Updates to How I Amend and Prep My Garden Soil

by | May 5, 2022

It’s been a couple years since I’ve written how I amend and prep my garden soil organically. Being a self-taught gardener, I’m constantly experimenting with new techniques in the garden and observing what my plants love (or don’t). In the years since my first article on amending soil organically was published, I’ve started some new practices that I want to share with you because the results have been good! I would also recommend that you read my original article, Amending Soil Organically, as it’s still very relevant and I go into different details for each step.

For the most part, I still follow the same process I always have to amend and prep our garden soil. Gardening in Southern California can be very intense for soil. Not only do we have limited space, thus using the same areas over and over, but we also garden year-round. For these reasons and more, it’s so important to care for your garden soil, nourish it, and keep it organic and alive!

This is our recently transplanted pepper bed. Remember to always fill your raised beds all the way to the top when you amend and prep the garden soil. This particular bed is irrigated with a Garden Grid and hose timer. You can use my code: freckledcali10 for $10 off your Garden Grid purchase of $100 or more.

Topping with Compost

Adding compost is still the the number one thing I do to amend and prep my garden soil. Compost is so vital to building healthy soil, but additionally, it’s a way to “close the loop” and be more sustainable. You see, in the process of growing food, there are a lot of food scraps and vegetation produced. Taking those “leftovers” from the garden and composting them into a beneficial, organic soil amendment means less waste and a free resource for growing even more food! You can read about our composting adventures and the evolution of our composting systems HERE.

One thing I’ve been doing differently is trying different sources of compost. While our homemade compost has been my favorite, it’s been important to me to try other sources to see what’s out there (and also have an opinion when I get emails about where to get compost in Orange County). Unfortunately, I haven’t found a bulk source of compost in Orange County that I really love. 

Mix in some well-aged chicken manure to amend soil

This is new for me. Up until this year, we solely used compost without animal manure to amend and prep our garden soil.  This wasn’t because we were against animal manure per se, but just because I was determined to use what we could source from our own garden—I wanted to sustain ourselves!

What changed? The biggest thing I was not happy with were our Nitrogen levels. Being a beginning gardener, I was being super duper careful to not burn our plants by adding too much nitrogen. Furthermore, when it came to other garden amendments, I stuck with really low and gentle inputs like kelp meal and alfalfa meal. Eventually, we ended up getting our soil tested and found out we were extremely low in nitrogen! I was being too careful! Following the soil test, I started adding nitrogen-rich amendments, like feather meal, in order to fix our soil as soon as possible because I wanted to grow in it. Fortunately, I also found an OMRI listed, composted chicken manure by Kellogg that I could buy by the bag. I actually started mixing this with compost to amend and prep my garden soil!

Don’t forget to practice manure safety! Because of the potential exposure to pathogens, never use fresh manure on your plants. Animal manure should be well-aged, or composted, before application. Know your source!

This bed was transplanted with tomatillos, corn, eggplant, basil, and a couple peppers. I had run out of the chicken manure, so this bed was amended with simply compost, perlite, and some fertilizer. It’s looking good! The garden still needs some mulch.

Improve Soil Texture with Perlite

While compost is my go-to favorite ingredient to amend and prep garden soil, I’ve noticed inconsistencies with compost texture. In fact, some compost is very dense, while some is more dry, and some is sandier. Adding only compost worked for me for many seasons, but there was a lightness and fluffy-factor I was missing. My solution to this problem was adding some organic, bagged perlite. Perlite is great for drainage, aeration, and preventing compaction in the garden. So far, I’ve seen good results from my raised beds that I amended with compost, aged chicken manure, and perlite.

Need a Shortcut?

Sometimes we find that the things we need are not easily available or accessible. In a pinch, you can amend and prep garden soil with a high-quality organic potting soil or raised bed mix. Instead of adding compost, manure, or perlite, you can simply add a few inches of a bagged mix to the top of your garden beds. Essentially, these types of products contain many of the ingredients mentioned above (compost, manure, various organic materials, perlite, worm castings, etc.) so it’s very similar. After topping with an organic potting mix or raised bed mix, simply continue on with your preferred amendments as discussed below.

raised beds benefit from topping with compost and some perlite for aeration

This is our pepper bed, where we have used compost mixed with perlite to amend and prep the soil. We alos have a Garden Grid as our irrigation system, and have simply pulled it back because we needed to make some repairs to the wood bed.

Organic Amendments to Prep Garden Soil

After topping garden beds with a few inches of compost, aged chicken manure (optional) and perlite, there’s one more step I do to amend and prep my garden soil. I don’t know about you, but life has been crazy. As much as I love the garden, the past year has been dedicated to making things more streamlined and low-maintenance in the garden so I could focus on other things. To cut down on some of the time it takes to amend and prep a bed, I’ve been using an all-in-one-type garden amendment for my vegetable and flower beds. For example, I’ve been applying this Down to Earth Vegetable fertilizer per the package instructions. You can decide to apply it to the whole garden bed, or do the recommended amount per hole when you go to transplant your plants. For flower beds, I’ve been using the Down to Earth Rose & Flower Food, along with Fish Bone Meal (if I’m planting bulbs/corms/tubers especially). These all-in-one products just make it simpler for me. You’ll notice most of the ingredients are amendments I used to add individually.

Amend with fertilizer at transplant time

One technique I’ve started doing more often is amending the planting hole when I go to transplant a seedling. Sometimes I’ll add an all-purpose vegetable fertilizer to the planting hole, or add worm castings, or both! For example, instead of amending the entire raised bed with fertilizer, I’ll add some directly to the planting hole along with some worm castings and water the seedling in thoroughly. In general, this can save money on amendments and ensure that amendments are more in reach of the root systems. Be careful to not amend twice! So, if you have amended the whole bed with fertilizer, I wouldn’t add the same fertilizer to the planting hole too.

apply amendments with a measuring cup and sprinkle over the entire garden bed

We have a designated “garden measuring cup” for measuring our amendments. It’s important to follow the package instructions and amounts when you amend your soil. Most of the time, we simply sprinkle the organic amendments over the entire garden bed.

Additional tips to amend and prep garden soil

I’m always learning and sharing. There’s rarely a moment when I feel confident as a gardener but, instead of stressing me out, I treat it as an adventure and opportunity to discover things. To draw from my original article on how I amend and prep garden soil organically, I still leave small roots intact (although that’s less of a concern for me nowadays), I still use mycorrhizae when I transplant seedlings, and I still mulch. More on that can be found in the original article.

Overall, I have become more generous in my application of compost, aged manure, and organic amendments. It’s truly important that we keep our soil nourished and alive as we grow year-round and intensively plant. Have you changed how you amend and prep garden soil? Have you noticed changes in yourself as a gardener? It’s sometimes difficult as a garden blogger to portray the idea that gardening is always changing—-this includes processes, approaches, techniques and so much more! What we did years ago isn’t necessarily “right” or “wrong,” but more along the lines of “different” and based off of what was available or practical at the time. For those who are new to my blog, thanks for reading and supporting my gardening journey! I hope you’ve enjoyed hearing about the updates on how I amend and prep my garden soil. Who else is excited for this Summer season?!!!

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Meet Randi

Urban gardening is my jam. I’m Randi, California girl who obsessively gardens to grow food and flowers around my urban home. Seasonal, simple living is what inspires me~ I hope it will inspire you too. Join me in crafting a life and home connected to the garden Read More>>>>

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