University of Maryland Extension

Best Practices - Soils

best practice logo for healthy soil             

healthy soil

Soil is not “dirt.” It is a precious natural resource that is too often neglected and mismanaged. These are some best practices for managing soil in gardens and landscapes:

  • Perform a soil test before starting a major project like a vegetable garden or lawn renovation. Maintain soil pH in the 6.0 - 7.0 range. Need help interpreting your soil test results? Send a question, along with a digital photo of your report, to Ask an Expert. 
  • Buying topsoil? Topsoil sales are not regulated. Determine the quality of purchased topsoil before it’s delivered. Watch out for material that smells bad or doesn’t look or feel like topsoil. Some companies sell a compost/topsoil mixture that is good for raised beds.
  • Avoid tilling or walking on wet soil which can cause compaction. Compaction reduces the amount of air, water, and space available to roots and soil organisms.
  • Add organic matter. This is the key to improving soil quality which, in turn, leads to healthy, productive plants. It improves the structure of soils so that roots can use the available water, air, and nutrients to grow.
  • Heavy, unmanageable clay soil? Add lots of organic matter throughout the top 12 inches of the soil profile. Loosen subsoil with garden fork. Do not add sand or gypsum to a heavy clay soil in hopes of improving soil structure.
  • Erosion problem or sloped site? Don’t till sloped ground. Use cover crops, groundcovers (also turf and trees), and permanent non-plant cover (mulches) to cover bare soil. Look for erosion problems such as a gutter running directly out onto a flower bed or bare areas under a tree.
  • Poor surface and internal drainage? Perform a drainage test. Dig a hole 12 inches deep and 8 inches in diameter. Fill it with water. Fill it again 12 hours later. All the water should drain out within 2-3 hours. 
  • Concerned about lead contamination? Learn more about this issue by reading (PDF) HG 18 - Lead in Garden Soils.
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