woman planting colorful flowers in yard

If you want your yard to yield succulent vegetables, spectacular flowers, or enviable foliage, pay attention to your soil.

“It’s where the roots live. It’s the basis for life,” says Wendy Wilber, Florida Statewide Master Gardener Coordinator for University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS).

For the dish on dirt, we asked experts from three university extension services to provide some of their favorite eco-friendly tips for evaluating, protecting, and improving soil quality.

Test Your Soil

Before randomly adding fertilizers or other products, test your soil, recommends Vern Grubinger, an extension professor and vegetable and berry specialist for University of Vermont Extension. Because some nutrients are potential water pollutants when they run off or seep into the ground, adding the proper amount, rather than too much, is environmentally responsible, he says. A soil test offers specific information and eliminates the guesswork. “Only apply what you need,” Grubinger says. “More is not necessarily better.”

Professional soil tests offered by regional extension offices are usually relatively inexpensive — often $10 to $15, or less. If lead-testing is not already included, an extra test is advisable, especially in urban areas, to determine if the soil is safe for edible plants. Read tips for taking a soil sample.

Seedlings planted in rows in dark soil.
Photo by Kaboompics .com from Pexels

Using Compost

For some types of soil, such as sandy and rocky soils, a suitable additive enhances the structure and improves the ability to retain nutrients and moisture. Crumbly compost made from food and yard waste is often recommended as an eco-friendly option. “Compost is an excellent source of organic matter and you can collect all of your garden and yard waste and turn it into this black gold,” says Pamela J. Bennett, state master gardener volunteer program director and associate professor at Ohio State University. “[Organic matter] helps to build soil structure, which leads to better air spaces and good drainage,” she says.

Before using compost, Grubinger recommends referring to your soil test. “If soil is very high in phosphorus, then compost should be added sparingly or not at all.”

Information on compost for home gardens is offered by university extension services, such as the University of Florida IFAS.

Other useful compost information:

Efficient Watering

If rainfall is adequate, turn off sprinklers and allow nature to do its work. When extra watering is required, consider drip irrigation, Grubinger says. The narrow tubes or pipes trickle water directly where it’s needed, avoiding potential waste from over-spray, run-off, and evaporation. For other earth-friendly watering ideas, read Gardening Greatness: 12 Water Saving Tips.

water spraying into vegetable garden
Avoid overwatering and wasteful watering methods. Compost can help soil retain water. Photo by Kaboompics .com from Pexels

Maximizing Mulch

Mulch offers varied benefits for your garden. For soil, advantages include regulating temperature, retaining water, preventing erosion, and reducing weeds. Mulch also provides a potential source of nutrients. For that reason, Wilber recommends skipping such options as shredded tires or rocks in favor of pine bark, pine straw, yard debris, or other organic sources that enrich the soil as they decompose.

An especially eco-friendly and frugal option for mulch, Wilber says, is raked leaves, chopped into bits. It recycles existing debris, while eliminating a drive to the store to purchase a packaged product. When applying mulch, keep it a few inches away from the base of trees and plants, she says.

Consider Cover Crops

In between vegetable season or flower season, plant something temporarily that’s beneficial to the soil, suggests Grubinger. Recommendations for  cover crops vary by region and season, but may include oats, buckwheat, and rye. Cover crops are valuable for enriching the soil, enhancing biodiversity, and preventing erosion.

Extra Tips

  • Don’t over-till the soil. “No-till is an excellent way to garden but is not always possible or desirable by some gardeners. Therefore, if you are going to till, do it minimally,” according to Bennett.
  • Avoid walking on soil and working with it when it’s wet to prevent compacting.

By Patti Roth

Patti began her writing career as a staff writer for the South Florida Sun Sentinel. Still based in Florida, Patti serves as editor for Fort Lauderdale on the Cheap. She regularly writes about environmental, home improvement, education, recycling, art, architecture, wildlife, travel and pet topics.