About 40 years ago Tim and I bought our house and an extra lot in a new section of Lincoln.  I had been “farming” for some years on an acreage lot loaned by a friend and learned the value of good soil. So I decided to work on the dirt before I planted anything at the new house.  This was only the second house built in what had been a cornfield.  The soil on the lot where we built the house, except where it had been disturbed by the builder, was fairly good quality clay. 

          The extra lot was different as all the left over materials from the first house built in the Neighborhood were buried out there. Broken tiles, pieces of linoleum and boards don’t provide much food for shrubs and other plants.  One corner must have been a dump for a restaurant as I unearthed two bushels of steak t-bones.  When you start to build a new garden or lawn be sure and check you entire area for such things!! The best way to grow flowers, a good crop of vegetables, shrubs, or grass is to improve your soil first.  Before you plant, get acquainted with your soil and what is below the surface.

          In general good growing soil is about 50% soil particles and organic matter, 25% air pockets, and 25% water pores.  Clay soil is good but it has smaller particles which leave less room for air and water, both of which are necessary for roots to grow.  Compost, which is organic matter, enters in here to create spaces and soak up water that would run off clay soil.  Sandy soil is just the opposite.  It has so many spaces your water and fertilizer runs through.  Here again, organic matter will trap and hold them for the roots.  It is almost impossible to have too much organic material in soil so start a compost pile to add to your garden. To add organic matter, you can also dig in leaves, manure, or grass clippings as deep as you can. 

          In preparing your garden you need to know the pH of your soil.  Also you need to learn which of your plants likes acid soil and which alkaline soil.  The soil in Lincoln, Southeast, and South Central Nebraska tends to run near neutral or slightly alkaline (6.0 to 7.0).   Our native plants do well here but if you want Azaleas, Rhododendrons, or Blueberries you need to add sulfur as they like acidic soil. When you amend your soil you can’t adjust it just once but must repeat as needed as the soil returns to its usual pH. Find out what kind of soil your plant desires and plant similar plants together.  To find out where you can have your soil tested call your local County Extension Office or favorite full service garden center. 

          Drainage is also very important to know before you plant.  Many plants cannot stand to have their feet wet.  However, there are a number of plants to choose from if you do have a low spot where water remains for a long time.  Some plants like Siberian or Japanese iris like wet feet in summer but not in winter. As always, there are plants that prefer a location that drains well and the soil is dry.  Many of our native plants belong to this group.  It pays to check the background of a plant before you decide to buy it.  Make sure you get the right plant for the right location!!!

          You can check your drainage. In different parts of your yard dig a hole one foot deep and one foot across and fill it with water.  Good drainage is about one inch per hour.  In sandy soil the water disappears almost at once.  In clay soil it may take much longer.  In either case adding compost or organic matter will help correct the problem. 

          Many people think they can add sand to their clay and make it better but remember, the formula for cement is clay and sand.  In preparing my garden I did have sand brought in many years ago.  12 tons of sand, and large amounts of compost was tilled in, and only in a small part of the yard that had very heavy clay.

          In a flower garden or vegetable garden a raised bed is also good way to improve the soil and drainage.  You can make your own perfect soil in the lawn or raised bed by adding what your regular soil needs.  My recipe for perfect soil is 1/3 clay, 1/3 sand, and 1/3 compost.  Mix it well, let it settle over the winter, and enjoy the good planting next spring. You can start this fall to improve your soil by adding compost or other organic matter from your fall cleanup.  Dig or till it in as deep as you can go.  Double digging as often as possible makes for a good seed and growing bed.

          At the Garden Center or wherever you buy your seeds or plants, make sure you find out what kind of soil the plant likes, how much water it needs,  and if it likes full sun, partial sun, partial shade or full shade.

          My garden is so closely planted I can no longer dig anything in so I use my compost as mulch.  The earthworms dig it in. For more information on composting visit or call your local County Extension Office and ask for  information on “Garden Composting”. NebGuides are also available on the internet and can be printed free or downloaded and saved. Go to and type in the name of the plant or the subject or the number of the publication. Recommended is NebGuide G1855-Yard Waste Management. This publication has good information about composting.

Or Kansas State University has a number of publications on composting. Go to “” then click on “lawn and garden”. Under this will be “search topics”. Click on this. On the right click on garden. At the top of the page will be a box. Type in the name of the topic, plant, disease, insect, or what you want to know about. To get started try downloading and reading “KSU Horticulture Report MF-1053, The Chemistry of Compost, November 1992”. It is very good.  

Copyright 2013