Yes… and no. The thing about soil is that you can change what you have into what you need. It may be bad when you arrive, but you can make it not just better – but awesome. Unfortunately, it won’t happen over night.

Building up soil quality is a practice that is as old as the hills and something that any urban or suburban dweller should know about. There is this industry known as top soil. It is scavenged off the top of all new building sites and has been for decades. Developers sell it to soil vendors who offer it to homeowners and landscapers by the yard or by the bag. Homes built since the 1970’s are normally surrounded by soil that is a pale facsimile of what once was. Many times what your grass and landscaping beds are growing on is what was excavated to make way for the basement or foundation and has just been smoothed around. The rich stuff that once sat on the surface is long gone – sold off to the highest bidder, and if you want better you’ll have to purchase it.

Sad, but its just the way things are done. It isn’t hopeless. The trees in your yard, grass clippings from the lawn and even kitchen waste can help you rectify the situation, as can compost. Compost is nothing more than decayed vegetative matter and working it into poor soil can completely alter your bad soil situation. How long does it take? How poor is your soil? Over the course of 5 years, just plain leaves spread out thick in fall and tilled into plain sand come spring can create rich, well drained garden soil that will grow a mean vegetable garden. Sound crazy? It’s not. This is how topsoil is created.

To answer the title question, bad soil exists only as long as you let it stand in your way. Composted vegetation can change clay into nice growing soil just as easily as it can turn sand into viable growing space. Now there is such a thing as contaminated soil and that is bad, but can be cleaned with remediation. By planting the right type of ground cover plants or trees, even soil that is overloaded with petroleum by products and nasty chemicals can be returned to viable soil to grow in. Again, this isn’t an instant fix, but it is not only possible but is being done all over the place to restore the soil in old industrial sites.

The fastest way to rectify your poor soil situation is to install raised beds, but you need depth. You have to remember that a plant’s roots may extend way more than a foot into the soil as it grows. With annual herbs and vegetables raised garden beds are almost an instant cure, but what about those statuesque players like tomatoes? Their feet will be deeply rooted into the original soil. If its hard clay, you’ll definitely have to do some deep amending so they thrive and prosper. The same is true of sand where the opposite of clay exists and there is very little moisture holding capacity beneath the 6-12″ of good soil you have slapped on top of it. Clay will not allow good drainage and sand has far too much!

Granted, the thick covering of good soil will assist in slowing the moisture loss of sand down below… But what if it doesn’t rain much this summer? Likewise, if you’re on top of clay, what if it just doesn’t stop raining? Raised beds are only a band-aid on poor soil. You have to put forth more effort is your going to have an outstanding garden and a source of good food for you and your family. Deeply work in the compost, the grass clippings and fall leaves. Start planting in it year two. Your harvest may be less than stellar, but all the roots and vegetative waste from those first couple of years of growing in the space will help to amend the soil. It will get better and better each year, and soon you’ll have outstanding soil where a wasteland was once about all  you could make happen.

By the way, the best growing soil is sandy loam. A little sand is good stuff as it assists with providing excellent drainage for any plant you want to grow. The practice of trucking soil from place to place is in reality a bad practice. Non-virgin topsoil creates all manner of imbalances for plants. Their interests lie way below where you can see.

Tammy Clayton

Tammy Clayton

Content crafter and Senior Editor at Garden Culture Magazine
Tammy has been immersed in the world of plants and growing since her first job as an assistant weeder at the tender age of 8. Heavily influenced by a former life as a landscape designer and nursery owner, she swears good looking plants follow her home. (Some feel she's got a perennial obsession, others say the problem is tomato plants.)

If you don't find her at the desk - check the gardens. When not writing and weeding, she enjoys a good book, painting junk furniture, and blending the harvest of heirloom tomatoes and chiles into salsas.
Tammy Clayton

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