Soil care

Although it's simple to do, soil care reaps rich rewards

digging the soil

What type have you got?

Whatever your soil type there will be plants that love it and treatment that will help it. Make sure you know what is best for your garden soil.

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  • Zantedeschia aethiopica AGM is a good choice for wet soils. Image: Graham Titchmarsh/RHS Herbarium

    Gardening on wet soils

    Soil can be wet because it is compacted, or because of a high water table, where the upper level of the ground water is near the soil surface. Clay soils are wet in winter and baked dry in summer. Unless you install drainage, you will need to work with your soil and choose plants adapted to wet conditions.

  • Mustard cliente is a good green manure. Image: RHS Advisory

    Green manures

    Green manures are fast-growing plants sown to cover bare soil. Often used in the vegetable garden, their foliage smothers weeds and their roots prevent soil erosion. When dug into the ground while still green, they return valuable nutrients to the soil and improve soil structure.

  • ©RHS PUB0028478

    John Innes potting compost

    Most potting compost or media offered is soil-less and either based entirely on peat, has some peat in its formulation or is peat-free. There are advantages, however, to soil based media and John Innes mixes are widely used. Be aware though; currently offered JI composts may differ from the traditional product.

  • Applying lime to the soil

    Lime and liming

    Liming garden soil reduces the acidity of the soil by increasing the pH level.  Plants can’t get the nutrients they need from soil that is too acid, and some materials such as aluminium can be at toxic levels in very acid soils. The pH level is a number that describes how acid or alkaline a soil is and from this it is calculated how much lime is needed to reduce acidity.

  • Using bark as a mulch to reduce water loss around a rose. Image: RHS/Tim Sandall

    Mulches and mulching

    Mulching is generally used to improve the soil around plants, but it also gives your garden a neat, tidy appearance and can reduce the amount of time spent on tasks such as watering and weeding. Mulches help soil retain moisture in summer, prevent weeds from growing and protect the roots of plants in winter.

  • Adding mushroom compost to garden borders at RHS Wisley. Image: Tim Sandall/RHS

    Mushroom compost

    Mushroom compost can often be bought cheaply in bulk for use as a soil conditioner or mulch. It is usually available as ‘spent’ mushroom compost, referring to the fact it is the compost left over from mushroom farming.

  • Magnesium deficiency on a tomato. Credit:RHS/The Garden.

    Nutrient deficiencies

    If plants fail to thrive, despite adequate soil preparation, watering and mulching, it may be a sign of a nutrient deficiency. Fruit and vegetables are particularly vulnerable, as are containerised plants and those growing in very acid or alkaline soils. Yellow or reddish coloured leaves, stunted growth and poor flowering are all common symptoms of nitrogen, magnesium or potassium deficiency.

  • ©RHS PSI0000021

    Organic matter: what is it?

    Organic matter is a much used term that can refer to several things, and is easily confused with similarly named activities such as organic gardening. It is no surprise that gardeners are often confused by this very useful piece of horticultural shorthand.

  • Using peat-free compost for potting. Credit:RHS/Advisory.

    Peat-free growing media

    For decades, peat-based potting composts have been used to raise and grow-on plants. Due to the concerns about the damage done to the environment, gardeners are now reaching for peat-free or reduced-peat products as an alternative.

  • Applying fertiliser before planting. Credit:Tim Sandall/RHS The Garden.

    Plant nutrition: feeding plants

    Fertilisers are given to improve plant growth rates and to boost yields of flowers or fruit. However, feeding plants is not always necessary. Sometimes looking after the soil is more important and enables plants to access nutrients already present in the ground.

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