Good Soil is the key to success! You are not going to be able to grow leafy greens in soil that looks like it belongs in the Sahara Desert.
Ensuring that you have the best soil possible; healthy, friable and free draining will almost guarantee a healthy and plentiful crop, yet this is one of the most common places people go wrong. It is important to get the soil right before you get all excited and start planting.
So lets look at the soil types you are most likely to encounter.
Sand - basically the least desirable soil type for fruit and vegetable gardening. It has little to no nutrient value, is usually very free draining, to the extent that it holds no water at all or can in the opposite extreme be highly water repellant.
Sandy Loam - this typically contains more minerals, is still free draining, but can readily become water repellant. With a little bit of work, this can become an ideal soil for growing in.
Clay- often considered one of the worst soil types you can have, but, in my opinion, very underrated. The main issue with clay/clay loams is that clay is comprised of lots of minerals and other fine soil particles, but there is little air space between them, so the soil is very dense, heavy and can be extremeley sticky when wet. Most plants struggle in clay soils because of these factors.
BUT - before you rush down to your local garden supplies to buy topsoil, stop and consider for a minute. In our experience, you are often likely to import more problems into your garden than you think and invariably, the soil you already have is better!
With a bit of effort, it's easily transformed.
You can turn this
Fixing Sandy Soils
The main concern with sandy soils is that they typically lack organic matter (composted material) and nutrients and that's what we need to add - Compost! We strongly recommend you run your own compost bin. It's an effective way to deal with your household and garden greenwaste and will help to reduce costs.
Commercially available compost
Alternately, there are a number of commercially available compost mixes available. The amount you will need will depend on the condition of the soil and the size of your bed and is hard to advise, so have a look at the soil pictures and then you know what to work towards.
Before you add the compost, lets make sure the soil isn't water repellent. Use a watering can and pour some water on the soil. Let it soak in. If it runs straight off or is very slow to soak in, it is likely water repellant. Scratch at the surface. If the soil underneath is dry, we need to add a step to break the repellance. Add the compost mix and using a garden fork (preferably) or a spade, dig the bed over to mix the two together.
The next step is determined by when you need to use the bed and the time of year. If possible, sowing a "green manure" bed in late autumn would be the best choice.
Very Sandy Soil
If your soil is water repellant, you need to add an agent to help water absorbency. There are a number of products available, some are sprinkled on and watered in, others are in liquid form. Add your choice following the manufacturers instructions. The soil pictured here has a high sand content. We have had a reasonable amount of rain in recent days and this soil mound was almost bone dry beneath the surface. In the background, you can see where the rain has washed the sand down the surface of the mound.
Water repellant soil
This is an example of a water repellant soil from a bed I was yet to "treat". These shallots were growing in an inconvenient place and had to be relocated to the new root crop bed. When dug up, I noticed how dry the soil was. You can see here, where the water that was poured on, has run off the soil at the top completely and it remains bone dry.
Fixing Clay Soils
The aim here is to break up the clay so that it becomes more friable. It's already full of nutrients and mineral, but could also benefit from a green manure. First step here though, is to apply Gypsum.
Gypsum, also sold as a clay breaker, naturally breaks the clay down over time. So, following the instructions and application rates, apply the gypsum and get stuck into digging the bed over. Yes it's hard work, but well worth the effort. You will most likely need to repeat the process again in a few weeks, but at this time, should already see an improvement as the clay begins to crumble. Once the clay is more workable, I'd recommend following the green manure information above and by spring, you'll have a great bed, ready for planting.
Working with Sandy Loam
What action you take with sandy loam will depend on the first vegetables that you wish to plant. Different vegetables have different fertilising needs and tolerances so before you think of planting or fertilising your bed/s, have a look at the fertilising page AND plants page to determine what if anything needs to be done. In most cases, it is advisable to add compost to boost the amount of organic matter in the soil and get the beneficial bacteria working for you.