Once you have selected your garden site, the next step is to prepare the soil.
Soil is composed of solids, liquids, and gases. The solids in soil are mainly minerals and organic matter, the liquids are mainly water, and the gases are mainly oxygen and carbon dioxide. The best soil for gardening is a balanced mix of sand, silt, and clay particles known as loamy soil.
This balance of particles is ideal for growing vegetables because it holds sufficient moisture, oxygen and nutrients for plants. The proportions of this mixture should be approximately 40% sand, 40% silt, and 20% clay.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the soil in Otter Tail County and most of western Minnesota is geologically part of the Sverdrup series which has well-drained soils formed in glacial outwash deposits. These deposits consist of a loamy mantle with underlying sandy deposits. Over most of the county, the soil tends to be well drained with slow to medium surface run off, which is ideal for growing vegetables.
There are different ways to determine the composition of your soil. The quickest way is to do a squeeze test.
First, take a handful of moist, not wet, soil from your garden and give it a firm squeeze. Then open your hand. You will see one of three things:
1) It will hold its shape and when you give it a light poke it crumbles. This is loamy soil.
2) It will hold its shape and when poked it sits firmly in your hand. This is clay soil.
3) It will fall apart as soon as you open your hand. This is sandy soil.
However, since the squeeze test does not indicate the nutrients in your soil, Extension specialists recommend that you have your soil tested by the University of Minnesota testing lab (http://soiltest.cfans.umn.edu/) before starting any yard or garden project. Depending on what you want to plant, they will let you know if your soil needs added nutrients, such as fertilizers, or organic matter. Soil testing kits are available at the Becker County Extension Office (218-846-7328).
If your soil tends to be clay or sandy you can improve it by adding organic matter such as compost. This can include grass clippings, leaves, manures, sawdust and straw. When applying any type of organic matter, mix it thoroughly into the soil as deep as the roots of your plants
grow. Many people make their own compost in their backyard. 4 Alternatively, if you purchase compost make sure it is from a reputable source, since improperly created compost can carry weeds and diseases with it. Finally, if you choose to add manure to a vegetable garden, consider purchasing a product that has been composted properly so it does not contain harmful bacteria, such as E. coli.
1 Jeffers, Andrew. 2018. “Soil Conditioning – Establishing a Successful Gardening Foundation”
Clemson Cooperative Extension. Factsheet HGIC 1655. Accessed at: https://hgic.clemson.edu/factsheet/soil-conditioning-establishing-a-successful-gardening-foundation/.
2 United States Geological Survey. 2000. National Cooperative Soil Survey. Accessed at: https://soilseries.sc.egov.usda.gov/OSD_Docs/S/SVERDRUP.html.
3 “Soil, Quick Squeeze Test” University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources. Accessed
4 Brown, D.L., C.J. Rosen, R.J. Mugaas, and T.R. Halbach. 2018. ”Compositing in Home Gardens”
University of Minnesota Extension. Accessed at: https://extension.umn.edu/how-manage-soil-and-nutrients-home-gardens/composting-home-gardens.