How to Build Rich, Fertile Soil

by Becky
Published: Updated:

Rich, fertile soil is easily recognizable with its deep brown or black color. A shovel full reveals a soil teeming with earthworms and life. And yet, this type of soil is rare to find naturally. It must be built. Wondering how to build rich, fertile soil in your garden? Here is how to begin.

What is Soil?

Before digging into how to build soil, you need to know what’s in it. The physical properties of soil consists of inorganic material, air, water, and organic matter. Let’s break this down so it’s easy to understand.

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Inorganic Material

The inorganic material is basically rock particles that have broken down over many years into three different sizes. These particles are categorized as sand (the largest), silt (medium size), and clay (the smallest). Source 

A roughly equal mix of the three particle sizes creates a loose, friable, soil that water and air move freely through. This is called loam.

Loamy soil is easy to stick your fingers into, feels light and almost fluffy. It’s inviting to plants and soil life. If you have it naturally where you live, consider yourself lucky.

If not, don’t despair. In most cases, soil that has a large amount of clay or sand can be remedied by adding plenty of organic matter.

Organic Matter

Organic matter is material that is derived from a living organism. Compost, hay, straw, wood mulch, leaf mulch, leaves, grass, and worm castings are a few examples. These materials break down even more in soil until they are almost unrecognizable. At this point, it is called humus.

The recognizable part of organic matter in soil is the rich dark color. Here is a great resource for learning more about Why Organic Matter is so important

How to Build Rich, Fertile Soil

1. Add organic matter. 

Even if you don’t do anything else, this step will dramatically improve the soil. It feeds soil life. The most common source of organic matter is compost, but any other source, like chopped leaves, straw, poultry, cow, or rabbit manure, wood or wood chips is also organic matter. 

Organic matter breaks down and needs to be consistently added in order to be maintained.

2. Create Living Soil

A soil that is exploding with biological activity and microscopic life, improves soil fertility dramatically. 

Jesse Frost, in the book The Living Soil Handbook says creating living soil comes down to three principles.

  • Disturb the soil as little as possible
  • Keep the soil covered as much as possible
  • Keep the soil planted as much as possible

He goes into much more depth, but to explain briefly, these principles mimic what happens in nature.

Disturb the soil as little as possible means no tillage if possible, especially mechanical tillage. 

In nature, organic material is built naturally in layers with time. There is very little soil disturbance. Thus a rich, fertile soil can be built by mimicking this principle.  

Keep the soil covered as much as possible means there should be very little soil that is ever visible in your garden. It needs to be covered with compost, mulch, or plants.

Keep the soil planted as much as possible means to have something growing there as much as you possibly can. Living plants and roots help soil to thrive. Cover crops are a great way to feed the soil organic matter and can bring nitrogen (a necessary nutrient for soil growth). 

I have more information on how to implement cover crops in the home garden HERE.

3. Consider Soil Chemistry and Adjust Soil pH

This one is lower on the list because oftentimes, if you are adding organic matter and creating living soil, soil chemistry can correct itself.

But sometimes it needs a little push in the right direction. This is where a soil test comes in. My favorite soil test and directions for how to use it can be found HERE

A soil test can test many things, but most will test soil pH, along with phosphorus, potassium and other micronutrients necessary to grow healthy plants.

Soil pH is the scale for measuring soil acidity. A very acidic soil is not a pleasant place for most soil creatures. They are happiest when the soil is neutral or very slightly acid. 

Soil Test Results

Therefore it is necessary to correct soil pH to make sure all the soil organisms have a pleasant place to live and thrive, in most cases this is between pH 6-7.

Adding a natural source of potassium, or phosphorus may be necessary if your soil test reveals it is extremely low in either of those. Nitrogen is very fluid and doesn’t stick in soil long. 

Nitrogen is often added in the form of organic material, manure, or pulled into the soil through a legume cover crop. It is very needed for a happy plant. 


Building healthy soil is key to healthy plants. Healthy plants equals more nutrition, less disease, high yields, and less work overall for the gardener.

Here’s how to build rich, fertile soil.

  1. Add Organic Matter
  2. Create Living Soil
    1. Disturb the soil as little as possible
    2. Keep the soil covered as much as possible
    3. Keep the soil planted as much as possible
  3. Consider Soil Chemistry and Adjust Soil pH

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Laurel M. October 8, 2023 - 9:04 pm

I’ve been doing compost for several years now and it’s interesting to compare my neighbors’ garden soil. It’s dry looking and clay, but weeds abound. Mine is dark and moist and not many weeds. I love dark soil.

theseasonalhomestead October 15, 2023 - 3:41 am

Yes, it makes such a difference. Good job!

Michelle October 21, 2023 - 10:11 pm

Hi, there is no link affixed to this statement, “I have more information on how to implement cover crops in the home garden HERE.”

Great job on providing accurate info about soil and soil building. Not enough of that out there. One of my favorites who covers this is an organic farmer on youtube, his channel is “I am organic gardening” if you’re interested (I’m not affiliate with him, just thought to pass along good info). Cover crops, and no bare soil are key!

theseasonalhomestead October 22, 2023 - 3:24 am

Thank you for letting me know! I totally missed that link. And I will look up “I am organic gardening”. I’ve never heard of him before but I love to learn new things!


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