How to Improve Your Soil for Better Harvests

, written by Benedict Vanheems gb flag

Rich organic matter for healthy soils

Soil is the starting point to everything we grow. It absorbs water, feeds our plants and provides an anchor for roots, giving strong, healthy crops. Understand your soil and you can work to improve it, ensuring even better harvests.

Soil Types

Most soils tend towards one of four categories: sand, silt, clay, or loam (which has a balance of sand, silt and clay). Each soil type has its own characteristics.

Sandy Soil

Sandy soils, also described as light soils, are made up of very large particles and has a gritty texture. Sandy soils drain quickly and don’t hold onto nutrients very well. However they are easy to work, and warm up quickly in spring. Root crops, onions and asparagus will all grow well in sandy soil.

Silt Soil

Silt soils have smaller particles than sandy soils, giving them a slightly slippery, floury feel. This type of soil holds onto moisture and nutrients for longer.

Clay soil is sticky but very fertile

Clay Soil

Clay (or heavy) soils consist of very fine particles. Clay soil holds its shape when rolled into a ball and is smooth to the touch. It is slow both to absorb moisture and to drain, which means soils like this can bake hard in summer then become waterlogged in winter.

Well-cultivated clay soils are preferred by brassicas such as cabbage, as well as beans, peas and leafy crops like salads.


Loam is the ideal soil type for growing fruits and vegetables. It’s fertile, drains well, is easy to work and contains plenty of organic matter that supports just about any crop.

How to Improve Your Soil

All soil types can be improved by adding organic matter to it. Organic matter can take many forms, for example leafmold made from decomposed leaves; farmyard manure that can be guaranteed to be free of all traces of herbicides; or good old-fashioned garden-made compost.

Add rich garden-made compost to your soil to improve its structure

Organic matter of any type should be well rotted so it can easily be incorporated into the soil. And to avoid future problems, check it for roots of pernicious perennial weeds such as bindweed.

Organic matter works to improve both soil structure and nutrient content. In light, sandy soils it works as glue, binding particles together to improve its ability to retain moisture and nutrients. Conversely, it opens up heavy clay soils so they can drain more easily. But no matter what your soil type, it will truly benefit from regular applications of organic matter to feed and sustain the plants grown in it.

How to Use Organic Matter

You can add organic matter at any time of year, but the end of the growing season is an especially good time. Barrow it onto vacant ground then spread it out to a depth of at least two inches (5cm). Leave it on the surface over winter, and by spring worms will have done a great job of incorporating most of that organic matter into the soil. Any remaining on the surface can always be forked in a few weeks before it’s time to sow or plant.

Mulch with organic matter to protect and improve soil over winter

Organic matter may also be laid around established fruit trees, shrubs and canes, and around perennial vegetables such as artichoke or asparagus. Do this towards the end of winter.

Testing Soil pH

Soil pH determines whether a soil is acid, alkaline or somewhere in-between. Knowing your soil’s pH will help you to decide what to grow in it. For example, particularly acidic soil is great for acid lovers like blueberries, while soil with a higher, or alkaline pH is preferred by brassicas such as cabbage.

A soil pH test kit will help you decide how to amend your soil

Test your soil using a pH test kit. The accompanying color chart will provide a guide to your soil’s pH so you know whether it’s acidic, neutral or alkaline. For best results test the pH over several parts of your plot to get an idea of whether it varies or not. You can then decide which areas to improve.

For example, soil can be improved for brassicas by adding garden lime, which works to raise soil pH so it’s more alkaline. Adding organic matter will generally move pH towards a level ideal for most fruits and vegetables.

Getting more familiar with your soil means you can keep it in tip-top condition. Your crops will love you for it! Let us know what soil type you’ve got, and how you look after it, in the comments section below.

< All Guides

Garden Planning Apps

If you need help designing your vegetable garden, try our Vegetable Garden Planner.
Garden Planning Apps and Software

Vegetable Garden Pest Warnings

Want to Receive Alerts When Pests are Heading Your Way?

If you've seen any pests or beneficial insects in your garden in the past few days please report them to The Big Bug Hunt and help create a warning system to alert you when bugs are heading your way.

Show Comments


"do pine leaves increase the acidity if used as a mulch?"
Christopher on Monday 4 June 2018
"Yes, they can help to improve acidity, so they are useful around acid-loving plants such as blueberries."
Ben Vanheems on Monday 11 June 2018
"Can we use the weeds as a source of green material in the compost? Also, how long does it take for a compost to turn into usable organic matter? Please let me know."
Varshini Muthukrishnan on Thursday 16 August 2018
" Yes, you can use weeds as a source of green material in compost. However, make sure you don’t include any seedheads or the roots of any perennial weeds, which will only spread weeds when you spread the compost! The time it takes to make compost varies from as little as six weeks to six months. It all depends on the temperature and the mix of the materials. Generally well composed compost heap in moderate temperatures should produce usable material within 2 1/2 to 3 months. "
Ben Vanheems on Friday 17 August 2018
"Thanks, helpful info "
Mary Mitchell on Friday 15 May 2020
"This does not discuss the great importance of crop rotation in the garden to control disease organisms. For example, do not grow tomatoes in the same location year after year or rotate them with other solanaceous crops (e.g., peppers, eggplant, etc.) without planting a crop that is not in the potato family. My neighbor used to grow prize-winning tomatoes in the same spot each year but eventually the pathogens responsible for tomato diseases built up in the soil."
Sam Brungardt on Friday 15 May 2020
"Hi Sam. You are absolutely right - proper crop rotation is an absolute must when growing healthy, pest and disease-free vegetables."
Ben Vanheems on Friday 15 May 2020
"Do not add lime to soils that are alkaline, as are many desert soils. Desert soils are usually 7.8 pH Or higher. Sulfur is a good amendment to help lower the pH. "
Don Breckenfeld, retired Soil Scientist on Monday 18 May 2020
"Info on how to rotate crops would be very useful"
clyde on Monday 18 May 2020
"Hi Don. Many thanks for that cautionary advice there. Yes, if your soil is alkaline adding lime wouldn't be necessary or advisable, given it would make your soil even more alkaline."
Ben Vanheems on Tuesday 19 May 2020
"Hi Clyde. Tomatoes are in the same family as potatoes and egg plant, so consider them all as one group for the purposes of crop rotation. If you search the videos on this site you'll find a full video explaining the principles of crop rotation."
Ben Vanheems on Tuesday 19 May 2020

Add a Comment

Add your own thoughts on the subject of this article:
(If you have difficulty using this form, please use our Contact Form to send us your comment, along with the title of this article.)

(We won't display this on the website or use it for marketing)


(Please enter the code above to help prevent spam on this article)

By clicking 'Add Comment' you agree to our Terms and Conditions