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6 Tips for Building Soil for Your Raised Garden Beds and Planters

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Here are some tips for building productive soil for your garden beds and planters – while there are some differences based on locale, these tips pretty much apply anywhere…

By Greg Seaman Posted Jan 31, 2012

Cedar Planter with Lettuce When my wife and I first started gardening in earnest, the results were discouraging. The seeds we planted would sprout and begin to grow, but soon the rate of growth would slow and produce undersize vegetables. Some would succumb to damage from insect pests and slugs, and even when we purchased healthy seedlings for transplanting, they failed to grow to the size we expected.

During our first few seasons of gardening we spent more time weeding than anything else. Our undersize plants left much of the topsoil exposed, and local weeds took advantage of the sunlight and available ground space. Although we watered the beds regularly and applied mulch to supress the weeds, the harvest from our early vegetable gardens was pitiful.

Over time we learned what most successful gardeners know: building soil is what gardening is all about. Once we turned our attention to the condition of the soil, our garden began to grow. Today we enjoy bountiful harvests from all our garden beds, and we spend almost no time weeding or dealing with insect pests.

With hopes of sparing you the mistakes we made, here are some tips for building productive soil for your garden beds and planters. And while there are some differences based on locale, these tips pretty much apply anywhere.

1. Buying topsoil is no guarantee that it will contain organic matter.

We purchased a half-dumptruck load of soil to develop a perennial bed for blueberries. The soil looked nice – dark brown, clean and well-screened. We transplanted small blueberry plants and expected them to take off, but the plants just stayed the same size. We became suspicious of the soil quality when weeds didn’t even appear. The soil, we learned, was ‘dirt’, a great growing medium but lacking organic matter which is key to growth. If you are buying soil for your garden beds or planters, ask the seller about the origin of the soil, and assume that you will need to ‘feed’ the soil to get it up to gardening standards.

2. Even the richest soil will need to be revitalized annually.

cover crop It is common that new gardens do well in the first year, even without additional soil inputs. This is because available organic matter, trace minerals and nutrients have been untapped. But after a season or two of gardening, these nutrients will have been taken up by the crops you have grown. You will need to revitalize your soil regularly.

After one or two crops have been grown in a garden bed, we plant a ‘green manure’ cover crop. These easy-to-grow crops benefit the soil in several ways. Once the green manure crop is mature, it is chopped up and dug lightly into the soil, and this replenishes the soil with fresh organic matter. Leguminous green manure crops also fix nitrogen which serves as a fertilizer for subsequent crops. The roots of the green manure also break up the soil and pull up deeper nutrients making them available for future crops. And the chopped up green manure also ‘fluffs up’ the soil which aerates the soil and improves drainage. After tilling in a green manure crop, we see the soil level in the garden beds raise several inches. The soil is loose and no longer compacted.

3. Soil should be light, crumbly and ‘fluffy’.

Roots need to travel through the soil to access available nutrients which are essential to plant growth. If the soil is dense and compacted, much of the plant’s available energy is directed to the struggling roots. By lightening the soil, you will facilitate root growth and, as a result, vegetative growth.

Our simple test for soil density is to poke a finger into the soil. It should easily go down all the way to the third knuckle. If your soil fails this test, you will probably want to add some peat moss to your topsoil to lighten it. This is easy and inexpensive. In most cases you will then add lime, since peat is acidic. If you have purchased soil, ask the vendor if he knows the soil ph. This will let you know if more lime is needed. Most areas have acidic soil which needs lime, although some parts of the country have regions with alkaline soil. Vermiculite is also used by many gardeners to lighten the soil, and it doesn’t break down as quickly as peat moss. However, we don’t use vermiculite anymore, since our regimen of planting green manure has worked to keep the beds light and well aerated.

4. Compost is the best amendment you can give your soil.

Most gardeners keep a compost pile as a necessary complement to the garden. Compost adds the organic nutrients that change ‘dirt’ into ‘soil’ for good gardening results. Since compost is such a valuable resource, we use it carefully. Rather than add compost after harvesting a crop, for example, we wait until a few weeks before planting the next crop to ensure that none of the compost nutrients are flushed through the soil during rainy spells.

Those unfamiliar with composting may think a compost pile is a smelly, unsightly mess. But this is not the case if the process is done correctly. An active compost pile hardly smells at all, and veteran gardeners enjoy the rich, earthy aroma of finished compost. For urban gardeners and people with small lots, sealed composters are available which contain any smells and have a tidy appearance. These sealed composters, also called compost tumblers, will also keep racoons, dogs, mice and any other interested critters away from the composting materials.

Another reason composters are a good complement to gardeners is that they provide a way of dealing with the dead plant matter after a crop is harvested. For example, once we finish harvesting the last of the tomatoes, the plant ‘skeletons’ are chopped up with a hoe and tossed into the compost. This way, even the plant residue from the garden is reused as it contributes to building compost for subsequent crops. However, if evidence of plant disease shows on the plant residue, we do not add this to the compost.

5. Choose an organic fertilizer.

Chemical-based fertilizers may be appealing as you read the product claims on the packaging, but the benefits are short-lived. Commercial fertilizers need to be reapplied with successive plantings. These fertilizers may give impressive results, but do not contribute to overall soil condition. And remember, gardening is all about the soil.

Organic fertilizers are also available, and we use these from time to time in garden beds where we may have a shortage of compost to add, or when we want to give young seedlings a quick boost. Our current favorite organic fertilizer is canola meal. Canola meal is a finely ground material which is lightweight and easy to spread. It is weed free (unlike some manures) and relatively inexpensive. However, mice are attracted to canola meal, so it needs to be lightly tilled into the soil, and it is important to store the bag well-sealed in a dry, safe place where mice can’t get to it.

6. One last thing – rock phosphate.

You will likely get a year or two out of your basic soil, but soon you will need to add a source of phosphorus. Crops with adequate phosphorus show steady, vigorous growth and earlier maturity. This means larger fruits and vegetables in the fall. Earlier maturing crops are less susceptible to summer drought, disease infection and frost. In addition, rock phosphate is rich in minor elements such as boron, zinc, nickel and iodine which plants need in small amounts for optimum growth. Long term and slow-release feeding, rock phosphate becomes naturally available as the plant needs it.

Phosphate is essential for growth, and is commonly overlooked by gardeners. Buy a sack of rock phosphate and sprinkle some into your bed. The bag will last years, and it stores well. We add a little rock phosphate to our beds every two years.

By turning your attention to ‘what lies beneath’, the structure, drainage and organic matter in the soil, your garden will live up to your expectations and you will spend more time harvesting than weeding or dealing with plant pests and diseases. Happy Gardening!


Greg About Greg
Originally from Long Island, NY, Greg Seaman founded Eartheasy in 2000 out of concern for the environment and a desire to help others live more sustainably. As Editor, Greg combines his upbringing in the cities of New York, Boston and San Francisco with the contrast of 31 years of living ‘off-grid’ to give us a balanced perspective on sustainable living. Greg spends his free time gardening, working on his home and building a wooden sailboat with hand tools.


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  • Travis Shawcross

    We just built our first garden box!! It’s in ground.
    We are so new to this and have heard a lot about soil mixture and different soils.
    Our garden is going to be vegetable. What dirt do we put in the box!!??
    We are doing this so we can rely on ourselves for food as much as possible and really want to do well! Any advice would be appreciated! Thank you so much!

    • Well, typically one uses the soil available in the garden plot and then improves this soil with amendments such as peat, rock phosphate, compost and an organic fertilizer.
      Read our Guide titled “Backyard Vegetable Gardening” for more complete information. Here is the link:

  • Darcy Sweeney

    i have a compost but its not quite ready to harvest….my garden soil is sandy and dry and i know i need to add in something to make it darker and fluffy…im frustrated because i planted some seedlings and most of them died…what should i do??

  • Tonya Drouin

    Whats should the mixture be of manure, peat, rock phosphate and top soil? Say for a wheel barrel. One bag of each? Or should I leave out the top soil and just add to the garden.

    • Tonya, the mix depends on the condition of your garden soil, so my reply would take more space that this comment box permits. We’ve just written an article addressing these questions and it should be posted within a day or two. The article is titled “3 Useful Soil Mixes for Planters and Raised Beds”.

  • Larissa Rakitina

    Hello,I build a raised bed 30 cm (would be arount 12 inches) high,and put some wire net on the bottom to keep moles away(there are really too much moles on the plot),but I did not double dig under the bed:-( (did not know about it,everybody calls raised beds garden a “no dig garden”so I did not dig at all),just put some soaked cardboard ,hay,dry leaves and compost,and covered with soil mixed to compost.I am planning to put cucumbers and tomatoes plants in there…now I read that tomatoes develpe very long roots,so I wonder if my tomatoes can grow in this bed I made? And what if I dig under the raised bed,would my tomatoes roots find the way to grow through the wire net? which other advise for tometoes in a raised beds? may be build them higher beds?if yes,how much higher?thanks a lot.

    • The soil beneath your bed may still be accessible to the roots of your tomatoes, depending on how compacted it is. Roots can grow through some degree of compaction, especially if there are nutrients below to draw them. (Since this is a new plot, there will likely be nutrients in the deeper soil,)
      Your tomato roots will grow through the wire mesh, as long its 1/4″ or larger mesh.
      Your tomatoes should be fine for this year, but before replanting, you might want to double dig that bed and then reset the wire mesh.
      Try to cover your tomato bed with a roof of clear plastic so the leaves stay dry during rains. And when you water the plot, hand water from below so the leaves stay dry. Tomatoes are vulnerable to water-borne fungal infections. They do best when foliage remains dry.

  • Larissa Rakitina

    Thank you so much,Greg,for your quick and helpful answer:-) I wish I have met your site earlier,I watched about 20 youtube videos on raised beds construction and setting up raised beds garden,and visited many sites to learn better,and nobody have mentioned this double digging.I have already filled my raised bed with 400 kg of soil/compost mixture so can not move it,but will surely double dig for my next raised beds.Many thanks again,great site and great help.

  • Kathleen Gallizio

    I am new to composting, I have a double tumbler type. One appears to have done well, I have used it in my garden, pots, etc. I am starting the second. I notice there are many ants, is this ok? Will it harm the compost? Also, I am starting my first raised veggie garden. Have built it up two feet high, with our local sandy soil on the first foot and compost from a well recommended landscape retailer on the upper foot. I am a little confused about the mixture, do I need to add manure, rock phosphate, etc at this time or wait until next planting? And I also noticed that you mention adding wood ash. Can I add this to the planter, and/or the compost bin? Thank you.

    • The ants will not harm your compost.
      Sounds like you have a lot of compost in your bed. You can add manure but go easy since there’s so much compost. Yes, you can add lime (if you need it) and rock phosphate and a light application of wood ash at this time.
      It usually takes a season to determine the right mix for your garden. Coinsider the first year a learning experiment.

      • Kathleen Gallizio

        Wow!! Fast response. Thank you for the great info. Love your site!

  • humblesense

    Thanks for your valuable information. I have so many questions related how to build the soil.after reading your article and blog all my questions answered. Thanks again

  • Emily

    Hello! I recently moved to central California (the Santa Cruz mountains) and am trying to get a compost pile and garden started. Our home is in a clearing in the mountains, but due to the dry climate, we have no grass (the garden will be irrigated by a greywater system). The majority of the trees are redwoods and pines, very few deciduous. Consequently, I’m having a hard time layering the compost because there’s no grass clippings, leaves, or straw. Right now, it’s just full of kitchen scraps, eggshells, and coffee grinds & filters. I’m worried there isn’t enough carbon. Would pine needles work, or are they not recommended for composting?

    • Small amounts of pine needles are fine to add to your compost pile; however, avoid adding them in large amounts. They break down more slowly than other materials in your pile, and influence the pH of your pile when added in large quantities.
      Do you have access to clean sawdust, wood chips or shredded cardboard? These will help balance your nitrogen-rich compost. You can also use newspaper as long as it is printed in black and white using vegetable based inks.

  • Hang in there Jose, you don’t need to spend much money or take great measures to get your garden to produce. Remember, gardening is about building soil, pay attention to the soil and the plants will take care of themselves. Here are some suggestions:
    – don’t buy compost tea, make your own compost. You can wet it down and make tea if you want. We don’t bother with the tea. You can make compost in a garbage can if you’re not ready to buy a composter.
    – deal with your soil. It is probably depleted of nutrients. Is it dense and compact? You can work in some peat moss to lighten it. It may need some lime, do you see moss on top of the soil? This is one indicator that you need lime. Or you can do a soil test – kits are inexpensive.
    – enrich your soil. Add some steer manure, any compost you might have, or use an organic fertilizer. It sounds like al ot of work but once done it is easy to keep up.
    – about pill bugs (we know all about pill bugs!): first, remove their habitat – they like to hide beneath surface debris, close to the plants they are eating. Remove any mulch from seedlings, and once the plants are well established then add the mulch. Meantime, get a bag of diatomaceous earth (we sell it, it is inexpensive and goes a long way) and put down thin lines in a circle around the problem area. Once the pill bugs come into contact they will be dead in a day or two. They will not wreak havoc after the overhaul. They don’t eat the roots, at least not in our garden, they prefer young sprouts and tender leaves of young vegetables. You can also dust them with DE, it won’t harm the plants.
    Keep the faith Jose. You are going through the common problems of a new gardener. Fix your soil and your plants will be naturally vigorous which is the best line of defence against all insect pests.

  • Veg and grass clippings are great for your compost but be sure to balance with carbon inputs. If you let the grass clippings go brown before adding, this will help.
    Yes, you waant to clear the bed if you are planting green manure. Your local garden center will have a mix to recommend, just tell them when you want to plant. Some are recommended for winter. Likely you’ll get a mix of several types.

  • Andrés Antonio Nicolás Valenzu

    Hey there Greg! Great article. I had a quick question. I am a brand new gardner and just built a beautiful garden bed on my balcony, 3’x10’×1.5′. I obviously have cement under the bed so I was wondering, should I let the bed drain out or seal the bed to the cement to keep drainage in? I know drainage is healthy for a bed on soil but what about non-earth surfaces? And if to seal, what sealer do you recommend? I would prefer a natural sealer so no chemicals are absorbed by the plants. Thanks so much!

    • Hi Andres, Yes, you need to provide drainage for your bed. Even if you are moderate with watering there is still the potential for excess rain to overwater your bed.
      The bed should not be sealed to the cement. You might consider blocking up the bed on small shims, approximately 1/8″. If your bed is not level, then the blocking should be on the lower side, oitherwise block all around.
      To protect the cement from staining, one option is to lay down a double layer of landscape cloth.
      By blocking the bed up a small amount you can also see if water is seeping out. This will serve as an indicator to let you know if you are overwatering.

  • Thank you for your comment, a lot to think about.

  • Interesting, I wasn’t aware of that. We develop our own soil, starting with the ‘dirt’ in the yard, and then improve it with amendments similar to the Square Foot Gardening technique. If you can build your own soil you ‘ll be independent of commercial inputs.

  • Diane k

    what type of green manure is best for clay soil and will die off over winter (zone 4)

    • Most popuar green manures will survive zone 4 winters. We just planted buckwheat, This hardy annual grows so fast it can reach 1m (3’) tall in only three weeks. Then it blooms with white flowers that attract pollinating insects and beneficial hoverflies. Buckwheat grows so densely that it can be used to smother out competing weed species. Within ten days of blooming (or at any time before) it can be cut and tilled under to improve tilth and add organic matter. Buckwheat is a succulent, brittle plant that can break down completely into the soil in a matter of days.

  • If you are using Plant Tone then you shouldn’t need to add more phosphorus. But we recommend applying rock phosphate to beds prior to planting, as this distributes well through the soil. Top-dressed fertilizers may not reach the full depth and breadth of soil.

  • Baron Caton

    someone help me out…please! i have to build a 4X8X12″ raised garden box but i have absolutely no clue on what’s needed inside the box to grow vegetables. Currently on a budget of $500 to include the box. Also,
    in a drought so need recommendations on vegetables to plant that require smallest amounts of water!

  • Ken Hall

    G’day i was wondering if i can use Pine Needles for anything to do with a garden? I am new to gardening and live in Tasmania Australia and can access plenty of Pine Needles.
    Thanks for your advice.

    • Hi Ken,
      We’ve used ‘forest duff’, a mix of needles, bits of twigs and leaves to help fluff up the soil, but only in measured amounts. Pine needles are acidic, needing to be balanced with lime. I prefer to add this to the compost rather than directly to the soil in garden beds.

      • Ken Hall


  • It sound fine, you don’t have to overdo it with amendments. You’ll be watering after planting which will further bind the soil.

  • Sarah Snyder

    We are new to gardening. We made 5 raised beds and found some really nice 5 yr old compost. It’s a really deep dark black rich looking soil. We were able to fill 3 of our 5 beds then we had to go to a different location for another truck load. We were told this compost was 5 yrs old but it is definitely cow manure still lumpy and all. No smell but not as rich and black as the other soil. Is this too much compost for vegetables?

    • It sounds like your soil mix may be too rich. It may also be dense. You might try lightening the mix with some peat and sandy soil. Ordinarily, we top dress garden beds with compost or mix it in the upper layer of soil. Compost is just one part of a healthy soil mix.

      • Sarah Snyder

        thank you for that we will mix in some peat. thanks

  • kat

    built my very first EVER garden from a wooden kit today. (5X5) Until I read this web site I though getting soil from homedepot would be the easy part and I could start planting, apparently not, right?? I’m willing to slow down and do it right but have NO idea even where to start. We live in Dallas and this is all new to me, was hoping to surprise the family Easter Morning and put vegetables plants etc. in kids Easter baskets and we could have a planting/mulching/digging extravaganza Easter Sunday ….. but from what I’ve read, it takes time to get the right soil…..any tips in “soil for dummies?” I’m clueless 🙂 If I can do this right, just think even motivated to creating a compost pile …. and adding more gardens this this one 🙂

  • Thomas

    Greg, I am starting “raised bed” gardening this year. Is using 100% something like Miracle Grow’s garden soil suitable or do I have to add local soil/dirt? I thought I could just buy bags of the “garden soil” but the instructions say to mix 50/50.

    • My suggestion is to start with your own garden soil, which you can assess for its readiness for growing crops. Here is a link to help you with this:
      After assessing your soil, then add supplements as needed. Lime, peat, and rock phosphate are common supplements, and then as you’re closer to planting you can add some compost, composted manure or other organic fertilizer.
      Miracle Grow’s 50/50 mix recommendation seems extravagant. We develop our soil, as above, and don’t need to use prepared mixes like Miracle Grow.

  • Becky Partin Damron

    Hi, I have a 700 sq ft garden; old garden spot from former farm owner. We live in Kentucky where rocks are in abundance. I had all these field rocks that kept coming into evidence as we worked and cleaned up our farm; what to do? I started with a small raised flower bed encased with field rock and for 2 years have been working on my garden wall (started on the down hillside; essentially creating a raised bed 🙂 Beautiful and the soil with amendments (we have horses 🙂 has shown immense improvement. I love your articles and your desire to help others less knowledgeable; can’t wait to try your way of doing the compost ‘in’ the garden. Thank you lots from the country couple who still has a lot to learn (and enjoy).

    • Thanks Becky, I appreciate your comments.
      Using rocks to make a terrace is a lot of work but you end up with a permanent bed. Starting with the downhill side of course makes sense, but you may want to build in the sides, and then the back as your time allows. Otherwise the soil will erode on the sides and run off downhill, you probably know this already.
      I also would like to convert part of my garden to one long rock wall terrace, it’s a beautiful look as well as permanent. Be aware that un-mortared rocks will harbor lots of life, such as insects, snakes and slugs. Although some are pests, I think it’s net benefit for your garden. Weeds will also sprout in the cracks – some gardeners put landscape cloth behind the rock wall as a barrier to prevent weed growth.
      Have a great season!

      • Becky Partin Damron

        Yes, a lot of work but I agree with it being worth the trouble; beautiful. Thank you for the additional advice. I have a whole roll just sitting; we didn’t care for using it in the vegetable garden so that’s great news.
        **We’ve been Spring cleaning- found an unused but usable shower curtain in some of the storage; to begin, would this be appropriate to cover the compost pile?

        • No. Shower curtains usually contain vinyl which you don’t want in your garden or compost. Also, the cheap plastic won’t hold up to sun and outdoor conditions.

  • Lea Terhune

    I am starting a raised bed flower garden in a roadside meadow where a welcome sign will be placed. I think to put down landscape fabric, place an 8 in high frame on it, fill with soil mixture, and plant flowering perennials. I don’t want to remove grass or rototil the soil. Will this work out ok?

    • You might want to check the rooting depths of the perennials you want to plant to be sure that 8″ is sufficient. I would reconsider using landscape cloth which would provide more rooting depth. You don’t need the cloth to smother the grass, the 8″ of topsoil will take care of that.

  • overtheedge

    Hi. I have had a garden for about 5 years and have had great results. This year I decided to have 2 4×8 foot raised beds instead. I used vermiculite, peat moss, mushroom compost, cow manure, city compost and a small amount of garden soil. It is placed over where grass was. I put some vinegar on the grass before making the bed and put down a layer of cardboard to keep weeds out and figuring it would decompose. My beds aren’t very deep maybe 10-12 inches or so. The garden is horrible. Plants are hardly growing and only getting a few cherry tomatoes. What do you think and is there anything I can do now?

    • When I read all the amendments plus a “small amount of garden soil”, it seemed odd. It sounds like you’ve overdone it with manure, compost and amendments, and you plants are likely in shock.
      The vinegar is not helping. The 10″ of added soil wold smother the grass below so you don’t need the vinegar or the cardboard. Your garden will be fine once the rich stew you’ve composed has time to mellow. For now you could top dress with mulch to keep things moist to speed the process.

      • overtheedge

        It has been raining a record amount every day. I thought that was the problem but my neighbor’s garden is huge and prolific but he works for Monsanto and uses chemicals.
        You don’t think I need organic fertilizer then or maybe lime because of the peat moss.
        I tried to follow Mel’s mix recipe but ran low on vermiculite and peat so is heavier with the compost so I added a little garden soil.

        • Well the rain should help mellow your soil.
          Yes, it’s usually a good idea to add lime with peat to balance the acidity.
          Your garden should be just as productive as your neighbors’ once your soil is ready. Chemical inputs have short-term benefits and long-term liabilities. You’ll do better staying with an organic regimen for your garden.

          • overtheedge

            Thank you!

  • Sonal

    I am getting started on raised beds this year. We recently bought a new house and I always wanted to grow my own vegetable garden. We have a big black walnut tree in my backyard, so I do not wish to use the native soil to avoid problems with Juglone. My husband build some raised beds for me — 1 – 70X 22X28 inches and 2- 70X22X16 inches. I have read so many articles about good soil for the garden and am completely confused at this point of time. I live in lower Michigan and since this being July already, I do not think I will have a chance to plant anything this year, but I wanted to put the beds in place and get the soil ready for next spring. My second concern is how do I avoid the leaves from the walnut tree falling into the beds.

    I will truly appreciate your help with setting up the right soil for the garden and how I can put it in place now to be able to start with the garden early spring next year. I was thinking I could put the vegetables with deeper roots like potatoes in the taller bed.

    • To simplify: Use native garden soil to fill your beds close to the top, then amend the soil as needed for growing vegetables.
      If your soil is contaminated, you can have a load of soil delivered. This is basically ‘clean dirt’, and this is your starting point. You will likely need to add peat or clean sawdust to lighten the soil so it doesn’t compact when watered. Lime and rock phosphate are also common amendments. As it gets close to planting time, the organic inputs like compost and fertilizer are added.
      For more information read our Guide to Backyard Vegetable Gardening:

  • Sonja Hardy

    We’re planning to start a vegetable garden soon, and I just found your excellent website when searching for information. One question though, regarding canola meal – isn’t most canola genetically modified? It would bother me to use GM ingredients in preparing a vege garden.

    • We used canola meal because it is lightweight and we have to carry everything in (no road to our place). Today we use other alternatives, albeit heavier to pack. We have learned that most suppliers favor the GMO canola, and we’ve also had problems with mice rooting into the soil to get at the meal.

  • Lisa

    i am about to start my first garden – in florida – raised bed, having top soil delivered – mixture of cow manure and peat most composted into top soil – is that sufficient ? i have multiple chemical sensitvity and several food allergies – so i am trying to determine the best option for growing dirt ?
    another company provides top soil they dig out of lake bed and let it dry and then use plain or mixed with pine bark chips ?
    any suggestions are appreciated! lisa 🙂

    • The mixture of manure and peat will be worthwhile but not sufficient for growing a vegetable garden.
      We suggest using your own native soil as the starting point, then amending this as needed. Common amendments are lime, rock phosphate, then peat to lighten the soil if needed, and add manure and/or compost for fertilizer. Ask a neighbor who gardens about the local soil and what they use to improve it for gardening. Local knowledge is key.


    I have a leaf bagger on my mower and I dump my grass and leaf clippings in the back of the yard every time I mow… I have a few years of clipping piled up… Could I use this material for my gardening… I am a novice gardener…

    • This material would be super for your garden. A gardener would give their eye teeth for such a pile.
      Work it into your soil lightly with a hoe, just turn it under a bit. But if your soil is heavy, then work it in deeper and turn over the soil, this will lighten and aerate your soil.


        Thank you… It’s a middle winter this year and I am looking to begin building a garden for late winter or early spring… I don’t expect any low teen weather here this year…

        • Well you’re off to a good start with the clippings compost. Have a good season!

  • Annie Mee

    Very helpful information, thank you. I’m doing container gardening and I was wondering what I needed to do to keep the soil in good condition. Appreciate the article, as well as the information on Green Manure. 🙂

  • Greg Malecki

    Hi… I am just about to fill a new raised bed. So I’m not spending a fortune in garden soil, can I mix topsoil with garden soil to fill the bed?

    • Yes, use your own native soil even if it is lacking in some qualities. You’re going to be improving this soil with your amendments, such as peat, lime. rock phosphate, manure and your own organic compost. Then you’ll be adding mulch during the growing season which further contributes to soil quality. Don’t waste your money on buying fancy soils, better to make your own and you’ll also learn the most important skill in gardening – creating good soil.

      • Greg Malecki

        Thanks! I used a combination of miracle-gro, basic topsoil, soil from last years potted tomatoes, manure and native soil dug from bed… I will plant this week (after tonights frost) and then top with mulch. Hopefully this will work. Will keep you posted!

        • Sounds good Greg. But next time around skip the miracle gro – you can do better with organic practices.
          The soil from last years’ tomatoes will be good for texture but consider it devoid of nutrients.
          If you still have frost then you might want to protect your starters at night – you can just put a bucket over them, then remove in the morning. Also, since the soil is cool you could hold off on the mulch to let the sun warm the soil. Once your plants are established and things warm up a bit, then add the mulch.

  • Your beds are too close to the canopy of the trees – you are having to defend against root incursions, leaf, bud and nut debris all of which can transmit juglone. A suggestion is to move your beds as far from the trees as your yard permits. Ideally you would dig a root barrier between the beds and the trees to block any root migration. Here is an article about this:
    Growing in raised beds is a must for your situation. I’m not sure that lining them would make a difference, since roots can grow upwards through lining. However, you should keep your beds covered during the off-season to keep out leaf debris and other matter from the trees. Sheet plastic will work for this.
    In the worst case (large trees, small yard) you could switch to elevated planters (raised beds with bottoms) which will prevent root incursions but limit your growing space. My suggestion is to first see how moving the beds away from the trees works out.

  • Chelsea

    I have read that blueberries like acidic soil. After failing with several blueberry bushes in the past, I am trying two new plants this year in a raised bed. Should I skip the lime in this bed, so that the soil is more acidic? Should the blueberry bed have lots of peat? I am also wanting to grow hydrangeas. Is there anything I should do for the soil around my hydrangeas to make them healthy and purple?

    • I’m glad you asked, because it would be a mistake to add lime to your blueberry bed. Also, when adding lime to your other beds, do so on a calm day so the breeze does not blow any lime in the direction of the blueberry bed.
      Adding peat to the soil in your blueberry beds is what you should do. Peat is acidic, which favors blueberries, and will lighten the soil to promote root growth. Add lots of peat.
      Sorry, I don’t have much experience with hydrangeas.

      • Chelsea

        Thank you! I’m so grateful for the information you provide on your website! I will be using your site as a reference during my upcoming gardening projects!

        • Thanks Chelsea, that’s the nicest comment I could receive.

  • When you source topsoil it is important to verify it’s suitability for vegetable gardening. You want to find out where it is coming from and what are its qualities.
    I suggest you (not the contractor) do some local networking – ask other gardeners, maybe go to a local farm and ask them (they may offer you some themselves), or ask at the garden center. It is well worth the effort to start your new garden with healthy soil which you will then amend for aeration, ph, and nutrients.

  • Arlo Ringsmuth

    A great reminder as the growing season is upon us!

  • Danita Light

    Thank you for all of these BEAUTIFUL articles! So many of them apply to us – raised beds on a slope, soil depth, soil building … we’re getting ready to put in 8 4’x8′ beds in a week or two, and hopefully a walipini next year.

    I have a few questions. First, I have compost going, but I’m wondering how much is good for a new bed. I know you don’t want to over-apply so that you don’t burn new roots, but our soil is very clayish and also slightly alkaline to boot (estimated at about 7.4, we’ll have exact soil samples back in a few weeks.) We already have seedlings going for several different kinds of winter squash, melons, and tomatoes, so even though our beds will be just shy of 18″ high, it looks like I need to dig down and amend the soil. Since our soil is alkaline, should I still be adding lime after adding peat? If I’m also incorporating compost and manure (a friend is donating some from her chickens) what is a good basic ratio to put all of this together in? Should I be using bone meal or blood meal? Can I put nightcrawlers directly into the beds?

    Is rock phosphate the same thing as basalt rock dust? I’ve heard a lot of buzz about adding rock dust into gardens lately, but I’m struggling to find anywhere near us that sells it, and am wondering if it’s worth ordering in since the shipping will be high.

    Also, do you have any experience with fruit trees? We picked up several varieties of nectarines and peaches that are rated for our zone (4b) that are heeled in in our front yard right now, and I’m wondering now if it’s worth putting them in slightly raised beds to start, or if that will make them tend to cluster in the top of the soil and discourage them from sending their roots deeper?

    Thank you again so much for this wealth of information … I’ve been researching for two years in preparation for finally getting my own backyard, and I’ve never run across your site before. It’s lovely! Thank you!

    • If your soil is alkaline you probably won’t want to add lime after the peat. The peat should help balance things. As for compost, with 8 beds you will always be wanting more compost. Bone meal and/or blood meal will be helpful additions.

      You want to develop light soil, you should be able to jam your finger all the way in with no resistance. Once your soil is light and balanced pH, then you can start with amendments, but don’t over do it. Too much fertilizer can shock new starts.

      Be careful with the chicken manure, it has to very well composted before using or it will burn your plants. We put chicken manure in a separate composter and let it sit as long as a year.

      We use rock phosphate but you can get along without it especially in the first year when there are untapped minerals in the soil. Next year these will be somewhat depleted and then you’ll further amend the soil.

      As regards fruit trees, here is an article I prepared:

      You can follow the planting instructions, just be sure they are planted vertically and staked so they don’t lean to the sun. And once your trees are a few years old and setting out fruit, you will likely want to thin the fruit manually. Here is an article that explains how and why to do this:

      Good luck!

  • Krisitn

    I am wanting to start a raised garden. I am new to gardening and I am in Houston, Tx. Do you have a step by step or can you recommend any articles to help? I am wanting to start a compost pile as well. Thanks!

  • Spiders should pose no threat to your crops but I don’t know what the long, transparent white bugs refer to. It could be cutworms, which would lop off the plants at its base. If this sounds familiar then read our article on cutworm control.

    Your best course of action is to discuss this with a gardening neighbor, your local garden center and agricultural extension. They will have knowledge of local insect pests. Another reference is our Guide to Insect Pest Control for the garden:

  • James Goo

    great article and comments. question for you. i am creating a 1 foot tall cedar garden (for veggies and herbs) box (want the height for visual appeal…goes well with my landscape). what is best to fill the box with? should i use garden soil for the entire base? or should my base be layers of various items? I want all natural since I will be eating what i grow. some suggested to use natural mulch on the bottom, as this will also help retain some water.

    • You can put mulch on the bottom, it will aid drainage. But we just fill our beds with native sol (dirt) about 2/3, then put in amendments as needed. Typically this is peat, lime. rock phosphate, manure and compost. We save the mulches (always in short supply) for top dressing once the soil is warm and the plants are established. This is the more common application for mulch, as it helps keep the top layer of soil moist. This is especially important in raised beds since they drain faster than in-ground beds.

      • James Goo

        thanks! and that is exactly why i was thinking natural mulch. raised beds drain very fast. so if i have a food grade liner or mulch at bottom, this would help with the drainage. also out of curiosity, how much dept does vegetables need? i am thinking of doing another box, but this one will be 2 feet high. is that too much soil?

        • Putting the mulch at the bottom of the bed will facilitate drainage, but you may not want this. If your soil is light, as it should be for best results, it already drains pretty well.

          The liner shouldn’t make much difference. Typically, raised beds are open on the bottom, which facilitates drainage while giving plant roots more soil to access.

          A bed that is 2′ deep will be fine. You’ll appreciate the easy of tending the bed at that height. The soil is not too deep.

          Here is an article we prepared about how much soil depth you need for various crops:

  • Julia desselle

    Hello,I’m a beginner gardener my son in law surprised me with a raised garden and filled it with miracle grow garden soil I planted tomatoes, two kinds of peppers parsley and sage what do i need to add if anything? Everything seem to be growing nicely did he make a mistake by using only miracle Grow garden soil? HELP!!!

    • Well, if everything is growing well you may not need to add anything. If your plants seem to be vigorous but not producing much, you may need to add a fertilizer to promote fruiting. Here’s an article with information about understanding which fertilizer to use:

      Next year you can skip the MiracleGro and develop organic gardening methods for short and long term benefits.. This article about building soil will be useful to you then.

      • Julia desselle

        Thank you for your answer,I looked over many garden websites and by far your’s I love the best,looking forward to many hours of reading your informative articles.

  • Sounds good Jim. In locating your beds, observe the proximity of any other trees. In some gardens, a root barrier is necessary. If this is the case with your garden space, here is an article which may help:
    Your soil mix sounds good but you light want to add some peat, lime and rock phosphate.
    Add the compost shortly before planting for best availability to the roots of your starters.
    Good luck!

  • Julia desselle

    Mr. Seaman,I’m back, tell me exactly what fertilizer I should use in my raised vegetable garden that was filled last Spring with Miracle Grow garden soil thanking you in advance.

    • Hi Julia,
      You could choose from a number of organic fertilizer sources, but composted steer manure is pretty reliable. We also rely on our own compost, adding this in last and tilling lightly so it remains in the top few inches of soil. The compost is added just before planting.

  • Tim

    My neighbour loves gardening but is always digging up the dirt then smooths it over cos they want it to nice and tidy and racks all the lose dirt off to throw away is this advisable if this goes on there be no dirt left and already roots are showing up more and more …
    What çan I say to get her to stop ruining the garden???

    • Well, you can let her know in a nice way that almost all the rooting activity of her vegetables occurs in the top 4″ of soil. This soil should remain undisturbed as much as possible, and protected from drying out by using mulch during the summer months. The decaying mulch also enriches the soil.

  • Bob

    Wondering about the best manure to use… I have access to horse manure that is mixed with hay/straw/wood chips. Is this a good option?

    • We use composted steer manure, and to a lesser extent, mushroom manure. Horse manure can be good to use except for the weed seeds. You could compost the horse manure yourself, and use mulch on your crops to discourage and weed shoots which survived the composting process.

      • Bob

        Thank you Greg! Appreciate the advice.

  • Melissa Tatro

    Greg, can I have permission to use your rye cover crop Before & After photos on a Fact Sheet I am putting together for some of our refugee and immigrant gardeners? If you can send me the original jpgs–that would be great.


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