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For more information, contact your local county Extension Agent.
Soil is the foundation of a healthy garden, so it's important to check the pH and
levels of nutrients before gardening. Soil testing can be done in the fall or in the
spring before the lawn greens up. We offer Arkansas homeowners free soil testing.
A soil test can make the difference between success and failure in the garden.
Soil tests are desirable to determine the pH level and the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus,
potassium and calcium in the garden’s soil. They are helpful if the samples are taken
properly and the recommendations followed. Your county Extension office has instructions and containers for submitting the samples.
The pH of the soil can be adjusted to make sure that soil nutrients are available.
Most native soils in Arkansas are acidic and need to be amended with lime to raise
the soil pH.
The vegetable garden should be slightly acidic with a pH level ranging from 5.8 to 6.8. Lime takes 6 to 8 weeks to alter soil pH and should
be applied in the fall or late winter. Agricultural lime has a mix of particle sizes
and will provide long term control of soil pH. Pelletized or lawn lime has very fine
particles and reacts over a much shorter period of time but needs to be reapplied
annually. Reduce the recommended rate if using pelletized lime.
Liming the soil makes nutrients available to the plants, especially calcium. Gypsum
can be added to increase calcium if the soil pH does not need to be raised by lime.
Arkansas soils range from coarse sands to heavy clays. Each presents a special situation
to the gardener. The type of soil is an important consideration if there is a choice.
Amendments such as sand, finely ground bark, gypsum, vermiculite or perlite, composted
organic matter and organic mulching can be added to clay soil to improve soil conditions
and provide more air spaces for roots.
Small garden plots can be prepared for planting by using a spade, shovel or spading
fork to turn the soil. Turn the soil to a depth of 6 to 7 inches. Use a small tractor
or garden tiller for larger gardens.
Do not spade, till, plow or cultivate soil when it is too wet. Pick up a handful
of soil and squeeze it. If the dirt sticks together and will not crumble after squeezing,
wait until it is drier.
All litter or trash on the soil surface should be completely covered or worked into
the soil when the ground is turned. Excessive trash in the upper soil level interferes
with final seedbed preparation and later cultivations. This is a good time to add
compost and soil amendments such as agricultural lime.
Establish a smooth, level surface by raking or harrowing as soon as possible after
turning. This helps compact the soil, breaks up clods and leaves a smooth surface
for seeding. Soil left in rough condition for several days after turning may dry
out and form hard clods, making it much more difficult to prepare a good seedbed.
Small seeds germinate poorly in loose soil with clods, and growth of the seedlings
may be slow and weak.
Reading a soil report can be overwhelming, especially for new gardeners. Learn how
to focus on what's most important to helping your garden grow by watching Episode 2 from the Gardening from the Ground Up Series.
There are different ways to amend your soil using compost, fertilizers, and/or cover
Compost enhances the physical properties of the soil and improves the soil's tilth. Tilth refers to the physical condition of soil, especially in relation to its
suitability for planting or growing a crop. Factors that determine tilth include
the formation and stability of aggregated soil particles, moisture content, degree
of aeration, rate of water infiltration, and drainage.
• Increases the soil's water and nutrient holding capacity.
• Aerates the soil.
• Aids in keeping roots warm in the winter and cool in the summer.
Apply composted organic matter and organic mulching materials freely each year since
organic matter content is difficult to maintain. Use as much as 2,000 lbs. of rotted
compost for each 1,000 square feet of area (approximately six inches or more).
Organic matter that is not well composted can be very harmful since the rotting materials
will compete for nutrients with the growing plants.
Avoid applications of saw dust. Saw dust ties up nitrogen, reduces soil aeration,
and can make plants more susceptible to diseases.
Find more information check out our Compost webpage.
Most garden soils in Arkansas need to be supplied with plant food. A garden soil
may be too acidic for normal plant growth.
A pH level ranging from 5.8 to 6.8 would be satisfactory for most vegetable crops. A soil test will show whether or not
lime may be needed to correct soil acidity. A soil test will also determine the amount
of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and calcium in the garden soil. Your county Extension
agent will have information on this procedure. After the soil test is made, the county
Extension agent will recommend the amount and kind of fertilizer that your garden
Nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are generally the food elements most needed in
garden soils. Calcium may be needed as a plant food and to correct pH or acidity levels.
Minor elements are usually sufficient for normal growth, although boron, magnesium
and manganese may be below normal levels in some soils.
Commercial fertilizer, animal manures, chicken litter, compost or decomposed organic
matter can be used to provide plant nutrients for growing crops.
Commercial fertilizer may contain only nitrogen, phosphorus or potassium, or all three
in various combinations. If a soil test is not available, use a mixed fertilizer such
as 12-12-12 (12% nitrogen, 12% phosphorus and 12% potassium) or 12-20-20. Additional
nitrogen may be needed and can be supplied by applying nitrate of soda, ammonium nitrate,
Some commercial fertilizers, in addition to nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, may
contain small amounts of various minor elements.
Where a soil test has not been made, apply 6-8 lbs. of a mixed fertilizer per 100
feet of row or 300 square feet. For most crops, additional nitrogen as side or top
dressing may be made one or more times, using 1 lb. of ammonium nitrate or 2 lbs.
of nitrate of soda per 100 feet of row.
Damaging vegetable plants by using excessive amounts of fertilizer is possible. Such
damage can occur from the seedling stage to full plant development.
Apply mixed fertilizer broadcast or under the row. Under the row applications may
be done by opening a furrow 3-4 in. deep, placing the fertilizer in the bottom of
the furrow, mixing it with the soil, and then leveling or filling in the furrow. Or,
the fertilizer could be placed in bands at one or both sides of the row. Apply mixed
fertilizer ten days to two weeks before planting seed or setting plants.
Make broadcast fertilizer applications on the garden soil after spading or plowing,
then work into the soil as the ground is raked and leveled.
Feed the garden by using cover crops also known as "green manure." Cover crops are
a valuable tool for improving the garden soil by returning large amounts of biomass
to the soil and adding needed nutrients.
Warm season cover crops require warm weather for seed germination and plant growth. They are injured
or killed by freezing temperatures and should not be planted outdoors in the spring
without protection or until the danger of freezing temperatures is past. Warm-season
crops planted in the summer to mature in the fall should be planted early enough so
they can be harvested before the killing freeze in the fall.
These can be planted between spring and fall crops. Mow these crops down and till
them into the soil before they go to seed or you may see them return when you plant
Cool-season crops have their favorable growth period during the cool parts of the
year. Cool-season crops grow poorly in summer heat. Though cool-season crops continue
to grow well past the earliest freeze in the fall, they should be started early enough
to mature before hard freezes are expected.