Building the Best Soil

Improve your gardening success by building up your current garden’s soil and finding a good place to put a new garden.

If you are reading this, you probably enjoy working outside. Be it your yard, landscape or vegetable garden, you can’t wait for the sun to shine so you can start digging, prepping the garden and planting!

But, can you really “build” your soil?


We build it by incorporating organic matter.

If your beds are already in place, just add compost and mulch to the surface. But when they are bare, be sure your first step is to add organic matter.

Is your soil too sandy? Add organic matter.

Is it nothing but clay? Add organic matter.

The benefits of adding organic matter to soil are numerous. Composted, organic matter adds nutrients, increases water-holding capacity, improves soil structure, is loaded with beneficial microbes and helps prevent erosion.

Organic matter really is the miracle cure for bad soils.

Compost can be from manures, lawn clippings, leaves or anything natural you can find. Many seasoned gardeners will till in leaves, pine straw or other raw material into the soil months before it is used. This allows the soil to create its own compost.

Now if you are looking to build a new garden site, one of our biggest challenges is finding well-drained soil.

So much of our ground in Angelina County has clay as a subsoil. This clay will be red in the northern part of the county and gray in the southern portions. However, well-drained soil is a must for many desirable shrubs, perennials and vegetables.

If you’re unsure whether or not your garden site is poorly drained, there is a simple test to check. Well-drained soil has everything to do with how quickly water will percolate through the soil. Many homeowners think that a sloping ground area that sheds water is “well-drained.”

Not true. Water must be allowed to move into the soil and then move through it.

To determine whether or not your soil is well-drained, here is the method to follow:

Step 1: Dig a hole at least 12 inches in diameter by 12 inches deep, with straight sides. If you’re testing your entire property, dig several holes scattered around your yard, since drainage can vary.

Step 2: Fill the hole with water, and let it sit overnight. This saturates the soil and helps give a more accurate test reading.

Step 3: Refill hole with water the next day.

Step 4: Every hour, measure the water level by laying a stick, pipe or other straight edge across the top of the hole. Then, use a tape measure or yardstick to determine the water level. Continue to measure the water level every hour until the hole is empty, noting the number of inches the water level drops per hour.

The ideal soil drainage is around 2 inches per hour, with readings between 1-3 inches. This is generally fine for most plants with average drainage needs. If the rate is less than 1 inch per hour, your soil is poorly drained.

For poorly drained soils, one solution for vegetables and many perennials is a raised bed. Whether in rows down your garden or landscaped beds edged with timber, stone or other items, raising the level of the soil should aid greatly.

The question is often asked, “Can I dig a deep hole, fill it full of good soil and create a well-drained soil that way?” Unfortunately, digging a hole like that will only create a big “clay bowl” that will still hold water quite well.

To overcome uncertainty in selecting what fertilizer or lime and how much of each, you must take a soil test. Soil testing costs $13 per sample, plus $6-7 for postage, if you mail it. Stephen F. Austin State University also has a laboratory that tests soil for liming and fertilization.

You can pick up a form at our office next to the Angelina County Farmers Market on the south loop in Lufkin or print one off the internet yourself. Type “SFA soil test” into your search engine and select the first PDF option on the screen.

If you have problems reading your soil test report or have other questions about your landscape, feel free to call our office at (936) 634-6414. I’m at extension 2.

Cary Sims is the County Extension Agent for agriculture and natural resources for Angelina County. His email address is