What is the Best Soil for Organic Gardening in Raised Beds?

best organic soil for raised garden beds

An increasing number of people are looking at growing some or all of their food from raised garden beds and are searching for answers to some common questions. One important question is about your soil.

What Organic Soil is good for gardening in Raised Metal Garden Beds?

Soil that holds plenty of nutrients that are naturally formed and can be accessed by plants is the best for food growing.

Soil is such an important topic we have broken it into sections with frequently asked questions to sort out the information.

Similarly, we have other articles on site to help break down larger topics into digestible chunks, like “23 skills for self-sufficient living,”.

That post is a good start for someone looking at becoming far more resilient in their life, and building soil is just one topic on that list. We live this stuff, and we now feel it is time to share what we have found to work in our location with all visitors.

Can you use regular dirt to grow vegetables?

Dirt is a term that good gardeners often cringe at because, on some level, it implies that the soil is just a substrate that keeps plants from falling over. In some cases, this can be correct; however, this terminology is not as vivid as organic soil.

Can regular ‘dirt” grow vegetables? It can, but there are specific reasons, and we must explain ourselves, so read on.

When we say that regular dirt can grow food, the specific conditions we describe are where you turn the ground over for the first time.

It is common to get a good harvest from the first year of planting in fresh ground, and why this happens is easy to explain and understand.

If you were to dig up a new section of lawn and convert it to a food garden bed, the soil organisms that lived in that patch of ground die, and these minute bodies feed your first crop.

These can be bumper crops sometimes, and the grower often thinks that this gardening game is way too easy. The following year is likely to fail and cannot come close to the first year’s harvest.

We know this to be true because we have done this exact thing, including the poor results.

Dirt requires amendments to make it a living soil, allowing you to have regular good results instead of the boom-bust of the dirt farmer method.

How do I choose the right soil for my vegetable garden?

Most vegetables prefer to grow in soil that is rich in organic matter and has a wide range of nutrients that are plant available.

Choosing suitable soil begins with the color. It should be dark in color, holding carbon-based materials commonly called organic matter.

It should have an earthy smell that is not unpleasant and shouldn’t crumble in your hand if you hold it tightly in a ball. There should be a small amount of moisture in this sample without it being wet.

If you start with soil that is lighter in color and more sandy, this can benefit from adding compost. As this mixes in and becomes part of the soil profile, the soil color will change and become darker.

Your soil will become richer from every additional season over time.

What grows well in poor soil?

Not many plants will grow in poor soil if we consider growing food. Legumes are one of the plants that can grow in poor soil and still produce a harvest because they can take nitrogen from the air and create nodules of this at the root level.

Some bean varieties can produce a fruitful harvest if the soil has available minerals accessible to the plant. Though most plants will not do well, it is preferable to rejuvenate the soil.

Soil has settled after the first season of growing with this bed. Soil rejuvenation is coming up.

Poor soil is waiting for you to work on, and instead of looking for plants that might grow, it is more logical to bring the soil up to where many plants want to grow, which can give stability to your food harvest.

Fertile soil is one of the cornerstones of self-sufficient home life.

We have a bean variety here that we rely upon called the snake bean, and we have found that it will grow in places where almost all other vegetables refuse to grow.

We plant them in the garden beds after the cooler growing season is over and the soil is a little depleted. They are the following crop grown in the raised garden beds without any work done to the soil in those beds.

After the beans have finished, we rejuvenate the raised garden beds for the next season’s vegetable crops. This article details these beans.

How do you prepare the soil for an organic vegetable garden?

To prepare the soil for organic vegetable growing, we start with a good layer of compost added to the top of the raised garden bed. A 1-2 inches thick layer is excellent for depleted soils if available.

The compost is then dug into the garden to a depth of about 6 inches and mixed well. Good quality mulch is then spread on top of the bed and watered down to settle it.

If the soil is young and the bed is new, you may need to check the pH and adjust it to the appropriate level for your planned vegetables. A neutral pH of 6.5-7 is suitable for most commonly grown vegetables.

Getting your soil to a solid state of fertility is part of the equation, and “how to maintain organic soil in raised garden beds” is the next step.

What is the difference between topsoil and regular soil?

If you have ever seen the exposed face of a trench dug for whatever reason, you may have noticed the different colors of the soil in the trench wall.

The lower layers are often more pale than the top few inches of soil, which is the difference between topsoil (dark colors) and regular soil (pale colors).

Dark soil holds organic matter and nutrients and is far better for growing plants than deeper pale soil with very little organic matter.

The pale soil will have minerals because all soils are just a blend of these in individual mixes that naturally occur; however, the minerals are often not in a plant-available form, so plants cannot access them easily.

Organic matter is part of the natural process of unlocking these minerals.

Organic matter can also be in mulch, a slow-release form of nutrients. “Growing lots of ginger, is this the best mulch?” explains how this works.

Minerals can also be supplied in a plant-available form, as described in “improve your garden soil with rock dust and chickens.” Try this out; it is the best thing we have done for the garden.

Any image you see on this site of a raised garden bed with growing plants has this soil improver, and it is the only form of fertilizer besides compost we use.

Does raised garden bed soil need to have organic matter?

Raised garden bed soil does not need to have organic matter in the soil; however, you will need to use a chemical method to supply the required nutrients to grow the plants.

Hydroponics processes are similar, where a growing medium holds the plant in place while the nutrient-rich water feeds the plant.

What are the potential problems of having soil with no organic matter?

We have listed the everyday problems of having soil with no organic matter.

  • Constant fertilizer requirements.
  • Potential soil compaction issues.
  • Poor soil drainage.
  • Low moisture retention.
  • Potential plant disease problems.
  • High probability of needing pesticides.
  • Potential for over-acidifying the soil.

We can now expand on each to explain the problem and how it happens. The cure to all of these issues is the same. Get organic matter into your raised garden bed soil.

How much fertilizer does poor soil need?

The actual amount will differ for each plant variety, but the one constant is that you will need to apply it regularly. Store-bought fertilizers have different ratios of three primary nutrients: N, P, and K. Nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.

Too much nitrogen will grow plenty of green leaves but can limit the vegetable return.

Why does garden soil become compacted?

Garden bed soil becomes compacted by a few things, and earth with little to zero life in it is one of them. In healthy soil rich in organic matter, you find plenty of activity in the soil.

Small insects, microbes, worms, beetles, and more all play a part in creating soil structure, allowing the ground to breathe and drain.

Every time you water lifeless soil with no organic matter, you settle the ground down into a compact mass that is not good for food growing.

How does poor drainage affect soil?

Poor drainage in garden bed soil can cause root rot in plants, make the soil sour, change the pH levels of the ground and move it out of the range that can support plant growth.

Soil that drains well allows oxygen into the plant’s root zone, which, in turn, creates balance in the soil.

How does soil hold moisture?

Soil holds moisture through the size of the soil particles and water’s ability to cling to these particles. Clay soils are well known for having very fine particles and holding water tightly.

Sandy soils hold very little water and seem to be always dry because the particles are so large compared to the clay particles.

The best soils have a blend of both, and the organic matter acts as a buffer that prevents the clay from binding it all in one mass, and the sand allows some moisture to pass and limits waterlogging issues.

The organic matter supplies nutrients and habitat for beneficial soil biology. We incorporate nutrient-dense organic matter, water-holding material, and habitat for microbes, all in the one blend in this article on organic compost for self-sufficient gardening.

Why do plants get sick?

Plants can get sick for various reasons, and many are soil related. The pH may be outside the plant’s preferred range, so nutrients are unavailable.

The soil may be compacted, and the plant may have trouble pushing roots into the ground.

The soil may lack needed minerals, or the plant is not getting enough water. Some people also try to grow plants out of the climatic zone that that plant is best suited to, so either heat or cold stress can cause plant sickness.

Do all gardens need pesticides?

Not all gardens require pesticides; actually, many grow food very successfully without any chemicals at all.

We are about 80% self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables here at home and use no chemicals or pesticides in the raised garden beds or around the ginger plants or the turmeric.

We find that having plenty of natural biological activity is far better for us all than having the need or desire to use harmful chemicals with unknown health outcomes if ingested with our food.

Why does soil turn acidic?

Soil can become acidic through soil compaction and overwatering of poorly draining soils. One of the effects of poor draining soil is the potential of the ground to become anaerobic, which can create conditions for harmful bacteria and pathogens.

The way to move forward with this situation is to turn the soil over and get some air into it, then mix in as much organic matter as you have available.

Compost is a great ingredient to mix in as it is often already loaded with millions of beneficial bacteria and fungi that can help get the soil back into a productive state.

What organic matter is best for fertile soil?

Compost is the primary organic material that we recommend mixing in. A good compost mix will have a blend of organic matter that contains water holding ability, a good amount of plant available nutrients and minerals, and a habitat for microbes.

Many microbial lifeforms will die when buried in garden soil, which in turn helps feed your plants.

It is also very beneficial to have the soil covered with mulch that can slowly break down during the year, and this also puts the organic matter into the ground.

How do you increase organic matter in soil?

You can increase organic matter by planting a cover crop during the year and digging it into the raised garden bed soil. This practice can be very beneficial to the long-term fertility of your soil.

How long does it take to build organic matter in soil?

It can take a couple of seasons to build good soil; however, you can achieve it while growing vegetables in that raised bed. Just understand it is a process and not a one-time event.

Building good soil never stops because once you see the results that good organic soil can give, you will look for ways to improve fertility further each season.

You can fast-track the organic matter in your soil by using a method we use as described in “making organic soil for raised garden beds,” and because we use this method, we know how good it is.

What are examples of organic matter?

Straw and hay are organic materials you can add to the soil. Green cover crops you dig in can also be a way to get organic matter into the ground in your raised garden beds.

Compost is the best organic material you can get and is worth learning how to make your own. It is a precious material once you understand the benefits that it can deliver.

Can soil have too much organic matter?

It is possible to have too much organic matter in your garden bed soil. Too much can become a pollutant to the plants because of a potential nutrient overload, so the trick is to limit the amount as you build your soil over time.

There are suggestions for a range of percentages of organic matter in the soil. Still, there are too many variables to make these accurate, so it is best to err on the side of caution and monitor the worm activity in the soil as your work the ground.

If there are plenty of healthy worms, the soil is within a reasonable range for your vegetables to grow.


So, now you have more of an idea of how to build organic soil for raised garden beds and how to increase fertility as you grow your food.

We use all the methods above and are proud of where we are in self-sufficient living. Initially, it is not simple or easy, but the effort is well worth it. We hope you become successful as well.

Article by Tim Blanch for TheTropicalHomestead.com. He is a qualified Permaculture designer.