Getting to Know Your Soil

Designing a garden may look easy, but there is so much more to it than meets the eye. Not to mention, the choices in the garden center are overwhelming, especially if you’re a plant lover like me and want to buy every plant you see.

A large and very important part of garden design is plant planning. While the idea of having your front and/or back yard full of plants makes you tingle all over with joy and excitement, knowing the ins and outs of your own landscape helps immensely when it comes to knowing where in your yard to plant flowers, shrubs, and ornamental trees.

The first step in your planting plan is to get to know the soil conditions in your yard. This is tricky because soil tests can be quite complicated, however there are simple tests you can take to determine which plants to plant and how much soil amendment you will need when you decide to build your new garden bed.

The Ribbon Test

Take a handful of soil and moisten it until it is putty-like consistency. Then, gently knead the soil between your fingers or your palms. If the soil crumbles before it forms a ribbon, it is sand or mostly sand. If the soil forms a ribbon up to 2 inches long before it breaks, it is loamy, or composed of equal parts of sand, silt, and clay (the ideal planting medium). If the soil forms a ribbon longer than 2 inches, it is clay or mostly clay. This information will determine which plants will thrive in your yard and how much amendment you will need.

The Soil Drainage Test

Another test that is simple, yet important, is a soil drainage test. Dig a hole to about 12 inches deep and then slowly pour a bucket (between 1 and 2 liters) of water into the hole. If the soil drains quickly while you are pouring the water, your soil is sand, or composted mostly of sand. If the soil drains not too quickly, but at a steady pace (it drains within approximately 10 minutes), it is likely loam or a combination of clay, sand, and silt. If the soil takes longer than an hour to drain, it is clay.

Checking For Earthworms

This is not an actual soil test; rather it is a test of soil fertility. In spring after the first frost, dig a hole up to 12 inches deep and place the dug-up soil onto a piece of cardboard. Break apart the soil and examine it for earthworms. If you see 10 or more earthworms, your soil is fertile because the presence of worms indicates microbial activity. Microbial activity within the topsoil is beneficial to plant health and vitality because of the sufficient amounts of nutrients worms excrete. These nutrients, particularly nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, and calcium, then become readily available to plant roots.

Amendment For Different Soil Types

This is as recommended by the editors of The Old Farmers Almanac.

Sandy soils: Add in humus (or topsoil from your local garden center will do), a handful or two of peat moss, aged manure and/or sawdust to improve the soil’s fertility and water-holding capacity.

Silty soils: Add course sand (not beach sand) or crushed gravel, compost, well-rotted horse manure, and straw; that is if you have access to the latter two. If not, then the course sand, crushed gravel, and compost should be well enough if mixed into the soil in equal amounts.

Clay soils: Add in peat moss, compost, and a pinch of course sand or crushed gravel (not beach sand). For heavy clay soils, or soils that are compacted, you can do either of the following:

  • Build a raised garden bed
  • Place an arrangement of potted plants, patio lanterns or LED garden lights, and garden ornaments to prettify the space and give it a warm, welcoming look.
  • Build a patio with a seating area

Sources Used

‘3 Simple DIY Soil Tests’ by the editors of The Old Farmers Market. March 27th, 2019 https://www.almanac.com/content/3-simple-diy-soil-tests# Accessed October 25th, 2021.

2 thoughts on “Getting to Know Your Soil

  1. Pingback: Your Planting Plan

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