All raised garden bed soil can use a little TLC before vegetable or flower seeds can be planted. Learn how to prepare your container gardens (raised or pot) with healthy rich soil to put your plants in the best possible position to thrive. Follow these steps, and you will be pleased with how much healthier your plants are vs. years past!
Why Healthy Soil is Important
Over the years, I have tried many approaches to gardening, such as vertical gardening using cattle panels, building our own raised garden beds, container gardening using a kiddie pool from Walmart, making a DIY winter greenhouse to grow salad greens, growing in soil bags, and even growing a vegetable garden from grocery store food!
In every approach growing something beautiful, healthy, and affordable remains the priority.
I value maintaining the integrity, health, and structure of soil as the cornerstone of all successful gardens, but if you aren't careful, soil can become very cost-prohibitive.
It is for this reason that in addition to affordable growing structures, I also look for ways to save money by making our own compost and starting my own seeds.
A lot of people adapt the mindset that plants need to be fed if they are struggling. This way of thinking can be counterintuitive. When we feed our plants with fertilizers, the plant growth will typically explode. However, the fertilizers are often laced with chemicals, and we don’t really want that.
Changing our focus toward improving the health of the soil will in turn produce healthy plants. Raised bed soil is healthy when it allows air and water to move freely making it suitable for organisms that help plants grow.
In this environment, the soil is more pest-resistant adding another benefit to the health of the plants. We want to shift our focus to feeding the soil, not the plants!
What is the Best Raised Garden Bed Soil
Using raised garden beds provides a great solution for beginner gardeners who have unhealthy native soil. Beginning with healthy potting soil, and adding a soil amendment over time is far easier to maintain than attempting to correct bad soil from the onset.
When I first began gardening, I brought in the cheapest topsoil I could find. Filled with rocks, clay, and sand, it was far from ideal. However, I filled the bottom two-thirds of my beds with the cheap soil and filled in just a few inches with quality compost over the top of that.
The first year my garden did “pretty OK”, but the subsequent years after, it just kept getting better and better. As the nutrients from the amendments at the top traveled down into the bottom layer, it promoted a healthy microbiome that integrated throughout the entire bed.
After a few years of amending the soil, I could dig down to the bottom layer of soil and not be able to tell the difference between it and the top layer.
What is the Best Soil for Containers
There are a variety of container ideas to use for gardening. I love my Greenstalk vertical containers. These planters are my favorite way to grow salad greens. The design eliminates water splashback and dirt getting on the greens and protects them really well from common garden pests.
*Greenstalk often has great sales, and you can use code ROOTS10 at checkout to get an additional $10 discount.
All containers do best using good quality potting soil (or potting mix). This soil is lighter weight and has better air circulation for smaller spaces.
I like to amend each pocket in the Greenstalk with a handful or two of high-quality compost each year (or between plantings).
How to Build the Best Container and Raised Garden Bed Soil
It's a common misconception that gardening is a seasonal activity. However, continually tending to the soil is one of the most critical aspects of gardening. Raised garden bed soil that is cared for year-round will produce the best soil for healthy and productive plants.
Read on to learn how to tend to your raised garden bed soil during each phase of your garden's life cycle.
Preparing the Soil for the Growing Season
Begin by pulling out or breaking off any plants that will not grow back when the weather warms up. I leave organic matter such as roots in the soil. Any organic material will break down and the microbes will absorb it.
Add a few inches of good, organic compost to the top of the existing soil. I don’t dig, till, or turn up my organic garden every year. The nutrients in the fresh compost will work down over time and integrate together with the older soil. Each year, the soil will become more rich and healthy.
Lastly, water down the compost. It will run through and allow the nutrients to absorb into the layers of soil. Even if there are no plants in the soil, the microbes in the soil need moisture to survive.
Perennials that stay in the garden over the winter months may look like they are struggling during this season. If the roots look healthy and they have a little bit of foliage left, they should improve as the weather warms up.
You can help them along by spreading about two inches of compost around the base of each plant. It will feed the plant as it gets moisture.
Keeping Soil Healthy Throughout the Growing Season
The soil nutrients in containers tend to diminish within a matter of just a few months. They will need some sort of organic fertilizer added about once per week. I use a variety of fertilizers such as compost, worm castings, and compost tea in order to promote the diversity of life in the soil.
Regularly fertilizing the soil helps to prevent hydrophobic soil discussed further below.
Maintaining Healthy Soil in the Dormant Season
The beneficial microorganisms in the soil will not survive when the soil is dry, and dry soil can lead to what is called hydrophobic soil. This is soil that is so dry that it can no longer break the surface tension of water and will actually repel it. This is a very common problem in containers and some raised bed gardening.
Prevention is the best medicine. It is important to tend to your containers in the off-season by keeping the soil watered and moist even though there aren't any plants growing in it.
In the event that soil is neglected and has gone hydrophobic, it is possible to repair it. You will need to add in good soil throughout the whole container to bring back its water retention ability.
Additionally, you can use a tablespoon of Castile soap diluted in water, and spread throughout the soil. The soap facilitates the ability to break the surface tension of water, and allows the soil to absorb water once again.
*A note of caution. If all you have is conventional dish soap, you can use it. However, it is not a good idea to use any anti-bacterial soaps. They will kill the beneficial microbes in your soil! A small bottle of Dr. Bronners is fairly inexpensive and my recommendation here.
More Gardening Tips
- How to Start a Compost Pile
- Planting Seedlings Indoors – Advantages To Know
- Starting Seeds Indoors in 6 Easy Steps (+ Tips for Success)
- Growing In Soil Bags-Container Gardening Made Easy
- $7 Kiddie Pool Raised Garden Bed (& Other Cheap Container Garden Ideas)
- A Complete Guide to Vertical Gardening (On a Budget!)
- Vegetable Garden Trellis: How to Plant & GROW
- How to Build a Garden Arch Trellis or Garden Arbor (for $30!)
- How to Build a Raised Garden Bed (On a Budget)
- Growing A Garden From Grocery Store Food