How to Grow a Healthy Garden: 8 Tips to Get the Lushest Backyard on the Block

Mariel Loveland
Written by Mariel Loveland
Updated February 15, 2022
Mother showing little daughter how to garden
Photo: Ariel Skelley / DigitalVision / Getty Images

Whether you want bigger blooms or a bountiful harvest, it’s all in the soil

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No green thumb? No problem. A lush, blossoming garden doesn’t have to be a pipe dream—even if you’re the kind of gardener who could kill a cactus. In truth, how to grow a healthy garden has a lot more to do with knowledge than it does gardening talent. The right soil structure, the right pH, and the right kind of nutrients in your organic fertilizer are the difference between plants that survive and plants that thrive. These tips can help you ensure you have lots of outdoor plants you can’t kill (or, at least not very easily).

1. Optimize Your Soil Type

One of the first steps to creating great soil and a healthy garden is knowing your soil type. There are a lot of different soil structures, and what’s best depends on what you’re planting. If you’re not using pre-packaged garden soil, you’ll need soil addendums to fix common problems.

Loam Soil

Loam soil is equal parts clay, sand, and silt. You’ll recognize it because it’s dark brown (almost black) and feels spongy and moist. It’s the ideal soil structure for most types of gardening.

Clay Soil

Clay soil is usually a reddish color and stays clumped together. It can work well as a foundation if you’re planning a vegetable garden. Some flowers, like Black-Eyed Susans or Coneflowers, thrive in clay soil, but they will need finessing. Add organic matter like compost, pine bark, dead leaves, and gypsum to loosen up the clay and help with drainage. 

Sandy Soil

Sandy soil is crumbly and dry, but it’s ideal for gardening with plants that need fast-draining soil like succulents, cacti, and citrus fruit trees. Unfortunately, watering easily washes nutrients away from sandy soil. You’ll need to add nutritious organic matter like compost, mulch, and organic fertilizers.

Silty Soil

This type of soil clings to moisture and nutrients—but it can drown your plants without proper drainage. Add organic matter like compost, pine bark, or gypsum to help.

Chalky Soil

Field with chalky soil layers
Photo: SADLERC1 / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Chalky soil is alkaline (which we’ll get to below). Stick to plants that grow best in alkaline environments or fix the soil pH. 

Peaty Soil

Peat comes from decomposed organic matter. Unfortunately, peat-heavy soil is acidic and lacks nutrients. Add nutritious organic matter that will lower the pH.

2. Run a Soil Test to Determine Soil pH

How to grow a healthy garden has a lot to do with soil. Most common garden plants prefer slightly acidic or neutral soil—somewhere between a pH of 6.0 and 7.0. Does this mean they’ll die in the wrong pH? Not necessarily. Instead, you’re more likely to end up with a poor crop yield or smaller blooms. In other words, your roses won’t look as rosy.

To grow the healthiest garden, from gardenia plants to green beans, use a soil test kit (or hire a local soil testing service) to check the soil pH. Most gardens will thrive at a 6.5 pH, but it depends on what you're planting. Some plants like potatoes or azaleas prefer more acidic soil. Other plants like ferns prefer slightly alkaline soil. Either way, you can alter the pH with different soil addendums:

  • To raise pH: add finely ground limestone or wood ash

  • To lower pH: add an acidic fertilizer, gypsum, ground sulfur, or organic matter like compost, sphagnum peat moss, or pine bark.

3. Water Your Plants the Right Way

If you underwater a vegetable garden, you won’t get a bountiful crop. If you overwater your plants, it’ll lead to root rot and fungus. The truth is that a healthy garden has no watering schedule. There’s no magic length of time that will prevent water-related issues.

Instead, water your plants when the soil is dry and avoid wetting the leaves. The best time to water is early in the morning, so your plants have a full day of sun to dry out. If you’re short on time, hire a local outdoor plant watering service.

4. Regularly Refresh Your Garden Soil

Even if you start with healthy soil, your garden soil will degrade over time. You may have to replace it every so often, but you can improve it by tilling your garden before planting, using mulch (which contains nutrient-rich organic matter and helps prevent weed growth), and regularly fertilizing

As a rule, fertilize once during the winter using a slow-release 10-10-10 fertilizer (equal parts phosphorus, potassium, and nitrogen). During the growing season, fertilize your flower or vegetable garden every three to four weeks with quick-release fertilizer. If you’re growing fall crops, avoid fertilizing after the first frost.

5. Prune Your Plants

Woman using pruning shears in her garden
Photo: Chris Clinton / DigitalVision / Getty Images

Pruning may seem counterproductive, but it actually promotes new growth. If your plant isn’t wasting energy maintaining dying foliage, it can use that energy to grow new, healthy foliage. Best pruning practices include:

  • Removing unhealthy or diseased branches and stems

  • Removing dead or unwanted dead foliage

  • Pinching dying flowers below the bloom during the growing season

  • Trimming excess growth throughout the growing season

If you’re growing more than flowers, it’s also important to make sure that you harvest your vegetables at the right time.

6. Get Rid of Weeds

Those new to gardening might think weeds are harmless (if not just a little unsightly). The truth is that they’re a magnet for pests and can suffocate your garden’s roots. You can weed your garden a few ways:

  • Dig out weeds by hand (don’t forget the roots)

  • Use a weedkiller (either a spray or gel)

  • Cover weeds with mulch or plastic

  • Use a weed wacker or gardening hoe to chop large weeds

If you have healthy soil, weeds will usually pop up every now and again. To avoid the headache, consider hiring a top-rated local gardener.

7. Don’t Be Afraid to Stake Tall Plants

Staking is a common gardening practice that uses a pole or trellis to give your plants extra support and prevent stems from bending or breaking. When used in a vegetable garden, it promotes healthy growth in cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, beans, and other vining veggies. It’ll also give support to tall sunflower stalks and saplings. 

8. Use a Cover Crop

Cover crops are common in sustainable farming, but they’re also a useful gardening trick for healthier vegetable gardens. Basically, a cover crop is a secondary plant in your garden bed that will ward off pests and diseases, provide nutrients, thwart weeds, improve moisture and drainage, and slow down erosion. Try planting a cover crop like clovers, alpine strawberries, or rapeseed. 

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