Healthy Soil

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Soil Types

Good soil is the foundation of any garden. Investing in and caring for your soil properly is one of the best things you can do for the overall health of your plants.

Soil can have many textures, but the three primary types are:

  • Clay Soil – Clay soil is made up small particles that stick together to form large clumps. It drains slowly and then dries out completely and because of its heavy texture and drainage issues, some plants will not do well in heavy clay soil.
  • Sandy Soil – While it is easier to work with than clay soil, sandy soil has its own challenges. Typically, sandy soil drains really quickly and does not retain nutrients well. Many plants (except for established, water-wise plants) will require more frequent watering in sandy soil.
  • Loam Soil – With a better balance of sand, silt and clay, loam soil is a gardener’s ideal. It drains well and is easy to work with.

In order to gauge the health and vitality of soil, there are three primary measures that determine the quality of soil:

  • Structure – Structure refers to how the particles of sand, silt, and clay combine with organic matter. Soil that has a good structure has a crumbly feel. You may even hear expert gardeners discussing the “crumb” of their soil.
  • Organic Matter – Organic matter is just a fancy word for dead plant and animal tissue. When the organic matter decomposes it supplies your soil with additional nutrients. It also helps improve the soil’s structure and ability to both absorb water and properly drain water.
  • Healthy pH – pH is the level of acidity or alkalinity in your soil and is measured on a scale of 0 to 14, with 7 as the neutral point. Most plants do best in soil with a pH level close to neutral, although many flowering and fruiting plants require slightly acidic soil (pH level below 7) and many succulents and desert plants prefer alkaline soil (pH level above 7). The pH level of soil matters because it can impact how effectively plants are able to take up nutrients in the soil.

How to Know What Soil You Have

Thoroughly wet a patch of soil and let it dry for a day. Pick up a handful of soil and squeeze it firmly. If the soil remains in a tight ball and is a bit slippery, you’ve got clay soil. If the soil is gritty and doesn’t hold its shape or simply crumbles, you have sandy soil. If the soil is slightly crumbly but stays in a loose ball, you have ideal loam soil. You can also purchase DIY soil tests at your local nursery or garden center to help you understand pH balances and soil structure.

How to Improve Your Soil

Adding compost or bagged soil amendments (buy a reputable brand that is well-composted and weed-free) will help improve your soil. It may take 2-3 inches of compost or soil amendments to make a difference. You don’t need to dig the compost into the soil—just spread it around on top and let earthworms and other soil insects incorporate it in.

If you have clay soil, adding soil amendments will help increase aeration and water retention. Adding gypsum will also help air and water to move more easily through clay soil. If you have sandy soil, adding compost will increase water and nutrient-holding capacity.

Leave it Be

Whenever possible, avoid walking on your flowerbeds to minimize compacting the soil. The more the soil is compacted, the harder it is for plant roots to grow. Recently, “no-dig” or “no-till” gardening has become more popular, due to the understanding that the more we disrupt the soil, the more we upset the soil’s ecosystem as it was intended to thrive. Do as little walking, digging, and tilling as possible.

Over time, by paying close attention to your soil and what it needs, you will see an improvement in the health of your soil, and in turn, your entire garden as a whole.

If you are following these basic guidelines and still not seeing the results you were hoping for, establish a relationship with a nursery or garden center where a professional can troubleshoot with you and help determine what your soil needs.