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The Simple Secret to Gardening Success

Learn about soil types and DIY type testing to make sure you’re planting the right plants in the right place.

Avid gardeners and those in the landscaping industry have a lot to say about soil. Clay, sand, topsoil, mulch, amendment, compost — we use these terms regularly because land is so important to what we do. For those of you who claim to have “thumbs”, I’d like to share a little gardening secret. A successful garden starts with soil.

Soils vary greatly from region to region, accumulating geological processes, climate and
vegetation changes over time. There are countless products and amendments you can use to transform your soil, but the easiest way to create a low-maintenance, lush garden is to use the soil you have. Here you’ll learn how to perform a simple soil test in your garden and what soil type means for the success of your landscaping.

Right plant, right place. This mantra is repeated in RDKLandscapiing’s blog. Understanding where to plant begins with knowing the type of soil that exists. Soil type affects irrigation, grading, and plant performance. Explore the different soils in your landscape by looking closely at their textures. Many gardens have zones with slightly different soil types.

This garden in Buffalo NY USA, features drought-tolerant plants that thrive in the coarse, sandy soil of coastal areas.

Soil foundation

There are various systems to classify and describe soil types based on their composition. Soil triangles are the most useful and simple for the home gardener. Describes soil composition based on the amount of sand, silt, and clay present. These three types of soil particles have different structural properties due to their size and shape. Sand particles are the largest, silt particles are medium-sized, and clay particles are very small.

The base soil in this garden Buffalo NY USA is likely very sandy, but improved soil with improved drainage and added nutrients is used in raised beds to grow vegetables. Gravel was added to the path to prevent erosion. If you’re planting directly in the ground, perform a soil test to determine your native soil type and select plants that will grow well in that soil. Learn how to determine your soil type.

Soils can be described in three categories: sand, clay, and silt. Two common soil types are loam and silty clay. The mixture or composition of different particle types gives soil its unique texture. Because of the structural and textural differences between soil types, water moves through each type in different ways. Plant roots also grow and respond to different types of soil depending on their structure.

A bog gardens display a diverse array of plant species, depending on the water level in the soil. Bogs and wetlands typically have very high organic matter accumulations that impede drainage.

Soil type

Sand. Because sand particles are the largest soil component, sandy soils drain water very well. The problem with sandy soil is that it drains too quickly and doesn’t retain enough moisture or nutrients for plants to grow. Plants that are drought tolerant and can exist in nutrient-poor soils are best suited to sandy soils.

Clay. Heavy clay soils do not drain well. With clay, the soil particles are small and stick together note the stickiness of the soil on your finger, leaving no air space for water to penetrate. Therefore, the main problem with clay soils is poor drainage. There are many plants that can tolerate clay soil, and most native plants can tolerate the clay soil characteristics of a particular region.

Some areas have clay soils that expand when wet called expansive clays and contract significantly when dry. Another sign of clay is that the surface cracks when the soil dries. Clay soils also tend to compact easily, making water infiltration difficult.

Silt. Silty soils are typically found in areas where sediments are transported by rivers or streams. River floodplains typically have a layer of silt deposited over time by floods. The silt in this area creates very fertile soil. Soil with a high silt content is smooth to the touch and does not stick to your fingers like clay.

Silty soil is high in minerals and nutrients, making it an excellent soil for gardening. The
disadvantage of silt is that it can be easily compressed. Plants native to riparian ecosystems and lowland forests thrive in silty soils.

Loam. A mixture of 40% sand, 20% silt, and 40% clay is called loam. Good loam soil is the easiest to garden because it retains moisture for plants, drains well, and has good structure. An ideal soil structure has a variety of soil particle sizes to allow air to occupy the spaces between soil particles and provide oxygen to the root zone. Plant roots actually need oxygen to effectively absorb water and nutrients.

Thin soil. In mountainous and rocky coastal areas, soil may be embedded between exposed bedrock. The soil present in these pockets may be gravelly and may lack the ability to hold large amounts of water or nutrients. These are very challenging soil conditions for gardening.

A pioneer species, this plant can survive in thin soils, even during drought. If your climate is dry, experiment with succulents and sedum. If you live in the Pacific Northwest or coastal Maine, consider growing a garden with moss and lichens.

DIY soil type test

Pick up a handful of damp soil, squeeze it in your fist, and then release it. In this example using Midwestern clay soil from my garden, the soil held its shape even after I stretched my finger. This is a clear sign of clay.

If you squeeze your soil and have a hard time holding its shape or sticking together, you likely have sandy soil. Sandy soil will fall off your fingertips when you squeeze it.

In the example here, I did the same DIY soil test using dark, rich material from my own vegetable garden. The soil in the beds was amended with compost.

Notice how I’m squeezing water out of the dirt in the middle snapshot. This is evidence that high organic matter content helps soil retain moisture. Additionally, in the snapshot on the far right, you can see that the soil is broken and has no distinct shape. The soil is light, airy and friable, like cornbread. Here, water, oxygen, and nutrients all work together to help vegetables grow well.

Soil improvement

In nature, soil forms over time in the fall as organic matter such as leaves and grass breaks down and decomposes, adding nutrients to the soil. When fallen leaves piled up on the forest floor are pulled up, the decomposed material is revealed layer by layer.

The soil itself contains a rich and complex ecosystem of organisms that interact to release nutrients and perpetuate cycles of decay and growth. Fungi, the microscopic webs of bacteria, animals and small bugs in the soil, are what make landscapes productive and resilient. Use leaves, compost or mulch to build the process of adding organic nutrients to the soil. This will greatly improve your
landscape over time.

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