While it may not look like much yet, I’ve got high hopes for this year’s garden. (Of course, I always have high hopes early in the season, which devolve into high hopelessness when facing a weed-filled garden come summer.) A few weeks ago, I cleaned out all the cornhusks and started the dirty work. The level of soil in the two 4X12-foot beds was only about halfway up the 6-inch boards, so my first order of business was building that up.

Each bed first got a couple of wheelbarrows of compost, as well as several shovelfuls from last fall’s pile of chicken manure. I also picked up 20 bags of topsoil and 10 bags of organic humus on sale from the farm and ranch store, which got distributed between the two beds with a few bags of each held back for my new potato patch.

All in all, the soil in my raised beds is in the best condition ever. What was once sandy clay has now taken on a looser, loamy texture. It’s not perfect yet, but it’s getting there–thanks to these five simple tips to creating better garden soil.

1. Get your soil tested, either by your local agriculture extension office, or pick up a DIY kit from the garden store. Once you know your soil’s pH level, you’ll have a better idea of what you need to add to get the best results. Slightly acidic (6.5) to neutral (7) pH levels offer the best growing conditions for most common vegetables.

2. Make friends with your local farmer or feedlot operator. Manure is the best, and generally cheapest, form of fertilizer. Mine comes from my chicken coop, but you can often get a truckload of cow or horse manure cheap, or even free if you offer to haul it yourself. You’ll want enough to cover your entire garden two inches deep.

3. Know your manure. There are two kinds of manure: hot (sheep and chicken or other fowl), and cold (cow, horse, and pig). Hot has a nitrogen level of 1 percent or more, which can burn your plants if applied fresh or directly. Better to let that dry out, or apply it in the fall. Cold manure is a little more friendly and forgiving, and can be added just before planting.

4. Mulch early and mulch often. The best way to build up good garden soil is the generous use of mulch, whether it is grass clippings, hay, straw, or compost alone or in combination. It also helps control weeds, reduces erosion and compaction and helps the soil hold moisture.

5. It pains me to send anyone to Wal-Mart, but stop by their garden center once a week or so. Most of them will sell you torn bags of expensive mulch, manure, peat, humus, and other soil amendments from their garden center for $1 each. You can get some great deals if you time your visit right.