We all know that a healthy garden starts with healthy soil. But getting that soil in top condition can take a lot of time and effort- as well as money.
In the past I shared 9 Gardening Supplies You Can Get for Free, and guess what? You can improve your garden soil for free too!
8 Free Ways to Improve Your Garden Soil Quality
Chopped Leaves (or Leaf Mold)
Don’t let all those fallen leaves go to waste! Leaves are full of minerals and once they are added to the garden they feed earthworms and other microbes. They can also lighten heavy clay soils and help to retain moisture in lighter sandy soils. They are a wonderful source of carbon and will increase nutrients in the soil very readily.
It’s best if you chop the leaves before adding them to the garden. The easiest way is to just mow over them a few time with a mower and then rake them up.
Place them on top of you garden beds to decompose through the winter and early spring, then you can either till them in or use them as a base of a no-till garden.
If you have access to a lot of leaves you can try making leaf mold by taking your chopped leaves and bagging them up for a year- or at least through one season. Alternately you can just rake your leaves into a big pile and wait- but that doesn’t work too well are here where winter winds just blow the leaves clear across the valley!
Leaf mold can greatly improve your soil quality and it rivals peat moss in its ability to retain moisture.
Related Reading: 20 Frugal Repurposed Seed Starting Containers
If you have been gardening long, you are sure to have heard about the Back to Eden Gardening method which uses wood chips as a top mulch for the garden.
The benefits of a garden mulched like this are the reduction of soil erosion, less weeds to compete for nutrients, and better water retention. Most other soil amendments can simply be placed on top or gently raked into the wood chips.
Wood chips will also increase the nutrients in the soil as they break down and compost on top of it.
Wood chips can usually be found for free through tree services or your local green recycling facility. Check with your local power company too, as they do a lot of chipping when the clear down trees and line and during general upkeep.
If you’ve got a fireplace or a wood-burning stove then you have a great soil amendment right in your ash box! Wood Ash contains a good amount of potassium and calcium as well as a lot of micronutrients from the trees from which the wood came.
Wood Ash will help improve the pH of your soil, making it more alkaline- which means keep it away from acid-loving plants such as blueberries.
Wood Ash can be used as a replacement for the lime usually called for on soils with low pH. It is best to spread the ash in fall, and throughout winter, but stopping a good few weeks before spring planting.
Related Reading: Soil Nutrient Deficiencies and How to Fix Them
Your Kitchen Scraps
Your kitchen is a gold mine for improving your soil quality! Your morning coffee grounds. Your daily banana peel. All those egg shells! All of these things will add something different to you soil in terms of nutrients.
How you deal with this compost is up to you- add it to your compost pile daily and apply it to your garden when it has decomposed. Dig it into your soil immediately.
Add certain scraps to the holes at planting time. Or even just throw it on top the garden and let it decompose naturally into the soil.
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Coffee grounds, when mixed into the soil or compost, will improve your soil structure, tilth, and even help to repel certain pests. The grounds are high in nitrogen, which is great for those heavy feeders in your garden. Mixing them together with your leaf mold will make the perfect mulch for your garden.
Coffee ground have long been said to be highly acidic- making them perfect for those acid loving plants. I have read recent conflicting research both dispelling this and proving it.
So, I say, go ahead and mix the grounds in around your acid loving plants- it can’t hurt either way! Just don’t dump them on. Unless you want a pile of mold hanging out around your garden.
No matter how much coffee you drink you probably won’t get enough grounds to improve your garden soil too much, luckily, if you check with your local Starbucks or other coffee houses they are probably just looking for a way to unload all those grounds!
Yes, urine. Human urine is sterile and is actually one of the best soil amendments and fertilizers around. Urine is super high in nitrogen and contains phosphorus and potassium (You know, NPK fertilizers?)
It also contains a lot of other trace nutrients, all of which are very readily available for your plants.
Now, urine can be too concentrated, so you probably don’t want to just go around peeing directly on your plants all the time. But diluting it with water or rigging a composting toilet of sorts with some saw dust in a bucket is a good way to go.
The benefits are that urine is 100% free and natural. You can save water with less flushing going on. And you might help deter pests (mammals, not insects) in your garden from the scent.
No not human manure, but manure from any farm animals you might have- or those in the community might have. Manure from all sorts of animals can be added to your garden beds and fill it with nutrients to help improve your garden soil and feed your plants.
Pay attention to which manures can be added fresh versus which manures are hot and need to compost and break down before you can plant in them.
Chickens. Goats. Cows. Alpacas. Sheep. Rabbit. Horses. All are great sources of manure. If you don’t have any of these animals yourself, check in your community.
Most large farms are looking for a way to unload the stuff after barn cleanings. All it takes is a shovel and some manual labor to go get it.
Related Reading: How to Fill a Raised Garden Bed for Cheap!
Spent Hay or Straw
Hay or straw is an easy way to add a large amount of brown matter to your soil. It’s best used as a top dressing and allow it to decompose on the soil adding organic matter and nutrients as it does.
Fresh bales can be expensive, but often you can find farms giving away bales that have gone bad- have gotten wet, moldy, or spoiled in some other way. You can also visit places that sell fresh bales and offer to sweep out the truck and take all the busted bales and loose material.
You can also get wasted hay, that animals have picked through and is now on the ground getting stomped on.
If you are worried about weed seeds, just allow your hay to sit for a few months- allowing any seeds to sprout and the material to decompose a bit. Or just layer it all on in the fall as you put the garden to bed for the winter and let it rot until spring planting time comes along.
Do be careful about where you get your hay or straw from- some farmers spray their fields with a certain chemical that can harm your plants.
Do you have any other free or dirt cheap ways to improve your garden soil? Share them in the comments!
In the fall after harvest we completely cover our garden with leaves. It help erosion and keeps weeds out. Then in early spring we run lawn mower over them. Then rototille them in as we rototille and prepare to plant.
Have you heard of no-dig gardening? Tilling can damage the soil structure and destroy soil life. Mulched leaves layered on top season after season will add tilth and nutrients and be a weed barrier and mulch layer to keep your soil from drying out and helping reduce how often watering is needed.
Informative…Thanks for sharing!!!
Hi, I have a question, I am wanting to start a vegie garden, I dozed up a heap of dirt from the cattle yards, years of build up from cattle manure and hay broken down in it. Just wondering weather it would be to strong for vegie garden.
Depends on how old it is. You want it to have been sitting for a year or more For best results. If it is an old pile, I would say mix with top soil and plant!
An easy way to tell when manure or compost is “not too hot” and ready to use on a garden, is when the worms and sow bugs come into it. Once they have, you can apply it to your beds safely. If your compost or manure is completely dry, you won’t be able to tell.
Thank you for your insights, was blown away by the urine. Who knew?
Urine! Would have thought!.
TRUST NO ONE: I purchased some Alfalfa cubes last year from RURAL KING to make some AlfalfaTea for home garden, having read on the bag that suppliers had been asked NOT to apply herbicides on their fields & could only trust them to comply. Well, too bad for my 60 Tomato Plants,!! Leaves curled into grotesque shapes !! So, late start as the deformity doesn’t show up immediately, sometimes.
“Follow the money” rarely fails.
Ik heb ooit gelezen dat de grote leider, Mao, in zijn rode boekje vroeg om de ochtendurine te sparen en verdund aan de planten te geven.
Ik weet niet of dit waar is, maar het komt van een boek van een schrijver, die in China leefde
Another thing urine is good for, is keeping animals out of your compost pile, if you’re having that issue.
How long does the urine need to sit before applying it to soil?
I started using urine in my garden a few months ago. It’s given a great boost to the garden, especially the cucumbers and greens. It’s much more fast-acting than the other stuff mentioned. I thin it out 1:5 or 1:10 with water so it won’t burn the plants. I also use kitchen scraps, wood chips, coffee grounds, and ashes.
Thanks for sharing this information…been having bad luck with my cucumber plants…
Seriously the Urine from my dogs and husband kills everything it hits. Seriously it pisses me off when my plants get pissed in.
Even the university promotes urine in the garden. Great for nitrogen. Men’s urine ONLY as they don’t cross contaminate with urine running over their butthole picking up e coli like women do. Let them boys piss in a jug and dilute it mama!
A man’s urine is more effective than a woman’s urine – testosterone will actually repel pests such as raccoons.
Ever since I was a very little girl, now 35, my dad taught me to use a bagger on the lawn mower and spread the clippings around the plants. With every mow, add the new clippings to the top and turn them, the grass breaks down and provides nutrients, helps slow evaporation and keeps weeds out. As for wood chips, make sure you do some research and always ask what type of tree the chips are from, some chips are actually toxic to some plants. Otherwise, they are an amazing amendment to ANY garden! Thank you for all of your insight!
Well guys – this is all good stuff. Thank you for all tips.
I use cow manure. Fill a garbage can 1/2 full then add water. Stir it up a little and let it sit for a day. Use a pale scoop out the liquid gold and douse your plants.
Amazing how they respond.
After a few uses dig out manure and spread on garden and replenish the can.
Lots of good information. Didn’t know about urine and ashes
After reading this I definitely will be trying some of these out. But at the moment I use nettles soaked in water for a week or two to feed my vegetables and add minerals back into the soil.
how have the results been with the nettles? we’ve also tried using nettle water in the garden, but I’m not sure how well or worked…
We sent cardboard boxes through our shredder and used that as mulch along with manure, staw, grass clippings, etc.
Shredded cardboard is a good idea! Thanks.
Is this all good for flowers like it is for vegetable gardens? Even hydrangeas & azaleas? We are in Atlanta & bushes are not growing for last couple of years. Also is it too late to prune?
Great idea to shred the cardboard as it will break down quicker and can be easily mixed in with other compost!
Have not used any of the ideas yet but after reading this I have a bit more knowledge of what I need to do I thank you for that
Thank I do the ComposTumbler but I de no of the urine tell me watt is best for the dear repellent
We use seaweed that we get from our local Seaweed Baths. and put about 9-12 inches on the vegetable beds over the winter. It provides all sorts of nutrients and most of it rots into the soil. It also keeps weeds down in the process !
Is there a concern with seaweed that it would add too much salt to the soil? I know sea minerals would be beneficial but in what quantity? Too much of a good thing would not be desirable right?
Living near the ocean allows me to use seaweed in the garden. I spread leaves and seaweed in the beds in the fall and let it do its job over the winter months. Come Spring I simply add more compost and mix in the beds. Comfrey or manure tea is good during the growing season. Add to a garbage can, top with water and use it as tea on your plants. I collect leaves from people who don’t want to deal with them. I compost all food scraps…We used to bury old freezer-burned salmon or halibut but the dogs would find their way under the fence and dig it out.
Humanure is highly underrated. Managed well, especially from a mostly vegetarian household, it improves soil, manages waste without groundwater contamination, and saves the diminishing supply of fresh or otherwise clean drinking water. Envision a day where we stop crapping in our tiny supply of potable water (TINY: we 98%- contaminate the 2% of potable water available). High-rise condos/apts could sustain this strategy and produce soil for terrace gardens. Humans: short on memory, long on comfort zone.
Interesting. Another benefit of mixing Fall leaves into the garden soil is to feed and warm worms over the winter. In the spring, your garden will be teaming with wonderful worms that aerate and fertilize.
Enjoy a better garden.
Thank yo for the idea. I have a lot of leaves and large piles with a million warms that I will add to the garden post harvest.
My city allows burning in controlled container- ashes are wonderful.. experimented in 1/2 the garden – it’s thriving.. also discovered pecan tree leaves are best leaves.. spread evenly- wet often unless you have rain, till under at planting .. decomposed black tree much (from tree service chippers) from the bottom of the stack is great also..
Remember that a compost pule should contain twice as much brown or dead material than green. Shredded newspaper is great. Don‘t worry, the colored ink used today is not toxic.
I live in the upper Sonoran Desert region in Mexico about 35 miles West of Yuma, AZ. My soil is mostly clay based.. hard to accept water, turns to dust when dry… I am adding three year old cow manure from a pen do longer in use, and have recently made a deal to get soft wood sawdust from a cabinet maker…I am also adding wood ash from burning tree trimmings [mesquite, citrus and poplar] Does anyone have plans for a DIY “soil mixer”??? I am 75 and “shovel work” is a killer!
I am 77 and have clay soil. I use a soil auger on my drill to break it up and mix compost in. I figured this out when I couldn’t dig with my shovel. Best of luck!
If you are interested in going no-till, you don’t need a soil mixer, an auger or roto-tiller. “Let your roots do the drilling and the worms do the tilling.” I top-dress good compost on top every time I plant and half way through for longer crops like onions, potatoes, and tomatoes, about an inch of compost at a time, sometimes two or even three depending on what the soil looks like. The quality compost attracts the worms and sow bugs and they really do till for me, and the soil underneath keeps improving. I started with hard-packed, very depleted clay soil that was better for making pots than vegetables. Not any more. It is rich, dark, and friable. I do fork it by hand when I plant, but don’t do any turning or flipping at all, just “wiggling.” If your soil is very compact, you could also try field radishes to leave in your off-season (but don’t eat them, they don’t taste good but they are great for loosening soil). Soil is not inert… it is an ecosystem. If you keep that in mind and keep the ecosystem healthy and don’t shake it like a snow globe or paint can every time you plant or walk on the beds, you will get lots of benefits, including lower pest pressure and fewer weeds. I have lots of healthy things in the garden now, ladybird beetles, praying mantis, frogs, and they keep the pests in check for me. If you doubt this, try it on just half of a bed, and see the difference after a year. It’s a LOT less work, too, so you might want to give it a try.
Chickens! My hens go out in my garden in spring and fall, they do a phenomenal job mixing everything into the soil. Plus you get fresh eggs!
Use an old tarp. pile everything on the tarp and pull the ends to the other end and side to side. Mixes great
What about adding some tiny styrofoam balls to your soil.
Why would you want to do that??????
Adding styrofoam balls (or shipping peanuts, or any styrofoam) will not improve your soil. What it WILL do is encourage ants to take up residence…you’ll especially notice them when they begin to swarm during the warmer summer months.
Packing peanuts Dissolve when wet I could believe it until I tried it,they dissolve!!!
I think the question came about because there are bagged soils that are sold containing some sort of “perlite” which looks like little styrofoam balls. I’ve always wondered what it was, and if it is styrofoam.
I’ve used grass clippings, I would cut and bag the really green stuff and then just spread it over the dirt. I would do this about every two weeks or as needed. It will break down and helps block out weeds and water doesn’t evaporate.
Very useful suggestions I have tried and result was awesome
Super helpful article and comments. Thank you. Some of our chicken feed feed-bags can be used to layer on garden pathways. They eventually decompose and can be dug in the following year.
I think Betty is referring to Perlite.
Very informative!Thank you
This post is amazing! I learned so much from this. I’m note aware about the urine and coffee. I just started planting and I’m very happy with my growing veggies and plants. I bought a garden soil, do you think this soil is enough? I’m thinking to have separate beds for this soil only and adding the tips you’ve shared. I’m happy to share it to you!
Aren’t you supposed to use manure from ruminants only? No dog or cat feces.
Great information! The home I grew up in must have a great garden area (1/4 acre) because my brothers and I dug holes and filled them with kitchen scraps, for 30+ years. As kids we thought this was weird and 60 years later we find out he was smart all this time ♥
Be careful with lawn clippings and leaves that you are not just spreading weeds… we used to cover our beds with leaves until I figured out why that was a bad idea.
On another front, someone once told me of how he improves his grass each year. We have a fairly wild yard but someone in the house wants at least the front lawn to be mostly grass. Unfortunately I thought I would remember what that person said, but now I cannot. It has to do with laying down a layer of leaves, then seeding over, then leaves again, and then letting it rest until spring. If this was correct, the seedlings of grass would be protected and fed enough to sprout. Does anyone have any info on that?
I use used stable bedding. The soiled and crushed straw is great.
What about medications in your urine?