How can you improve your soil?

a sloping landscape partially planted with cover crops
A cover crop of spring seeded oats is included on this slope with grass and trees. Photo: A. Bodkins

Healthy soil can sustain plant growth, prevent environmental damage, mitigate stormwater runoff, and help recharge and clean groundwater. 

Soil type is probably not something that people consider when they move to a new property, so it reminds me of the statement “you get what you get and you don’t throw a fit”. However, it is no secret that soils are not all created equally in their ability to grow plants. To make matters worse, the soil is constantly being manipulated to accommodate our needs. When infrastructure like roads and buildings are constructed soil is moved and in many instances, there may not be any native soil profiles still intact on the property. Often a small layer of topsoil is put back onto the landscape after construction and regrading of the land, but there is no guarantee that it was the topsoil found there before construction began. Once the excavation is completed there is no going back. This article from Penn State Extension, Can Disturbed Soils Grow Healthy Landscape? is a great read. If you suspect that the soil you are planting vegetables into has been hauled in from another location, it is wise to get the soil tested for lead content. Some labs also test for heavy metals like arsenic (As), cadmium (Cd), and chromium (Cr), which can be found in soils on old industrial sites.

Soil is the gift that can keep giving, but there are some management practices that can help improve all soils. The physical, chemical and biological processes of soil are all interconnected. If you want to learn more about your own soil, I recommend the Kansas State publication that walks you through the steps to Estimate Soil Texture by Feel. Knowing the soil texture in your garden is one piece of the soil puzzle.

Soil organic matter increases water holding capacity, improves water infiltration, serves as a source of micro and macronutrients, and provides large particles for micro and macroorganisms to break down.  Soils that are high in clay or sand can benefit from the addition of organic matter, which comes from anything that was once alive. Macro and microorganisms help to break down organic matter and release nutrients into the soil. There are many forms of organic matter that include compost, plant material,  livestock waste, humus or leaf litter.  

dark soil is rich in organic matter
A cross-section of healthy soil. Photo: USDA

Cover crops are another way to improve your soil because they capture excess nutrients that are left over from the growing season and prevent the nutrients from becoming environmental pollutants. Cover crops also prevent soil erosion from wind and rain during the late fall, winter, and early spring seasons when weather is not appropriate for most vegetable or agricultural crops. Once cover crops are terminated they can be plowed into the soil and add organic matter. This is called green manure. I’ve found that in my own garden, cover crops can also help prevent weeds from growing. Some cover crops like forage radishes die and create natural pathways through the soil for water to flow.

buckwheat cover crop planted over a vegetable garden soil
Buckwheat that I planted as an early season spring crop to help reduce weed germination in my vegetable garden. I had planned to terminate it and plant a late crop of cucurbits, but changed my mind after it was growing so beautifully and I saw all the insects that were visiting it daily.

Other management practices to help your soil include regular soil testing to monitor any changes and keep the soil pH in the correct range for your desired plants. Limit soil compaction by keeping vehicles, equipment, and even people from walking through gardens, especially when the soil is wet. At the very least, I think the best practice for improving and keeping your soil healthy is to leave it alone as much as possible, keep it covered with plants that are not invasive, and let the natural processes of the Earth work together to benefit the soil.

By Ashley Bodkins, Senior Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Garrett County, MarylandRead more posts by Ashley.


This year, the University of Maryland Extension Master Gardener Grow It Eat It Program celebrates the resource that supports all life on earth – soil! Look for soil education programs offered by your local Master Gardener program, and visit the Home & Garden Information Center website for more information about soil health.

did you know soil is a natural resource and a living ecosystem

Growing wheat in Gaithersburg

Wheat sheaves hanging up on a stick to dry
Wheat sheaves hanging to dry. Photo: L. Davis

Wheat is in the news this year (recall export restrictions from Ukraine and India). We don’t usually think of wheat as a home garden crop, but it does grow well in this area.

In 2017, 2019, and 2021 I planted wheat on a small section of my community garden plot in Gaithersburg. I planted hard red winter wheat in late October in a 5′ x 7′ plot in full sun. Winter wheat needs about 8-10 weeks of growth before the ground freezes, at which time it should be about 5-6″ tall. Rows can be 6″ apart, so it also serves as a cover crop over the winter. I surrounded it with a rabbit barrier of chicken wire.

Full grown wheat
Full-grown wheat. Photo: L. Davis

In spring, the wheat grew to about 4′ in height and began to form kernels in May, and I encountered my first challenge – birds. Sparrows swooped in and started eating the young seed heads. Recycling some cicada netting over the top and draping it over the chicken-wire fence surrounding the wheat was effective for a while, but when the stalks began to mature and dry, the pesky little sparrows found ways to get in. I had to use clothespins to secure the netting to the chicken wire.

Harvesting wheat with a scythe
Harvesting the wheat. Photo: L. Davis

Harvest time was in early June. I found an old scythe in my community garden toolshed, sharpened it in my kitchen, and cut the wheat stalks about 18″ long. After gathering them into sheaves and tying each bundle with a shoestring, I hung them to dry for a couple of weeks. The second challenge was threshing.

There are lots of ideas on the internet for threshing; that is, removing the grain from the stalks. An ancient no-machinery method is to walk on the wheat heads, or hitch your animals to a circular contraption and have them walk around and around over it. We preferred a more sanitary way. Other methods repurpose bicycles and other machinery to release the grains. Or you can beat the stalks against the inside of a bucket. In my case, I put my husband to work bashing a pillowcase of wheat heads against the floor and then stomping on the pillowcase.

Next comes winnowing. I set a simple household fan on the kitchen counter and poured the wheat berries into another bowl in front of the fan. The heavy kernels dropped into the new bowl and the chaff, which was much lighter, blew away. (This required a major cleanup of my kitchen. It could definitely be done outdoors!)

To preserve the wheat berries, I packed them into jars and plastic containers and stuffed what I could into the freezer. When we are ready to make bread, I thaw a jar of the wheat and grind it with a NutriMill electric grain grinder. That does an excellent job, and I make bread using half whole wheat and half good quality white bread flour. Pass the raspberry jam!

Linda Davis is a Master Gardener living in Gaithersburg, Maryland. She completed the Master Gardener course in Virginia in 1997.

Do plants get food from the soil?

cabbage plant
Cabbage. Photo: A. Bodkins

People often say you have to feed your plants, but in reality plants make their own food through the process of photosynthesis, which yields oxygen and glucose. Glucose is the food that plants use for energy and growth, they don’t need us to actually feed them. Since plants can make their own food, they are called autotrophs.  The green pigments in plants, called chlorophyll, capture light energy from the sun. The process isn’t nearly as simple as I’ve described it. 

Plants can further be divided into two classifications, C3 or C4, which is determined based on how efficiently the plant can photosynthesize and whether the plant has to go through the process of photorespiration, which is required for C3 plants. This makes C4 plants, like corn, sorghum and  sugarcane more drought resistant because of the complex processes that occur within the plant at molecular levels. The majority of plants are C3 plants. For more information on this topic check out the article from University of Illinois, The difference between C3 and C4 plants

So why do plants need a soil that is sufficient in macronutrients and micronutrients if that is not their food?  Well, the short answer is that nutrients help plants grow and keep them healthy so that they can photosynthesize efficiently. As the plant mass increases, the plant leaf size/surface area increases, which allows the plant to capture more sunlight and turn it into more food.  

You can check out the Home and Garden Information Center’s webpage about fertilizer to learn more about macronutrients and micronutrients. Macronutrients are those elements that the plant needs the most of to be healthy. Water provides hydrogen and oxygen. Carbon dioxide provides oxygen and carbon which are part of the required macronutrients for all plants. The remaining macronutrients are provided by soil (unless the plant is being grown hydroponically, of course). Plants can only take up or use nutrients that are dissolved in soil water. This is why it is so important to make sure that your soil gets sufficient water. Some plants are called heavy feeders and this is generally in relation to their need for larger amounts of the macronutrients, especially nitrogen. Some examples are tomatoes, everything in the cabbage family, and beets.  The University of Maryland provides more information on fertilizing vegetables.  

By providing an optimum growing environment, through correct amounts of light, moisture, and nutrients, the plant will have the best chance at reaching its full potential. As I eagerly wait for the first produce from my vegetable garden this season, I want to be sure that all my plants reach their full potential and produce a large amount of food for me and my family to enjoy this growing season. 

Please comment below with what you are doing this year to ensure that your plants are healthy and happy and growing well. Do you test your soil every 3 years or whenever you are planting a garden in a new area?  Do you research the plant needs (full sun, part sun, or shade) before planting? What questions do you have about managing soil fertility and nutrients? 

By Ashley Bodkins, Senior Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Garrett County, Maryland. Read more posts by Ashley.


This year, the University of Maryland Extension Master Gardener Grow It Eat It Program celebrates the resource that supports all life on earth – soil! Look for soil education programs offered by your local Master Gardener program, and visit the Home & Garden Information Center website for more information about soil health.

2022 is the year of soil health

Grow It Eat It in Montgomery County, May 14

April greetings, and that freeze we had earlier this week was no joke, right? Hope none of your plants got zapped. I was grateful for my own procrastination; my brassica seedlings won’t go into the ground until this weekend.

The uncertain temperatures of early spring make me think longingly of the more settled weather of mid-May (before I start complaining loudly about how hot it is). Another reason to look forward to May: the return of Montgomery County’s big Grow It Eat It open house on May 14!

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Vermicomposting: turn food scraps into compost indoors

Backyard composting isn’t an option for everyone. If you live in an apartment or condominium, worm composting or vermicomposting is a simple and inexpensive method you can use indoors to turn food scraps into compost for your houseplants or garden. Composting food scraps keeps organic waste out of landfills and reduces climate-warming gas emissions too.

In this video, Master Gardener Susan Levi-Goerlich demonstrates how to set up a basic vermicomposting system at home.

Visit the Home & Garden Information Center website for additional information on indoor worm composting.

Lettuce in the midst of winter

hydroponic lettuce under a grow light
Hydroponic lettuce under a grow light.

Homegrown lettuce in the dead of winter or the heat of late summer? It’s possible with hydroponics. And you don’t need a fancy setup with electric pumps and a water circulation system. The Kratky method lets you do it with a grow light and an empty coffee bin. 

Developed by horticulturist Bernard A. Kratky of the University of Hawaii at Manoa, the Kratky method is ridiculously simple. Plant roots need access to oxygen. When grown outdoors, a plant’s roots find this oxygen in air pockets within the ground. In a commercial hydroponic system, pumps circulate air to the plants’ roots. In the Kratky method, an air pocket is formed as the roots take up water, lowering the water level. This air pocket provides all the oxygen a plant needs at the root level.   

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