Soils for Homes & Gardens

Tips to improve your home garden soil 

Primary contacts:


Common problems with home garden soils 

Common problems with home garden soils

Common problems with home garden soils 

Home garden soils (vegetable, lawn and flower gardens) often face problems of

1) over-watering, 2) way under or way over fertilizing, 3) poor soil tilth (“the fitness as a medium for growing plants & other organisms”), and 4) Nematodes and soil-borne diseases.

Sometimes problems occur because infertile subsoil is brought to the surface during home construction.

If well-adapted species are selected for the landscape then Woody plants (including trees and shrubs) tend to have fewer soil challenges than other home garden  uses.

What's my garden problem?

Click to see what’s likely causing the problem with your plants?

Is my soil the problem?

soil evaluation

There’s a problem with my plants. Is it my soil?

Click to see what’s likely causing the problem with your plants?

Notes: 1. Many nutrient deficiencies cause yellowing or discoloration of plants.

2. If the plant is deformed or dead, it's likely not a soil problem (unless you killed it through lack of water!)

Still think the issue is with your soil?

Check soil pH below and
Check your soil texture below

For more: Want to understand your soil more?

Explore Soil Doctor (Bell)

Know your soils Fact sheet (Ingles)

What's my soil? Soil web (T O’Geen) is a remarkable resource showing soil types throughout California with detailed information on soil characteristics and potential uses.


Opportunities to improve home soils.

Opportunities to improve home soils.

Is my soil the problem?

Is my soil the problem?

Opportunities to improve home soils.

Water well!

Garden soils. Soil amendments (such as mulch, compost) are the most common and promising option to build soil health and improve the soil tilth of home garden soils.

Soils where you plant woody pants. Grow the right plant in the right place. (See UC Master Gardeners)

Practices to improve your garden soil


Practices to improve your garden soil

Adjust soil pH.

Is pH a problem and if so, what  can I do?


Is my soil pH okay? 

For most plants, a soil pH between 5.5 and 7.5 is okay. (pH is basically the measure of the amount of acid or base in the soil)

See how nutrient availability and microbe activity vary with pH (Figure from Fairway Green Inc)

Note: Some indicator plants can help diagnose soil pH characteristics (e.g., Marigolds - get Fe and Mn toxicity at low pH; Petunias - show Fe chlorosis at high pH). 

Want more? See "What is pH and Why do we care" Fact sheet

How do I measure my soil pH?

There are a number of pH measuring devices sold at garden shops (See some common types of pH meters - with outdated costs).

Many pH measuring devices are not very accurate although they can give a general indication of whether you are near an extreme. 

pH litmus Paper is usually okay.

If you want an accurate measure, you may need to send your soil sample to a lab or get an upscale  pH meter. (see Basics and Soil Sampling for more) 

What can I do if my soil pH is a problem? 

Is soil pH a problem Fact Sheet (Blakey)

In summary

Note that your actions depend on soil texture because a clay has more buffering than a sand. A such, a clay needs more additive to change its pH.

If pH > 8 (alkaline) One option is to add Sulfur - how much, when? 

if pH < 6 (acid) - one option is to apply lime. how much, when?) 


Check your soil Texture:

Is soil texture my problem?

(Figure- USDA)


How do I estimate soil texture

Estimating soil texture by feel Video (Madden)

Estimating soil texture by feel Fact sheet (Ilaco)

How do I interpret soil texture

In summary:

  • Sandy soils have low available water and few nutrients
  • Loam soils (a mix of sand, silt and clay) are the best for water and nutrients
  • Clay soils hold lots of everything - but they hold water really tightly. As a result, a heavy clay might actually have more total water in it than a loam, but less of the water is available to the plant. Clays also may waterlog or have slow infiltration. Further, there ar two different types of clay soils. Swelling clays are typically richer than the non-swelling types. 

What can I do

In summary, virtually all soils benefit if you add compost, mulch and/or manure.

Gardening and landscaping in hard pan soils Fact Sheet

Managing clay soils Fact Sheet

Also see

Raised Beds for problem soils (or convenience)

raised beds

Raised Beds.

Use when your existing soil is really problematic (e.g., very poor drainage, salty, rocky, etc.), or

Use for convenience and/or appearances (Raised beds can look nice and neat!).

Raised Beds Fact sheet (Blakey)

Preparing soil to plant

shovel with soil

Site preparation

Lawns web (UC IPM)

Vegetable garden Fact sheet

Woody plants

Site preparation web (UC IPM)

Should I use amendments in planting a tree or shrub? Fact sheet


Add soil amendments.

Fertilizer, Mulch, Manure, Compost, Worms? 

soil compost



Why use Amendments?

  • Fertilizer - Plants get their nutrients from the soil and from added amendments (like compost or manure, or fertilizer etc.). Some nutrients might also come in the water. 
  • Mulch - (almost) anything that goes on the surface - is good for reducing soil evaporation and suppressing weeds.
  • Compost - decomposed organic matter added to the soil - is good for soil microbes, for building soil organic matter and for supplying nutrients.

Composting is good for your garden and the environment Fact Sheet 

What are the different types of amendments?

Mulch? Compost? Fertilizer? What's in the different products? Fact sheet

Amendment options Web (Orange county)

What can I do?

How do I make compost?

How much do I add?

Mulch How much mulch do I need (for water and weeds)? Fact Sheet

Fertilizer - Note: Many people over-fertilize

Nutrient needs for vegetables and other plants web (UC Master Gardener) or

Nutrient needs for vegetables web (UC IPM).

How much soil amendment do I add Fact sheet

Converting lb/ac for my small garden Fact sheet ; Calculator


How about worms?

What do worms eat Video (UC MG)

DIY worm bin video (UC MG)

Harvesting worm castings and leachate video (UC MG)

How do I measure the size of my yard? video (Dustin Blakey)

Food safety concerns 

Eeeck bugs!

soil - bugs

What can I do about bugs and diseases in the soil?

Check for soil bugs or diseases web (UC IPM garden)

Soil solarization, a non-chemical method to control disease and insect soil pests. (UC IPM)

Water & Irrigation


Are you over-watering

How are you watering - hand watering often leads to too much

Calculate your water needs and how long you should water. Calculator for watering needs


How wet is my soil? Do I need to irrigate?

Check your soil moisture Figure

Check this video for soil moisture status

What can I do? 

Water requirementfor landscapes (Center for landscape and Urban Hort)

Use mulches to reduce evaporation from the soil Fact sheet

Use drip irrigation Home gardens Fact sheet (Sonoma UC MG)



More UC Resources on Soils for Home & Gardens