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It is the hope of every gardener to get his or her garden soil as close to the ideal soil as possible. However for many, this may seem well impossible particularly where time and money are constraints. The good news is that whatever small improvements you do; the results will certainly be noticed. Take the case of a bag of compost for one who has a lawn and a few shrubs.  While a bag may not be enough for the entire garden, if applied to the shrubs only, a noticeable improvement will be seen!

One way in which garden soil is improved is by use of soil dressings. These are solid or liquid materials added to the soil in order to enhance its physical quality, or improve the plants grown therein, or achieve the both   simultaneously.

Soil is one of  nature’s wonders and among one of her most complex products. It is a matter that is constantly undergoing change. Growing plant roots draw nutrients from the soil while rain leaches out nutrients into the deeper layers. As such at some point nutrients will become deficient in the soil. When this happens, it is time to dress your soil so as to add desired factors to the soil.

Soil dressing is as ancient as gardening itself. However no single dressing will provide the desired results with regard to soil improvement. It is therefore vital to use the three basic soil dressings groups namely;


These are materials that contain, in concentrated form, one or more plant foods. Their addition to the soil is to feed the plants with major elements like Nitrogen, Potassium and  Phosphorous or minor elements like  calcium, magnesium, manganese, iron, and sulphur. Since fertilizers are added in small quantities, they can hardly influence soil texture or raise bacterial activity in the soil like humus does. Fertilizers therefore work best in combination with humus.


One way to improve your soil is by improving its texture. To achieve this you need to add organic materials to the soil. These materials attract bacteria which help in their breakdown and eventual decomposition. As the bacteria break down the green matter and burrow it into the soil, they help improve its structure by creating air spaces and mixing the soil with decayed matter. It is known however that the plant food content in humus is slow acting, not adequately balanced and largely insufficient for plants. It is only animal manure generously applied that does supply adequate plant food. Therefore humus works best when used together with fertilizers.

Various types of humus makers are used in the garden. The ‘raw’  humus includes  non decomposed  organic material that contains  starch and sugar. Examples of these include straw, grass clippings and dug in weeds. ‘Matured’ humus  includes decomposed organic material like garden compost, peat, manure, and Hop manure.

It is important to note that soil without humus is nothing more than finely ground rock

Lime (Calcium carbonate)

Lime is applied to soil to remove acidity (sourness) and improve crumb structure. Lime adds calcium to the soil which lowers  the soil pH.  PH(potential hydrogen) refers to  the levels of hydrogen ions available in the root zone. When they bind together with other nutrients in the soil, they can render certain nutrients unavailable to the plants.

A much higher pH may hinder certain elements from being taken up by plant roots. Indeed few garden plants thrive under acidic soil. In addition acidic soils are hostile to earthworks and beneficial bacteria –the ones that break down organic matter and help improve soil structure. The common types of liming materials are dolomitic lime, agricultural limestone, wood ashes, and gypsum and hydrate lime.

How Dressings Are Used in the Garden

Now that you have your soil dressing material, how do you apply it?

Base dressing

This is dressing applied to the soil before or at the time of planting. It is used to provide a consistent but gradual supply of plant food or humus to the soil for the months to come. Humus and slow release fertilizers are used as base dressing.

Top Dressing

Top dressing involves applying extra nutrients to the soil surface so that they are taken up by plants that are already established. Naturally, it is fertilizers that are quick release or fast acting are used here. For lawn, top dressing includes application of a mixture of sand, top soil and compost upon the loan. The lawn benefits from this by the evening out of irregular surfaces and faster uptake of nutrients by the grass. The velvety green lawns you see around are products of sustained top dressing


This is organic material placed around the plant. It smoothers the weeds and keeps the soils moist by retaining   moisture. It also adds to soil fertility. As the mulch decomposes, it fertilizes the soil.  You will not need to dig and water often during the warm seasons if you place mulch around your trees and shrubs.

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