Most soils in our communities could use a little help to become healthier and more productive. After decades of overusing synthetic chemicals, suburban soils are especially lacking. Best practices such as mulching, cover crops, adding amendments, chemical-free weed control, and winter protection will help you maintain healthy soil year-round, while still enjoying a bountiful harvest or blooming season. Start with small changes, until you get comfortable. Then incorporate as many practices as you want, depending on your garden space and its needs.

Presuming there are no contamination issues, soil preparation will vary depending on what you want to plant. For example, native plants may require less intervention and vegetable gardens will need specialized nutrients.

Prevent Erosion
Ecosystem Friendly
Special Situations
Compost and Other Soil Amendments

 compost tumbler

Using compost instead of artificial fertilizers is one way to help your soil as well as your pocketbook! Look for local compost sources, or start making compost yourself. If your soil tests indicate a specific nutrient deficiency, you may want to use a specialized amendment.

Title: Soil Conditioning: Establishing a Successful Gardening Foundation
Organization: Home & Garden Information Center. Clemson Cooperative Extension
Description: Different amendments are discussed in this website.

Title: Organic Matter and Soil Amendments
Organization: Home & Garden Information Center. University of Maryland Extension
Description: A list of common soil amendments, including compost, and practical information are included in this site, which provides a good understanding of the options available in the market.

Title: Changing the pH of Your Soil
Organization: Home & Garden Information Center. Clemson Cooperative Extension
Description: Explaining how “Soil pH directly affects nutrient availability for plants,” this website provides useful information on amendments to correct pH.

Title: 20 (Organic) Ways to Boot Soil Fertility
Organization: Rodale Institute
Description: “You diligently took soil tests this winter and now they’ve come back indicating that potassium or phosphorus is low on some fields, here and there you have a zinc deficiency, and you know that you will probably need some additional nitrogen. But you’re organic! No synthetic fertilizer for you! What do you do?”

The New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) has a host of information on their website. For instance:

Title: Compost Made Easy/Haciendo Abono Facilmente
Organization: NewYork Botanical Garden
Description: Composting basics: what, why, how, and when. One-page bilingual guide.

Title: Outdoor Composting Guide 
Organization: NewYork Botanical Garden
Description: A comprehensive guide to composting, from setting up a bin to checking to see when the compost is ready.

TitleHow to Incorporate Compost in Your Garden
Organization: NewYork Botanical Garden
Description: This four-minute video demonstrates how to incorporate compost when preparing a vegetable garden for the growing season.

Title: Backyard Composting
Organization: Greenburgh Nature Center
A how-to for beginning composters from the Greenburgh Nature Center, this webpage explains methods (bin, tumbler, etc.), lists what materials can be composted, and answers other FAQs. You can use yard trimmings and food scraps to build compost for your yard while reducing the amount of waste that ends up in the Westchester County incinerator.

Title: End of Season Soil Prep: Mineral, Cover Crops, and Mulch
Organization: Bionutrient Food Association: Westchester/NYC chapter
Description: This 14-minute video explains how to set up next year's garden soil in the autumn. It suggests mixing in minerals such as azomite and basalt (rock dust) or BFA’s Spring Blend mineral mix, adding compost, and planting cover crops. It also demonstrates how gardeners can cover the soil with a layer of mulch material if it’s too late for cover crops (past October).

Title: Restrictions on the Application and Sale of Lawn Fertilizer Within the County of Westchester (Local Law)
Organization: Westchester County
Description: Soil in Westchester county is naturally rich in phosphorus, and fertilizers containing this element are major sources of stormwater pollution. This local law, passed in 2009, restricts fertilizers containing phosphorus to a few uses, including brand new lawns and vegetable gardens, and outlaws the display for sale of these kinds of fertilizers, which should only be made available “on request.”

Much Ado About Mulching

mulch in different seasons

Mulching, such as with wood chips or straw, is a great way to keep your soil protected. Mulch slowly decomposes over time, providing an extra source of nutrients to plants and microfauna while shielding the soil from harsh elements. It also adds color and texture to your landscape, a desirable feature in garden design.

Title: Leave Leaves Alone!
Organization: Healthy Yards
Description: This website argues for keeping leaves on one’s property instead of bagging or piling them for curbside pickup and instructs how to turn leaves into mulch. Along with cost and pollution reduction, this practice enriches soil, ensures healthier plants, and promotes water retention and percolation, leading to healthier and more diverse habitats and cleaner waterways. Includes a page for professional landscapers.

Title: Using Mulch
Organization: New York Botanical Garden (NYBG)
Mulching basics, including what it is, what it does, what mulch types are best for different kinds of plants, and how to apply it.

Title: Mulching Leaves with a Mulcher Mower
Organization: Leave Leaves Alone/Healthy Yards
Description: This one-minute video shows a mulching mower at work on fall leaves and just how easy it is to leave leaves alone to replenish your lawn. You can mulch with regular lawn mower blades, too!

For additional information on how to apply mulch, please see All About Mulch in the Native Plants section.

Preventing Soil Erosion: Cover Crops Yes, Leaf Blowers No

Besides needing nourishment, your garden also needs protection, especially from erosion by wind and water. The ubiquitous leaf blower degrades your soil by blowing off the protective top layer of soil; while mulch and cover crops help guard it from the elements. If you don’t want to use wood chips, leaves or straw, you may also consider filling the space with other plants suitable for this area. Cover crops offer excellent winter protection and soil nourishment. Native ground covers could be an optimal solution to protect bare soil in the long run, and will also help with weed control.

Title: Cover Crops in Home Gardens Improve Soil and Reduce Erosion
Organization: Penn State Extension
Description: What is a cover crop, what makes a good cover crop and how to plant

Title: How to Turn In Your Cover Crops
Organization: New York Botanical Garden (NYBG), Bronx Green-Up
Description: In this three-minute video, Kadeesha Williams, Community Horticulturist and Urban Agriculturist for Bronx Green-Up at NYBG, explains how cover crop choices (in this case, grasses and legumes) can help your soil replenish nutrients and boost soil microorganism population, while she demonstrates how to chop and turn in your cover crops at the beginning of the growing season.

Organics and Other Ecosystem-Friendly Practices

A home garden is not an island but affects the environment around it, both on adjacent property and even further if the property is near a water resource. Wise water use and appropriate soil amendments can help.

Title: Using Water Wisely
Organization: New York Botanical Garden
Description: Healthy soil is inevitably and inherently connected to water. Plants need water as much as soil does in order to be alive and maintain its physical properties. This one-page information sheet highlights how excess water in soil leaches nutrients and how, especially with lawn management, it is especially important to be conscious of our water usage to protect the plants in our garden and downstream from us, too!

Title: The Myth of Soil Amendments
Organization: Washington State University
Description: More is not necessarily better. The author, a professor at WSU, says that when transplanting trees and shrubs, soil amendments should not be added. The effect on these woody plants is detrimental due to nutrient and water handling differences between the amended backfill and the surrounding native soil. The author’s webpage includes other informative and thought-provoking articles on gardening myths.

Title: A Guide to Native Plant Gardening
Organization: Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
Description: This site outlines the steps for soil preparation and weed elimination when planting a native garden. Usually, if native plants are well selected for a site, no soil amendments should not be needed; in fact, a healthy soil helps mitigate or eliminate the effect of toxins and harmful chemicals, already existing in the soil. But for sites where the original topsoil has been stripped, the site explains how what types of soil amendments can help.  [share with NATIVE PLANTS]

TitleWhy We're Not Fans of Amending Soil
Organization:  Monarch Gardens LLC
Description: An award-winning gardener explains his four principles of amendment-free gardening:

  1. The perfect or ideal soil is the soil you have right now.
  2. Matching plants to site often means less maintenance and less plant death over time.
  3. Matching plants to one another.
  4. Planting tightly means more soil building and less work long term.
Special Soil Situations: Urban soil and Container Gardening

Many of us begin our gardens with less than a pristine palette. Many suburban properties are basically fill whose origin is mysterious. Many of us garden in containers. Both situations call for special considerations. Old potting soil in containers can be reused and revitalized (providing the previous plant grown in it was not diseased) by combining it with equal parts of topsoil and organic compost.

Title: Urban Soil Primer
Organization: Natural Resources Conservation Services, U.S. Department of Agriculture
Description: Relevant and of interest to suburban as well as urban gardeners, this 75-page illustrated publication, addressed to “homeowners and renters, local planning boards, property managers, students, and educators,” provides a primer on soil and clearly addresses the challenges of using soil found in a built environment, for example, “generally higher pH values resulting from additions of cement, plaster, and road salts.”

Title: Equitable Development Resource Hub
Organization: Groundwork USA
Description:  "Vacant land and brownfield sites have the potential to be reclaimed as safe and nourishing community assets—provided urban gardeners and community builders understand the risks and follow best practices to protect themselves and communities from exposure to contaminants." This set of tools includes guides such as "Knowing Your Soil," an overview of common urban land uses and their associated contaminants, along with resources for testing and soil remediation; and "Best Practices for Food Production in Areas Suspected of Contamination." (Yonkers-based Groundwork Hudson Valley is a member of the Groundwork USA network of local organizations "devoted to transforming the natural and built environment of low-resource communities.")

Title: Urban Gardening: Managing the Risks of Contaminated Soil
Organization: Environmental Health Perspectives (online journal)
Description: Through the experience of gardeners facing challenging, contaminated soils in Providence, Boston, and New Orleans, this article describes the issues facing urban gardeners and ways they have chosen to address toxicity and other issues. Includes a sidebar on “Best Management Practices for Urban Gardens.”