To maintain an eco-friendly lawn or garden, you need to start with healthy, fertile soil. Soil can be loamy, sandy or clay. Loam is ideal because of its moisture retention and efficient drainage. Clay contains a lot of nutrients, but doesn’t drain as quickly as loam. Sand drains quickly, but doesn’t retain as many nutrients or as much water.
Pick up a handful of your soil and squeeze it. If it crumbles when you open your hand, you have loamy soil. If it doesn't crumble, you have clay soil. Sandy soil will fall apart immediately. Knowing what kind of soil you have will help you figure out how much organic fertilizer and soil amendments you'll need for a naturally successful crop.
Your soil's acidity plays a big part in the success of your plantings, so you might want to do a pH test. You can pick up a pH test kit at your local True Value. Most plants grow best in soil with a neutral pH.
Decaying organic matter (mulch or compost) is a must for fertile soil because it fights erosion and provides a favorable habitat for beneficial organisms like earthworms. Compost neutralizes pH and supplies nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus. It also creates carbon dioxide as it decays, which helps plants absorb minerals from the soil. Without this, the soil cannot support healthy, thriving plants. Synthetic fertilizers can help, but plants grow better in naturally rich, nutrient-filled soil. Best of all, you can make compost yourself. See Use a Compost Bin below.
Mulch is organic material like chopped leaves, wood chips, compost or grass clippings that is spread to keep soil healthy in flower beds, gardens and lawns. It protects soil from the sun and holds in moisture. It also keeps out weeds and prevents erosion. You should add a thick layer (3" maximum) of mulch in flowerbeds and around trees every year at the beginning of the growing season.
Aerating allows for greater movement of water, fertilizer and air. It also increases the speed of mulch decomposition and encourages deep root growth, so be sure to aerate before applying fertilizer. You can aerate your lawn with a hand cultivator or a mechanical aerator.
To aerate in a limited area, systematically dig holes in the soil with a spading or digging fork. Holes should be 2" to 3" apart and 1" to 2" deep. If you're dealing with a larger area or you want to make the task easier, use a push spike aerator. Some models look like a manual push mower with spikes or star-shaped wheels instead of blades. Others are designed as attachments that fit behind a power mower.