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Question: When I asked my neighbor why her plants grow better than mine, she said it is because she has improved her soil. Can you give me suggestions how I can improve my soil?Answer: I have been gardening for over 60 years, and I have come to the conclusion that the greatest single ingredient in landscape success is soil improvement with organic matter. It is an investment that pays dividends forever. Some types of organic matter last longer than others, but they are all very helpful. I usually recommend the cheapest local source, which is bark dust.No matter what kind of soil you have, organic matter will improve it. Organic particles create air space in heavy clay soil so water and air can enter and flow through the soil easier. As organic matter is used as food by soil microorganisms, they leave a sticky substance that causes the small clay particles to stick together and become larger granules. Organic particles hold onto water that enters sandy soils so they retain more water. Organic particles hold onto fertilizer nutrients in all soils so they do not wash out before the plant roots can pick them up.For a new homeowner, I would recommend incorporating a 4-inch layer of bark dust into the entire landscape before planting anything. In an established landscape, I would incorporate organic matter whenever I add new plants. Then I would recommend applying 1½ to 2 inches of bark dust or other amendments once a year.You can provide a lot of organic matter from your own landscape by using grass clippings, leaves, trimmings and a lot of your own household waste. Some of these materials can be applied directly, or they can be saved in a compost area for later application.As a young, new homeowner with limited income, I remember going throughout the neighborhood and volunteering to rake up leaves if they would let me have them. I composted them and had all the organic matter I needed for my landscape. Later I learned that I could pick up the leaves with my rotary lawnmower. It not only picked up most of the leaves but also chopped them so that they composted more quickly.When adding organic matter when transplanting new plants, it is important to add it to an area three times the size of the root ball. If only the area immediately around the plant roots is amended, the roots like to stay in that limited area that has been improved. That limits the top growth and therefore is worse than if no organic matter was added.Manure is another form of organic matter that provides fertilizer as well. It should be used in smaller amounts to avoid over-fertilization. Some sources of fresh manure can contain large quantities of weed seeds, so I usually only recommend bagged products that have been sterilized.Another source of inexpensive organic matter is chipped branches from tree pruning. Arborists are always looking for a place to dump them. Although somewhat irregular in composition, they make excellent mulch around trees and shrubs and can also be incorporated.