Gardenwise: All The Dirt You Need to Know About Soil

A sample of poor soil from a golf course. Possibly a “clean fill” material, this soil features many large particles and scant organic matter.
A sample of poor soil from a golf course. Possibly a “clean fill” material, this soil features many large particles and scant organic matter.

By Susan Tito

First, my apologies to horticulturists and soil scientists everywhere: I shouldn’t label that wondrous organic substance that supports plant life as just “dirt.” I know better, but I can’t resist a play on words.

All joking aside, anyone who works the ground knows there is a soul to soil. Just visit Amazon’s website and enter the words “soul and soil” in the search feature and you will see a fairly sizable list of books pop up that couple those words in their titles.

There’s a reason so many people have a reverence for soil: With its dark, rich color, crumbly texture and sweet earthy smell, healthy soil awakens the senses. It also serves a vital function: It is the sustainer of life — seen and unseen — for earthworms and an array of microorganisms that make this medium their home.

That’s why its importance cannot be overemphasized.

“Life on Earth wouldn’t exist without this precious resource, which is unfortunately mismanaged and commonly called ‘dirt,’” said Nick Menchyk, an assistant professor of urban horticulture and design at Farmingdale State College.

It’s no surprise that healthy soil is the foundation to healthy plants.

“Soil should never be an afterthought when planning and managing your landscape. It not only supports plants by anchoring their roots but it also serves as a storehouse of the necessary nutrients, water and oxygen,” said Menchyk, who teaches courses on turf management, plant propagation and soil science. “It is an environment where vital microorganisms cycle nutrients and break down toxic materials.”

For something so essential to the biosphere, soil often gets short shrift. Many gardeners pour thousands of dollars into their landscapes every year. They correctly site their plants, water them dutifully, then become discouraged when they fail to thrive.

The problem might lie with their soil.

Poorly performing plants is one indicator that garden soil needs rejuvenation, said Professor Menchyk. Other signs include puddling (areas of standing water); compacted, hard-to-cultivate patches; a crusted surface; and “dead” zones — in other words, the absence of crawly critters.

The first step to ensuring healthy soil? Get it tested.

“Knowing what is going on in your soil should be step one of any management program,” said Professor Menchyk. “Only after you get an idea of what your soil contains can you begin to make informed decisions.”

A soil test can be performed almost any time of the year, but fall is ideal. That’s because the growing season is winding down and you have ample time to apply needed amendments, which can take a while to work their magic.

Take samples from different areas of the landscape, such as vegetable gardens, ornamental beds and your lawn. The test will measure pH (acidity) and levels of potassium, phosphorous and other necessary nutrients.

“Ideally, soil tests should be performed every three years,” said Mina Vescera, a nursery/landscape specialist at Cornell Cooperative Extension in Riverhead. “If soil pH is off target, your vegetable garden may be too acidic or your azalea bed could be too alkaline, for example, and those plants won’t thrive.”

Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Horticulture Diagnostic Lab offers an inexpensive soil-testing service. For more information, call 631.727.4126, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to noon.

Although fall is more than six months away and you might be itching to work the soil, wait a little longer, as the ground is still very wet and cold. In fact, even walking on it can destroy its structure, causing it to become compacted. Heavy, dense soil doesn’t drain or retain moisture well, which means plants can’t spread their roots and access water and oxygen.

Tilling especially is a big no-no — and you might want to curtail that activity altogether, even when things warm up. In addition to destroying soil integrity, tilling often brings weed seeds to the surface.

One thing you should do is apply compost — an antidote for a range of problems. Dense soil not draining well? Add compost. Sandy soil not retaining moisture? Add compost. It doesn’t matter whether you buy it or make your own, this “black gold” helps remediate less-than-perfect soil.

“Applying compost is a great way to incorporate nutrients into the soil and improve structure, while providing a food source for beneficial microbes,” said Professor Menchyk.

Plain and simple, compost helps make healthy soil — and healthy soil is critical to our survival. I can’t help but think that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had a great garden in mind when he said the following:

“The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.”

Susan Tito
Susan Tito

Susan Tito is a freelance writer and proprietor of Summerland Garden Design & Consulting ( She earned a certificate in ornamental garden design from the New York Botanical Garden and is a member of the American Horticultural Society and Garden Writers Association. She can be reached at

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at

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