Instead, try these natural weed killer ideas.

green seedlings in a line in dark garden soil


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How to Build Good Garden Soil

1. Use poop

The best gardens I’ve grown have been courtesy of neighborhood horses.

Let me tell you a story. I used to live in an area that was terribly dry during the summer months. The ground became rock hard and if I needed to dig a hole during that time, it required soaking the ground. One year, I brought in a load of horse manure in the fall and let it sit, to age.

The following spring, I started using it on my garden beds. What I was surprised to discover is that once I made it to the bottom of the pile of manure, the site soil under it was wonderful. All around the pile, I could barely make a dent in the ground with a shovel. But where the pile was? I could easily sink a shovel all the way into the ground and the area was full of worms. The manure transformed not only my garden beds, but the hopeless, dry, hard site soil beneath it.

You can use manure from a variety of barnyard animals in your garden: Cows, horses, chickens, rabbits — even llamas. Most animal manure is “hot” and will burn your garden if you apply it directly. (The exception is rabbit and llama manure.)

It’s a good idea to allow your manure pile to sit for several months to age before you add it to a growing garden. A great way to get the most of manure is to apply a 4-6″ layer of fresh manure to your garden beds after you’ve finished harvesting in the fall. By spring, your garden soil will be lush and easy to dig.

pile of mulch

2. Compost is key for good garden soil

I cannot urge you strongly enough to start composting! You can turn your kitchen and yard waste into an excellent soil amendment with very little effort. Compost adds nutrients and organic matter to garden soil, and helps with water retention.

It’s expensive to buy and free to make at home. (Kind of a no-brainer, right?) You can add compost to your planting holes or use it as a side or top dressing while your garden is growing.

Here’s a beginner’s guide to composting.

pepper plant in a garden with mulch

3. Get great soil through mulching

Soil likes to be moist. Mulching around growing plants and trees helps to retain soil moisture and hold down weeds, and as the mulch breaks down, it adds nutrients to the soil. Grass clippings, leaves, and straw are all excellent options for mulching in a garden.

What about wood chips? I tend to use wood chips as mulch around trees and aim for “softer” mulch that will break down more quickly in the vegetable garden.

Consider growing some mulch, too. Many plants are excellent for this purpose and provide you with an ongoing source of free mulch.

4. Get Worms

Vermicomposting is another way to turn kitchen waste into a rich garden soil amendment, and one that’s well suited to urban gardeners. A worm bin doesn’t take up much space, it doesn’t stink, and the worm castings are very high in nutrients.

Here’s how to make a worm bin for $5.

garden soil spilling out of a terra cotta planter into a trowel

5. Build a Lasagna Bed for great garden soil

This is kind of like composting in layers. All of the materials used would be perfectly suitable in a compost pile, but this method doesn’t require any waiting. Or digging. Also called “sheet mulching,” a lasagna bed is a great way to transform a grassy or weedy area into a thriving garden. The materials layered in these beds will break down while your plants are growing.

Here’s how to make a lasagna bed.

6. Consider Urine

What if there were a way to avoid chemical fertilizers on gardens, pastures, and orchards? What if that way involved a fertilizer that conserved water, was easily accessible to every single human on this planet, and was absolutely free? The use of this substance is also scientifically backed* as a means to increase production. If you haven’t figured it out by now, we’re talking about using human urine as fertilizer. It’s high in nitrogen and readily available!

Here’s how to use urine in the garden safely.

man urinating, from behind

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About the author: Kris Bordessa is an award-winning National Geographic author and a certified Master Food Preserver. Read more about Kris and how she got started with this site here. If you want to send Kris a quick message, you can get in touch here.

3 comments… add one
  • Toni Sep 15, 2022 @ 6:18

    I’m so happy to have this information as soil building for Spring 2023 begins this weekend! My garden mostly survived but definitely didn’t thrive this year so I decided to forgo winter crops and build soil instead. Honestly this is almost as exciting as planting seeds!

  • Drusilla Mar 2, 2022 @ 8:14

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention cover crops.
    I have winter rye and hairy vetch growing in my zone 5 garden right now.
    Planted it in the fall, will cut it down (and use the rye for straw) when it’s ready.

    Also used buckwheat before.
    I work in a restaurant too, so I snag all the free food scrapes that I can.

    • AttainableSustainable Mar 3, 2022 @ 8:10

      I do mention chop and drop mulching which is a great method, and I also have a post on buckwheat if you’re interested. Food scraps in compost is a good method too, these all work so whatever works for you is great!

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