How would you characterize your soil? Is it poor, boggy muck that drains poorly and lacks nutrients? Could it be the red clay of Georgia, the sandy clay of Texas, or the caliche (sandy, rocky, alkaline stuff) of Arizona? Soil quality varies by region and climate, but that doesn't mean you won't be able to grow a healthy garden. A simple home soil test can help you identify your soil so you can improve it—whether it needs fertility, absorbency, or drainability. Keep in mind that using native plants will make your job easier, as these plants have likely adapted to the soil type of your area.
The easiest way to test your soil is to pick it up! Simply squeezing a clump of soil can give you a lot of clues about its drainage ability, air and water content, and more. If you're still having problems, a soil acidity test can provide more information about the chemical makeup of your soil.
The ideal soil holds air, water, and nutrients in a balance of sand, silt, clay, and organic matter. It's easy to work. A handful of loam holds its shape when squeezed, and crumbles when squeezed harder. If well drained, it leaches nutrients and warms slowly. Add worm castings, rotted manure, and organic matter (compost and chopped leaves) to improve it.
This heavy, poorly draining stuff forms a sticky, hard mass when squeezed. Plant roots have a hard time growing in clay soil; they may die due to lack of air and water. Improve it with loads of organic matter, such as grass clippings, chopped leaves, old hay, ground bark or wood shavings, and gypsum.
Sand holds too much air; it holds neither water nor nutrients. A handful crumbles and won't form a ball. It tills easily and warms up quickly. Improve sandy soil by adding organic matter: compost, rotted manure, and chopped leaves are a few good options.
If your efforts to improve your garden soil aren't helping, an inexpensive soil testing kit may hold the answer. The chart on the side of the testing vial indicates your soil's pH level, or how acidic or alkaline it is. A low pH means your soil is very acidic, while a high pH means your soil is highly alkaline. This reading will determine how to amend your soil. Acidic soil can be fixed with lime, dolomite limestone, or wood ashes. Alkaline soil can be remedied by adding horticultural sulfur, composted oak leaves, or pine needles to even out levels.