A plant’s ability to survive-and thrive-in your garden depends on the quality and condition of the soil. It needs to have good water drainage, yet hold just the right amount of water and nutrients. It also needs ample pore spaces to hold air.
Good soil is your best guarantee for a healthy garden. Here’s how you grade your own soil:
First, find out what your soil is made of. Take a sample from the top 6 inches of your garden’s soil. Put it in a jar; fill the jar with water; and cap it, shake it, and let the mixture settle. It will settle into three distinct layers.
Sand, the heaviest, will settle to the bottom; clay, the lightest, will sit on top; silt will be in the middle. If you have roughly equal amounts of each of these layers, your soil is in good shape. If there is more sand or clay, you will need to improve the soil.
The drainage in the soil is determined by the soil’s texture-the size of the soil particles. Clay soil is composed of tiny granules that stick together. You can roll clay soil into a firm ball that feels smooth and sticky.
Sandy soil has large sand particles you can see; it feels coarse and gritty. You can’t form a ball with sandy soil. It also doesn’t hold water or nutrients very well. Loam, the ideal garden soil, is a good mixture of sandy soil, medium-size silt particles, and clay.
You can determine how well your soil drains with this simple test. Dig a hole about 4 inches deep. Fill the hole with water to saturate the soil around it. Wait for the water to drain. Take a tin can with both ends removed and push it down into the hole (see photo at right). Note the time you insert the can.
Fill the can with water and see how long it takes to drain. If the water is gone in less than an hour or if it takes longer than five hours, your soil needs some organic material added to it.
How do you fix a soil problem?
Adding organic matter, or hummus is usually the best solution. It makes the soil soft, crumbly, and workable. Soil that is high in organic matter drains well, and warms up, and dries out faster in the spring.
Peat moss is one source of organic matter that’s readily available. Apply about 1 to 2 inches of peat moss to the soil in the spring or fall and work it into the top 6 inches of your soil.