The First Time Gardener: Getting to Know Your Soil

There’s no doubt that our soil is an incredibly important part of our gardening success, and there’s a lot that you can learn from your soil by doing a couple of simple tests. You can also learn a lot just by going out, feeling your soil, and paying close attention to what you feel! Here are 4 simple tests you can do in your garden to get to know your soil better.

Simple Test #1:

Pick up a handful of moist soil and form it into a ball. (The soil shouldn’t be dry or muddy to do this test.) Then gently squeeze the ball of soil. If it crumbles gently, it is probably a loam soil. If it doesn’t crumble at all, it probably is some type of clay soil. If you can’t get it to form a ball, it is probably either very sandy or too dry for the test.

Simple Test #2:

Take your ball of soil and moisten it a little more if need be. Now try to flatten it into a soil “ribbon.” Can you make a ribbon? If so, estimate how long it is. The longer your ribbon, the more clay in your soil. A loam soil will form a very short ribbon or no ribbon at all. A sandy soil…well, you couldn’t even make a ball, right?

Simple Test #3:

Take your ribbon/ball of soil from the first two tests, and break off a small piece. Pour a little water into your hand and massage the soil into a muddy thin paste (almost watery). Feel the thin paste. Does it feel gritty? That’s sand. Does it feel sticky? That’s clay. Does it feel smooth (but not sticky)? That’s silt. Depending on how much you feel one characteristic, that indicates how much of each of those 3 components is in your soil.

Simple Test #4:

Take about 1 cup of your soil and put it in a quart jar. Add a teaspoon of granular dish detergent if you have some. Fill the jar about 3/4 full with water, and put on the lid. Now shake the jar thoroughly so there isn’t any soil on the bottom. Set the jar down and set a timer for 2 minutes.  When the 2 minutes is up, measure the amount of sediment in the bottom of the jar with a ruler and write it down. After 2 hours, measure the amount of sediment again and record it. In 24-72 hours (whenever the water is mostly clear again), record the amount of sediment in the jar again.

The measurement you took after the first 2 minutes is the amount of sand in your soil. The amount of sediment that accumulated after 2 hours minus the first number is the amount of silt. The last measurement (minus the earlier measurements) is the amount of clay. Use those 3 numbers to calculate the relative percentage of sand, silt, and clay in your soil.

From there, you can plug your percentages into the Soil Texture Triangle to get an idea of what type of soil you have.

Using this chart, I would classify the soil pictured above as a Sandy Loam, with quite a bit of organic matter as well!

So why is it important to know what type of soil you have? What difference does it make if you have lots of sand, lots of silt, or lots of clay? You’ll have to check back next week to find out!

About Rebecca

I'm a Horticulture Educator with Sedgwick County Extension, a branch of K-State Research and Extension, located in Wichita, KS. I teach about fruits, vegetables, and herbs.

Posted on March 31, 2011, in The First Time Gardener and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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