What Is Unhealthy Soil? And How Can You Fix It?

Soil health is super important for a successful gardening.

It doesn’t matter whether you have a small garden or a big one, it’s important to understand when the soil is unhealthy.

But how do you know that the soil is poor and unhealthy? and how to fix it?.

In this post i will talk about unhealthy soil, why it happens, and what you can do to make it better.

a shovel in soil
Credit: Pixabay

What Makes An Unhealthy Soil?

Unhealthy soil lack plenty of elements and will make it hard for plants to grow.

Nutrient Depletion:

Unhealthy soil often lacks the essential nutrients that plants require to grow properly.

Elements like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium are vital for various growth processes, and their deficiency can lead to a slow growth, diminished flower and fruit production, and increased susceptibility to diseases.

Imbalanced pH Levels:

The pH level of soil will affect the nutrient availability.

Poor soil might have an imbalanced pH, either too acidic or too alkaline, which can result in certain nutrients becoming inaccessible to plants.

This can cause deficiencies and negatively impact overall plant health.

Poor Soil Structure:

Healthy soil has a well-structured texture that allows roots to penetrate and water to drain effectively.

In contrast, unhealthy soil might be compacted, leading to poor water infiltration, limited root growth, and reduced oxygen availability.

Lack of Organic Matter

Organic matter is crucial for soil fertility and structure.

Unhealthy soil often do not have sufficient organic material, leading to reduced water-holding capacity, compromised microbial activity, and diminished nutrient cycling.

Toxic Substances

Unhealthy soil might contain pollutants or toxins that will negatively impact plant health.

These substances can accumulate in the soil in various ways, such as pollution, improper waste disposal, or the use of contaminated irrigation water.

How Can You Tell the Difference Between Healthy and Unhealthy Soil?

To tell if soil is healthy or not, you need to look closely at certain signs. These signs can help you understand if the soil is good for plants to grow well.

Soil Texture and Structure

Healthy Soil

It has a crumbly texture with well-defined aggregates, allowing roots to penetrate easily and water to move through.

Unhealthy Soil

It may feel compacted, hard, or clumpy, making it difficult for roots to grow and water to drain properly.

Water Drainage

Healthy Soil

It absorbs water readily, with minimal runoff or pooling, promoting efficient root hydration.

Unhealthy Soil:

Water might puddle on the surface, indicating poor drainage due to compaction or improper soil structure.

Root Growth

Healthy Soil

Roots tend to be well-developed and spread throughout the soil, anchoring plants securely.

Unhealthy Soil

Root growth might be limited or shallow due to compacted or nutrient-deficient soil.


Healthy Soil

Typically has a dark color, indicating the presence of organic matter and nutrient-rich content.

Unhealthy Soil

May appear pale, indicating a lack of organic matter and essential nutrients.

Plant Growth

Healthy Soil

Plants exhibit vigorous growth, lush foliage, and vibrant colors.

Unhealthy Soil

Plants may show stunted growth, yellowing leaves, or poor overall health.

Soil Smell

Healthy Soil

Often has an earthy, pleasant odor due to the presence of beneficial microorganisms.

Unhealthy Soil

Might emit foul or unusual odors, indicating imbalances in microbial activity or the presence of toxins.

Worms and Microorganisms

Healthy Soil

It hosts a diverse array of earthworms and microorganisms visible upon digging.

Unhealthy Soil

Might lack these indicators of biological activity due to imbalances in the soil ecosystem.

How Do You Know That the Soil Is Poor?

Finding out if soil is not good involves seeing if it doesn’t have the right nutrients for plants to grow healthy. There are some obvious signs that can show if the soil is bad and needs help:

Stunted Growth And Plant Decline

Plants in poor soil often exhibit slow or stunted growth, with limited height and smaller leaves compared to their potential.

Yellow Leaves

Lack of essential nutrients, such as nitrogen or iron, can lead to yellowing leaves, a condition known as chlorosis.

Reduced Flower or Fruit Production

Poor soil might result in fewer flowers or fruits, as plants divert their energy towards survival rather than reproduction.

Nutrient Deficiencies

Symptoms like browning leaf edges (necrosis) or distorted leaves can indicate specific nutrient deficiencies.

Slow Seed Germination

Seeds taking an extended period to germinate or failing to germinate at all can signal poor soil conditions.

Compacted Soil

If the soil feels hard, compacted, or forms clumps, it lacks the necessary structure for root penetration and water movement.

Water logging or Poor Drainage

Excess water accumulating on the surface or slow drainage can indicate poor soil structure, impeding oxygen supply to roots.

Low Organic Matter Content

Soil lacking organic matter often has a pale color and is less able to retain moisture and support beneficial microbial activity.

Erosion and Soil Loss

Poor soil health can contribute to erosion, where wind or water carries away the top layer, leaving the soil vulnerable and nutrient-depleted.

Increased Pest and Disease Susceptibility

Weakened plants in poor soil are more susceptible to pests and diseases, as they lack the resilience to fend off attacks.

Poor Plant Resilience

Plants growing in poor soil may struggle to recover from stressors like extreme weather conditions or transplanting.

Lack of Earthworms and Soil Life

The absence of earthworms, beneficial insects, and visible microbial activity can indicate a lack of healthy soil ecosystem.

Unresponsive to Fertilizers

If plants show minimal improvement after applying fertilizers, the soil might be unable to effectively retain and deliver nutrients to plants.

What Happens If the Soil Is Unhealthy?

Unhealthy soil sets off a chain reaction of negative impacts that reverberate throughout ecosystems, affecting plant health, water quality, and overall environmental sustainability.

The consequences of unhealthy soil are far-reaching and can manifest in various ways:

Reduced Plant Growth and Crop Yields

Plants struggle to access essential nutrients, resulting in stunted growth, smaller yields, and diminished quality of fruits and vegetables.

Nutrient Imbalance

Unhealthy soil can lead to imbalances in nutrient availability, causing deficiencies or toxic accumulations in plants.

Increased Water Runoff and Erosion

Compacted and unhealthy soil cannot effectively absorb water, leading to increased runoff, erosion, and sedimentation in nearby water bodies.

How Do You Fix Unhealthy Soil?

Addressing unhealthy soil requires a combination of proactive measures to improve its composition, structure, and overall health.

By implementing effective soil management strategies, gardeners, farmers, and land managers can restore soil vitality and create a conducive environment for robust plant growth.

Here’s how to remedy unhealthy soil:

Add Organic Matter

Add compost, well-rotted manure, or cover crops to enhance soil structure, water-holding capacity, and nutrient content.

Practice Crop Rotation

Rotate crops to prevent the buildup of specific pests, diseases, and nutrient imbalances that can contribute to soil degradation.

Reduce Tillage

Minimize excessive tilling to prevent soil compaction and disruption of beneficial soil structure.

Use Cover Crops

Plant cover crops like legumes that fix nitrogen and improve soil structure, preventing erosion and enhancing fertility.


Apply organic mulch (e.g., straw, wood chips) to the soil surface to retain moisture, regulate temperature, and prevent weed growth.

Implement No-Till Practices

No-till farming reduces soil disturbance and preserves the natural soil structure, enhancing water infiltration and microbial activity.

Soil Testing and Balancing Nutrients

Conduct regular soil tests to determine nutrient deficiencies and pH imbalances. Amend the soil with appropriate organic or mineral-based fertilizers.

The Verdict

Unhealthy soil makes plants grow slowly, messes up the nutrients they need, and even makes water dirty and the land break away.

These bad effects go far and affect other plants. But if you learn to see when soil is not good, you can also learn how to fix it.

You can make soil better by adding things like old plant parts, being careful how we grow things, and using smart ways to take care of gardens and farms.

Read also

Nadine is a passionate gardening writer sharing practical tips, innovative ideas, and valuable insights on plant and soil care, In her spare time, she tries to convince her plants to grow by singing them catchy tunes.

Calculate the amount of soil you need for pots, raised beds or planter with the help of this easy to use Soil Calculator