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The Importance of Soil

Core of soil taken from a putting green
A good garden ideally begins with quality soil. Since few are blessed with perfect soil, gardeners must understand the challenges their site poses so that they can improve their situation.

The soils of the Eastern Sierra are usually geologically young and strongly resemble their source material. For many of us that means our soils are derived from granite. Soils in around Coleville, Bishop, Big Pine, Independence, Lone Pine, and Olancha (with many exceptions!) tend to be pH neutral and free of salts. Places where the soils come from sedimentary rocks like Chalfant and the low desert communities, have soils that are alkaline and often salty. 

Knowledge about your soil is a key factor in gardening successfully. By properly preparing your soil before planting, you are setting yourself up for success. 

In this section of our website we have resources about local soils and links to information that will enhance your knowledge of soil science. 

If you want to learn more about soil science, we suggest this site put together by UC ANR as a general resource hub: https://ucanr.edu/sites/soils/

Common Questions about Soil

Some questions continually resurface on our helpline. Hopefully your question is answered here. 

Additional soil resources can be found on this site using the navigation menu, but this is a good page to start with.

Q: My plants are dying. What fertilizer is missing? A: It is exceedingly unusual to have such an intense nutrient deficiency in the garden that your plants will die. The most common consequence of a nutrient deficiency is reduced yield or smaller plants. It usually not noticed. In extreme cases, there are specific symptoms associated with specific mineral deficiencies. (See this fact sheet: Guide to Symptoms of Plant Nutrient Deficiences .) In our experience, a gardener concerned enough that they are reading a web resource on soil has probably over-fertilized. Reviewing data from soil test lab results, the rates of fertilizer home gardeners use far exceed agronomic recommendations. Nutrient deficiencies, when they occur, are usually related to pH problems instead. Locally that's usually iron which is unavailable in alkaline conditions.

Q: My plants are dying. I want my soil tested. What should I do? A: Most soil tests are designed to determine agronomic fertilizer application rates. They are of questionable diagnostic help in gardens. Lack of a nutrient so severe that it kills plants is rare. (See above.) Certainly a soil test will help you fertilize better, but in most cases — at least in our area — the problem is high pH or salts. We know which areas have those issues already. You probably don't need a test. If you think some toxin is in your soil, that is much more complicated to test for unless you have an idea of what it is. In that case, contact our helpline.

Q: How do I get a soil test? A: We have a page on soil testing. See that.

Q: My soil is clay. How to I fix that? A: outside the low desert, there are almost no heavy clay soils in the Eastern Sierra. A few locations have a mild clay layer. In any case, adding compost will improve your soil.

Q: My soil is very sandy. How do I fix that? A: Add compost. Start by working in 2-3" of compost. Add more annually.

Q: What kind of soil do I have? A: See our page on local soils.

Q: Where can I learn more about soil science? A: This site should provide a good foundation in garden soils. 

Q: What is pH? A: pH is a measure of the acidity or akalinity of a soil. 7 is neutral. Lower numbers are acidic, higher numbers are alkaline. Most garden plants like a range from slightly acidic to neutral. (6.2 to 7.5) Most soils in our high desert communities have soils from 6.8 to 8.5. In containers with soilless potting mixes, the pH will be a little lower, and your plants will be fine with that. If you are making your own soil mix from scratch and it uses peat moss, you will probably have to add limestone or dolomite. Do not adjust soil pH with wood ash or hydrated lime. 

Q: Should I add gypsum to my soil? A: There are good reasons to add gypsum to some soils. It won't affect pH but it can help deal with sodium. Most gardeners here do not need it. Contact the helpline if you need more information.

Q: What is the best fertilizer to use? A: There isn't one. Plants don't care about the source, only that they have access to the nutrients they need when they need them. If you are continually adding compost or organic material to your soil, you will probably be adding enough. Most retail products have recommendations on the container. You can follow those. If you are committed to finding an optimal fertilizer mixture, you will need a soil test. Virtually all soil tests we've seen from local gardeners who have already been fertilizing or adding compost regularly come back needing only nitrogen, and possibly sulfur. Add compost and you'll be good.

Q: How do I know if I over-fertilized? A: Too much nitrogen will cause an abundance of vigorous, vegetative growth to the shoots: all leaves, no fruit or roots. Radishes will only grow leaves and not bulb up, for example. Ten-foot-tall tomatoes are a sign of too much N. Some crops do fine with excess fertilizer. If you got carried away, try planting sweet corn.

Q: How can I tell if I am under-fertilizing? A: This can be hard to tell. Pale, stunted plants are an obvious symptom. Usually a reduction in yield is the result. Noticing that yields are on the decline is a good sign, especially if you are practicing crop rotation and have a garden free of nematodes.