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Gardeners often lament that they can’t grow anything in their garden because they have poor soil. But like beauty, poor soil is in the eye of the beholder. What one gardener means by poor soil may be entirely different from another.
Poor soil may refer to soil with low levels of vital nutrients, soil that drains too slowly or too quickly, soil that contains high amounts of sand or clay, soil that has little organic matter, soil that is too acidic or too alkaline, or soil that otherwise does not provide the conditions plants need to thrive.
Selecting plants that thrive in your poor soil is only one way to deal with gardening in poor soil. While some vegetables are easier to grow in poor soil, most require good soil to thrive. Many herbs, however, are well suited to poor soil. There is a wide selection of perennial flowers that can be grown in poor soil, too. Check out the list of plants that grow in poor soil below.
What Is Poor Soil?
Poor soil is defined as soil that does not provide the necessary ingredients for good plant growth. This can mean various things, from low fertility and improper pH levels to poor soil structure and texture. Not all poor soil needs the same corrective measures.
Poor soil must be assessed for the underlying causes of poor plant growth and treated to correct those conditions.
What vegetables grow in poor soil?
Vegetables for Dry Soil that Drains Quickly
If your soil is poor due to a sandy or gravelly structure or simply drains too quickly, leaving the ground dry for days at a time, try these drought-tolerant garden veggies that grow in poor soil.
Vegetables for Clay Soils that Drain Slowly
If your soil is poor due to lots of clay in the soil, or it drains slowly, try these veggies that grow in poor soil.
8. Swiss Chard
10. Brussels Sprouts
What herbs grow best in poor soil?
Many common garden herbs come from Mediterranean climates and thrive in poor soil. These herbs are both drought-tolerant and grow well in soil with few nutrients. In fact, soil that is too rich will inhibit the natural oils that give them their characteristic flavor.
What perennials grow best in poor soil?
Perennials for Dry Soil
22. Russian Sage
27. Creeping Phlox
Perennials for Wet Soil
29. Swamp Milkweed
30. Blue Flag Iris
31. Joe Pye Weed
32. Bee Balm
33. Cardinal Flower
34. Rose Mallow
What causes poor soil?
Poor soil is defined as soil that does not contain the properties or nutrients that support plant growth. But not all poor is the same. There are many causes of poor soil. Consider these examples of poor soil and their causes.
Shallow, Rocky Soil
Shallow, rocky soil may be filled with lots of small rocks and gravel, or it may have a bedrock of shale or ledge under the soil. Plants need at least 8 to 10 inches of soil to thrive in a garden. If your soil cannot be tilled that deep, your plants will suffer from the poor soil bed.
Sandy soil may be mixed with gravel and have little silt or clay particles to hold the soil together. Sandy soil is loose and drains very quickly. It does not hold the moisture plants need to flourish. Your soil may be poor soil because it is too sandy.
Clay soil may look muddy in the spring and take a long time to dry out. Clay soil does not have enough sand or other aggregates to provide aeration for the roots or allow water to drain through the soil properly. You may have poor soil because it has too many clay particles in the soil.
Nutrient Depleted Soil
All plants need nutrients to thrive and grow. Without the proper amount of nutrients, plant growth will be stunted, and production will be minimal. Over planting the area without replenishing fertilizers or organic matter can cause nutrient-depleted soil. Your soil may be poor soil due to a lack of nutrients.
Wet, Soggy Soil
Wet, soggy soil can be caused by several conditions, such as a low-lying garden plot that does not allow excess water to run off when it rains, a garden near a natural spring, or another water source that drains directly into the garden. It can also be caused by soil with too much clay.
Either way, your poor soil may be the result of soil that stays wet and soggy for long periods.
Dry, Arid Soil
Dry, arid soil may be light and sandy, or it may be rocky and gravely, but it does not hold water well. This may be due to draining too quickly or lacking organic matter to help retain moisture in the soil. Dry arid soil is poor soil for most vegetables but may be suitable for drought-tolerant perennials and herbs.
Acidic or Alkaline Soil
Nearly all vegetables, herbs, and flowers thrive in soil with a pH between 5.5 and 6.5, explains the University of Vermont Extension Office, as most vital nutrients are readily available at that level.
Soil that is either too acidic (below 5.5) or too alkaline (above 6.5) will not provide the nutrients your vegetables need to thrive. Poor soil can be due to improper pH levels.
Soil that has been contaminated by chemicals or other residues left behind by human activities is unsuitable for gardening. This may include heavy pesticide or fertilizer use by a previous gardener, petroleum products or waste materials from industrial sites, or can even be caused by heavy traffic from a nearby street, explains Soil Science of America.
Contaminated soil cannot be used for gardening.
Compacted soil is hard and solid and often looks like it has a crust on the top. This can happen when you work the ground when it is wet, drive tractors or other vehicles over the area, or even from walking in the garden when the soil is soggy.
Clay soils are most susceptible to compacting, but nearly any soil will become compacted if subjected to heavy foot traffic or otherwise stressed when wet.
How do you garden with poor soil?
How your garden with poor soil depends on the conditions that make your soil unsuitable for gardening. With the exception of contaminated soil, nearly any poor soil benefits from amending the soil to correct the underlying issues.
If amending the existing soil is not an option, or you choose not to go to the expense and put in the labor to amend the soil, using raised beds or containers are excellent options.
Amend the soil
Amending the soil with organic matter, nutrients, and products (like lime or sulfur) to correct the soil’s pH level improves the quality of your poor soil. However, soil amendments don’t always give immediate results.
For example, compost and manure may take months to break down sufficiently to improve the soil, while amendments to alter the pH of the soil may take up to a year. You will see some results right away, but don’t expect to transform poor soil into rich, friable soil overnight.
How to Amend Poor Soil
It is wise to test the soil before attempting to amend it. Most university extension offices offer soil testing services for a minimal fee. The service includes assessing your soil for structure, nutrient levels, and pH. A written report will provide detailed soil analysis and corrective measures needed to improve the soil.
While the report will provide information for amending the entire garden plot, you don’t need to do everything at once. You can amend the planting holes or garden rows in the spring when you plant your seedlings (if doing the entire garden isn’t feasible) and wait until fall after the harvest to amend the whole garden for the following year.
How to Amend Planting Holes or Rows
Dig holes or trenches for planting your seedlings. Apply the soil amendments directly to that area and work them into the existing soil. For example, if you are planting tomato seedlings:
- Dig a hole that is about 12 inches deep and wide.
- Fill the hole with approximately two to three quarts of well-rotted manure or compost and work it into the existing soil.
- Add any other recommended soil amendments following the suggested application rate from your soil analysis report at this time.
- Mix all the amendments into the soil with your hands or garden tools.
- Plant the seedling in the hole.
- Fill in around the roots with the new (amended) soil.
How to Amend the Entire Garden Plot
Amending the entire garden plot in the fall allows the soil amendments time to work their magic over the winter. Here’s how.
- Remove all garden debris from the garden plot.
- Rake the area smooth.
- Spread the soil amendments recommended in the soil test report over the top of the garden, following the recommended application rate.
- Till the soil amendments into the soil to a depth of 8 to 10 inches with a garden tractor or rotary tiller.
- Plant your garden as usual in the spring. You may need to till the soil again to loosen it.
Use Raised beds
If amending the poor soil in your garden spot is not feasible, raised beds are an excellent option. To make a simple raised bed, you can use scrap wood, old logs, or even large stones to form a rectangular bed at least 8 inches high.
Fill the raised bed with soil. You can purchase soil for raised beds at home improvement and plant centers. Plant your vegetables in the raised beds. Shallow beds can be used for vegetables with shallow roots, but you will need a deeper raised bed for large vegetables like tomatoes or potatoes.
Plant Container Gardens
Container gardens are an easy way to grow vegetables if you have poor soil on your property and aren’t up to the task of tilling and amending it to correct the issues with poor soil. You can use large plant pots, 5-gallon buckets, whiskey barrels, or other large containers.
- Mix equal parts of all-purpose potting soil, peat moss, and compost to make lightweight soil for containers. Throw in a handful of perlite to improve drainage and aeration.
- Add fertilizers following the application rate on the container.
- Check that the container has drainage holes to allow water to drain properly and to prevent the soil from getting soggy.
- Place the containers in an area that receives 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight.
- Plant your seedlings in the spring after the danger of frost has passed.
Gardening with poor soil can be challenging, but nearly any soil problem can be corrected with time and effort.
You can either choose vegetables, herbs, and flowers known to thrive in the soil conditions on your property, amend the soil to improve the texture and condition of the soil, or use raised beds or container gardens to grow your vegetables and flowers.
Many gardeners choose a combination of methods for dealing with poor soil by planting crops that are likely to thrive in the area while working to improve the quality of the soil and using container gardens and raised beds in part of the garden area while making efforts to improve the soil in other areas is also a workable solution.