To grow good vegetables, start with good soil

UC Master GardenerAugust 21, 2013 

Crimson Clover as Cover Crop

Crimson clover makes a good cover crop.

Q: Should I do anything to my soil before planting winter vegetables? — Grace in SLO

A: Gardeners grow vegetables for many reasons, but primary among them is the personal belief that homegrown vegetables taste better.

This is more likely to be true when they are grown in good soil. For vegetables, the best soils are loams or sandy loams. Both types have a suitable mixture of silt, clay and sand, so that they retain water and yet allow it to percolate.

If your garden isn’t blessed with such soil, you can improve it. Whether it’s sandy or has too much clay or silt, the solution is to add and mix in organic matter such as compost, manure, leaves and lawn clippings (herbicideand pesticide-free).

While these amendments will improve the structure or tilth of the soil, fertilizer will most likely be needed as well. Vegetables require a menu of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K) and various micronutrients for best growth. Strong, healthy vegetables are less likely to fall prey to pest infestations as well.

If you begin early enough, you might consider planting a cover crop. A few examples are oats, vetch, cowpeas, buckwheat, and clover. Cover crops are grown, cut, and then either left in place or turned into the soil. The right cover crop can add nitrogen, break up clay soil, or grow during summer with little water. All are effective at adding organic matter to the soil.

You may choose not to amend your soil if, for instance, it is very heavy clay or there is a hardpan that roots won’t penetrate. In that case, another option for growing vegetables is to use raised beds with purchased bagged or bulk soil.

Depending on its quality, amendments and fertilizer may still need to be added. If you line the beds with hardware cloth before adding the soil, you’ll enjoy the added bonus of foiling the voracious and insatiable pocket gophers.


Contact the University of California Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners: at 781-5939 from 1 to 5 p.m. on Monday and Thursday; at 473-7190 from 10 a.m. to noon on Wednesday in Arroyo Grande; and at 434-4105 from 9 a.m. to noon on Wednesday in Templeton. Visit the UCCE Master Gardeners website at or email

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