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The 5 Easiest Vegetables to Grow in Poor Soil

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Are you one of those folks who would like to grow a vegetable garden but your soil is just so poor that you are quite certain nothing will grow? I have been growing veggies for over 50 years and here are a few things you can do to ensure a successful gardening experience. 

There are certain vegetables that grow in poor soil which include asparagus, greens, okra, peas, peppers, squash, and tomatoes. But, there are also steps you can take to improve your soil quality so that you can grow any vegetables that normally grow in your area.

The 5 Easiest Vegetables to Grow in Poor Soil:

  1. Asparagus – Asparagus is one of those vegetables that prefer sandy soil and a pH of 7.0, but will grow in less than perfect conditions. I have read that before being domesticated, asparagus grew wild in the sand dunes along the Mediterranean Sea and the British Isles. Asparagus doesn’t do as well when planted from seeds, but grows best from nursery-grown crowns. 
  2. Beans – Beans, like peas, are known as soil builders because of their ability to improve nitrogen levels in the soil. Once the growing season is over, the soil is in better condition than when the beans were planted.
  3. Greens – Many members of the Brassicas family including mustard greens are beneficial to the soil in several different ways: (1) They have high amounts of glucosinolates which, when “turned under” or tilled into the soil, release these glucosinolates that act as a cleansing agent to cleanse the soil of pathogens, soil insects and nematodes, that can remain in the soil for years attacking the plants in your garden; (2) They can improve the nitrogen levels of the soil by recycling nitrogen found deep in the soil; and (3) They add organic matter to the soil.
  4. Okra – Okra is known as a soil conserving crop by providing canopy cover. It is also a nitrogen-fixing crop which builds the soil for other plants.
  5. Peas – One of the first things I learned from my parents about gardening is that peas and beans are soil builders and will grow almost anywhere. Not only do they grow well even under poor conditions, they improve nitrogen levels in the soil. 

Of course, you will still provide an adequate water supply and plenty of sunshine. But, even if you do not amend the soil in any way, all of the vegetables mentioned above can grow almost anywhere with some good gardening practices, a little TLC, and a little dose of Miracle-Gro Water Soluble All Purpose Plant Food every week or so.

In the following paragraphs, I’ll talk about the steps you can take to improve your soil quality.

Signs Of Unhealthy Soil

Man plowing vegetable garden by hand with a hoe

Unhealthy soil is soil that is lacking in nutrients and moisture and is hard and compacted. Soil that is lacking in moisture and nutrients will be dry, cracked, and crumbly. Soil that is compacted will be hard to break apart.

What Are the Steps To Improving Your Soil Quality and Planning a Successful Garden?

1. Select The Location For Your Garden

The best location for your garden will have these characteristics:

  • Full sun. The area should get full sun, which means sun will be shining on your garden spot 8 to 10 hours per day. Most vegetables require full sun for maximum growth and vegetable production. However, if you don’t have an area with full sun, at least 6 hours of sun per day is the minimum amount required for vegetables to grow and produce. Some kinds of vegetables can grow and produce with only 6 hours of sun per day, although 8 to 10 hours is better.
  • Good ventilation. The site should be well ventilated for free air movement.
  • Fertile soil. The soil should be fertile and easily worked.
  • Well drained. The soil should be well drained with no standing water after rain.
  • Weed free. The area should be cleared of weeds and mulched for good weed management.
  • Away from trees and shrubs. Don’t locate your vegetable garden too close to trees and shrubbery which would compete with your vegetables for water and nutrients and could create shade on your vegetable plants.
  • Lead free area. Never locate a garden spot in an area where an old building that had lead paint once stood because the ground may be contaminated with lead.

2. Have Your Soil Tested

For the best gardening results, make sure your soil has a pH of 5.5 to 7.0. There are multiple ways to have your soil tested, but your local Ag Center extension office will test your soil for a minimal fee and provide you with a report that will give you the information on what is needed, lime or sulfur, to correct the pH of your soil. Soil that is acid or alkaline will need lime added; if the soil is too basic, it will need sulfur.

If your soil is poor, testing before starting your garden will allow you to more easily improve the soil before planting to give your garden the best start possible. Trying to amend the soil after planting is much more difficult.

Farmer holding quality soil in his hands

3. Amend the Soil

When you receive the report on your soil quality, add the recommended nutrients to get your soil to the optimum pH for vegetables, 5.5 to 7.0. If your soil is acidic, slightly acid, or alkaline, add lime to the soil in the suggested proportions. But, if your soil is too basic, add sulfur in the suggested amounts.

The soil report will give you the amounts and kinds of each nutrient needed for the soil to be amended to grow the various kinds of vegetables.

How Do I Add Lime or Sulfur?

Once you till the soil for planting, add the nutrients recommended in your soil report by broadcasting it all over the garden area in the amounts provided in the report. Then, till the garden again so that the nutrients are worked into the soil.

4. Add Organic Matter To the Soil

Organic matter such as compost, manure, grass clippings, or peat moss can be added to the soil to improve it, but the organic matter should be composted before adding it to the garden soil. Do not add uncomposted organic matter directly to the garden area.

Both clay and sandy soil can also be amended by adding certain materials like coarse sand, vermiculite, and perlite. This could be quite expensive if your garden is very large, but adding organic matter like compost is a more inexpensive way of improving the soil and will serve the same purpose, but adding compost must be done every year while the sand, vermiculite, or perlite would be a long-term fix.

5. Apply Fertilizer To the Soil

The information on what kind of fertilizer you need, how much, and how to place it will also be provided to you in the soil report. Vegetables are classified by how much fertilizer they need, heavy, medium, or light feeders. So, the vegetables you will plant determine how much fertilizer you need to add to the soil.

To apply fertilizer, it can be (1) broadcast over the entire garden and tilled into the soil, (2) drilled into holes in the soil under the seeds, or (3) part of the amount needed can be banded or spread in small trenches beside the seeds and the rest side dressed at particular times. Recommendations for how to fertilize will also be included in the soil test report.

One important thing to remember is to avoid applying fertilizer too close to young tender plants because the plants and the roots can be burned by fertilizer.

6. Till the Soil

The method you use for tilling the soil will depend on the size of your garden and the kind of equipment and tools you have on hand.

  • For a very small garden consisting of half a dozen tomato plants, it is an easy matter to get out your shovel and turn the soil by hand. 
  • For a larger garden, a tiller can be used. This will normally work very well for a small home garden, but because the tiller only tills the upper layers of soil, there is a risk of the lower soil becoming compacted. 
  • But, if you are planting a larger garden and have a small tractor or a neighbor with a tractor who would be willing to come over and till the soil for you, a tractor will till the soil deeper and will create a better growing area for your plants.

Many farmers and gardeners till their garden area in the fall after all the garden plants have stopped producing and add any nutrients that are needed. Then, a second tilling to work the nutrients into the soil will prepare the garden for spring planting so that in the spring, all you have to do is broadcast fertilizer, turn the soil under with a tiller or tractor, and it is ready to plant.

Avoid tilling the soil when it is too wet. If the soil crumbles when you pick up a handful and squeeze it, then it is a good time to till. However, when you pick up a handful of soil and it forms a mud ball, then you need to wait until the ground dries out.

7. Choose the Right Plants

Here is a list of things to consider when choosing the right plants for your home garden:

  1. The best place to start is to make a list of the vegetables your family likes and will actually eat. There is no point in planting a vegetable that your family will refuse to eat.
  2. Find out the growing season in your area for each vegetable on your list.
  3. Choose varieties that are recommended for your area. For example, gardeners in the south need plants that are heat resistant while gardeners in the north should look for short growing season varieties. Your local farm supply stores can be depended on to sell the best plants for your area.
  4. Select plants that are sturdy and not spindly.
  5. Select healthy plants that are undamaged.

8. Plant the Vegetables Correctly

Follow instructions for planting seeds and plants properly. Different types of vegetables require different planting methods. Here are a few tips on planting seeds and plants.

  1. Vegetable seeds should be planted at a depth that is 2 to 3 times the size of the seed’s width or diameter, not their length. Some vegetable seeds such as carrots and lettuce should not be covered because they require light to germinate. They should just be sowed on the ground and lightly tamped down.
  2. Follow recommendations for the distance between plants and rows when planting your vegetable plants to avoid crowding them.
  3. Also follow recommendations for the depth that vegetable plants should be planted.
  4. When planting vegetable plants, dig the holes for planting and fill them with water before adding the plants to give them a good start.
  5. Vegetable plants should be set out either on a cloudy day or in the evening after the hottest part of the day has passed to avoid the freshly planted plants from wilting in the sun during the hottest part of the day.

9. Practice Crop Rotation

Crop rotation is the practice of planting crops in different areas of the garden every year to increase crop yields and to avoid damaging the soil. Here are the two main reasons for this practice:

If you plant the same crop in the same place every year, certain nutrients that are used in greater amounts by those plants will become depleted over time. By using the 3-year method of crop rotation, you give the soil the opportunity to replenish those nutrients.

The way it works is if you plant tomatoes on row 1, then for the next 2 years you will plant other vegetables on row 1, and then you can again plant tomatoes on row 1 during year 4 of your garden site. Simply divide your vegetable plants into 3 groups, or families, such as carrot family crops, cabbage family crops, and pea and bean family crops, and alternate those groups each year on the rows of your garden.

Nematodes are a serious problem in vegetable gardening. Nematodes live in the soil and damage plant roots, and it is almost impossible to rid the garden of them once they are established. But, by practicing crop rotation and planting varieties of vegetables that are resistant to nematodes and crops not susceptible to nematodes, the populations can be greatly reduced. 

Alternate Methods of Gardening

Raised Beds

Tips for growing vegetables in raised beds:

  1. Raised beds must be at least 8 inches deep.
  2. Raised beds must not be any wider than you can reach halfway across.
  3. Only wood treated after 2003 is safe for raised bed gardening. Untreated wood will rot very quickly and wood treated with creosote may burn the roots of the plants.
  4. Choose vegetable plants that are appropriate for the growing season.
  5. Remove all grass, weeds, and other plants that are in the beds before adding soil.
  6. Make sure the raised bed containers have proper drainage.
  7. Use a garden blend of soilless soil or media, but choose a blend that isn’t made of large pieces of bark.
  8. The pH of the soil should be 5.5 to 7.0.
  9. Fertilize with a slow-release fertilizer supplemented with a liquid fertilizer.
  10. Avoid crowding the plants so that they don’t have to compete for water, nutrients, and sunshine.
  11. Weed your raised beds regularly.
  12. Check your plants often for disease and insect damage.
Three Raised Garden Beds

Container Gardening

Tips for growing vegetables in pots or other containers:

  1. Choose vegetable plants that are more suited to growing in pots. Your County Agent or someone working in your local farm supply store will be able to help you choose your plants.
  2. Use containers that are at least 5 gallons in size, and even up to 20 gallons in size.
  3. Make sure the pots have drainage holes in the bottom to allow proper drainage.
  4. Use only good potting soil formulated for container gardening.
  5. Use a slow-release fertilizer before planting and supplement later with a water-soluble fertilizer. Follow package directions for fertilizing.
  6. Place pots in an area where they can have at least 6-8 hours of sun daily. If full sun conditions are not possible, consider using a grow light. Here are a couple of options: This is the grow light that I use and can highly recommend it. However, I have also used these grow-light bulbs with a regular lamp or light fixture and they also work quite well.
  7. Position the plants far enough apart to allow plenty of space between plants for proper light and air flow.

Good Gardening Practices

  • Water as early in the morning as possible. Mornings are the best time of day to water.
  • Water plants from the bottom, not from the top, and avoid getting the entire plant wet.
  • Spray plants with a fungicide and an insecticide every 7 to 10 days once fruit first appears until it is harvested to help reduce insect problems.
  • Protect beneficial insects/organisms that help to control the populations of destructive insects. They include assassin bugs, yellow jackets, lady beetles, dragonflies, braconid wasps, Eulophids, honey bees, beetles, butterflies, spinosad, and logic.
  • Manage weeds so that the plants are not competing for water, fertilizer, food, and sunlight. Good weed management also helps pest control and harvesting much easier. Weeds can be controlled with such herbicides as Roundup, Monterey Weed Stopper, or Over-The-Top II.

When using herbicides and pesticides for gardening purposes, it is very important to read all directions before use and to follow those directions precisely.

Final Thoughts

If you are new to gardening, I’m sure you have a lot of questions about the different aspects of growing vegetables. I highly recommend that you contact your local Cooperative Extension Service, also known as your County Agent, and they will be able to give you all the help you need from testing your soil to the right plants to grow in each growing season.

Although gardening is a lot of work, it is great exercise and is very relaxing and fulfilling whether you are gardening as a hobby or because you are trying to feed your family more healthy foods. Home vegetable gardens are also a good way to introduce your children to fresh vegetables and the way that they are grown. Many kids enjoy helping in the garden and seeing firsthand where their food comes from.

A home vegetable garden is not only a relaxing hobby and a good way to teach your kids about healthy eating, but it is also a budget saver which goes a long way toward feeding your family well and at the same time reducing your food budget, especially with today’s soaring food prices on all foods and particularly on organic foods. It is also a good way to monitor the amount of pesticides and chemicals that are used in growing your food.

Thanks for stoppin’ by!

Jelly Grandma

For more, don’t miss Which Fertilizer Makes Plants Grow Faster? | Optimum Growth Guide.

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