Success in the garden starts with great soil, which seems simple enough. But great soil takes some effort and can be built from scratch. There are bacteria, fungi, nematodes and microorganisms at work in the soil. Some aid in decomposition and others produce the right balance of nutrients and compounds your plants need to grow.

Since we cannot see these microorganisms and we already have plenty of soil in our yards, we pay little attention to this part of gardening. To avoid heavy fertilizing and maintenance, we need to encourage and support healthy soil ecosystems.

The best way to improve and build quality soil is to mix compost and manure into existing soil — regardless of its current condition. Compost can absorb 10 times its weight in water, so your plants will have more water around their roots and this will help conserve water. Tilling the soil can solve compaction issues and allow more water and air for plants. However, it is suggested that you till your soil least often as possible as it disrupts the soil environment and natural processes already occurring.

Topsoil takes years to decades to naturally develop after weathered minerals from rocks (dirt) and decomposed organic matter mix to create what is soil. But with enough materials and labor, soil can be artificially created faster than nature can produce it. If you have no soil to start with, you can build a lasagna garden from scratch. Just pick a spot where you want your garden and lay down some cardboard — even over existing grass. Then layer compost (store bought if needed), manure, straw, kitchen scraps, shredded leaves and newspapers and lawn clippings, then more compost and manure. Build this up to 2 feet and you can place your plants into the top layer. As the pile decomposes, soil will naturally develop and will encourage the microorganisms to start working — giving your plants everything they need.

Bryan McArdle is manager of entrepreneurial development at EDAWN and a geeky gardener whenever the sun is shining. Email him at

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