A good quality soil is the basic necessity and the key to success for any garden. Whether you are a beginner or an expert you ought to know certain aspects about soil and how to improve its quality for a happy gardening experience. Start building your land with healthy soil, well ahead of time before you start planting as this will help you to get better results and produce.

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Know your garden soil before digging in

Knowing your soil type is very important to understand as it can help to determine which kind of plants will thrive well in such conditions. An ideal soil usually contains three main particles like clay, sand and silt in equal proportions which makes them fertile and with an effective drainage system. These kinds of soils are easy to work with and dig, during gardening activities. Generally soils are classified into six types: chalky, clay, loamy, sandy, silty and peaty. You can dostart testing by just taking the soil in your hands and by feeling it or else giving it to soil fertility test kit in your nearest agricultural center. You can even add some water to know more about it. When you rub the soil between your fingers you might feel its nature whether it’s slimy, sticky or filled with coarse materials.

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Chalky soil – This is basically alkaline in nature which contains coarse stone particles and is free draining as it is often found over chalk or limestone rocks. These soils can be of heavy or light type but the main problem faced is leaching up of minerals like iron and manganese, due to its effective drainage system. This problem can be solved by adding fertilizers from time to time for better growth of plants.

Clay soil – This soil warms up slowly during the start of spring and gets harder when dry, also has very poor drainage. Clay soil is filled with rich nutrients and it is lumpy, slimy and sticky when drenched in water. You can make shapes out of clay soil and are made of fine particles and stays in shape when it gets dry. This kind of soil is hard to work with as digging will be a herculean task.

Loamy soil – this is the perfect soil which is easy to work with whether digging or watering it. It has a balanced drainage system were water is maintained without too much draining or logging. As far as nutrients are concerned it is highly rich in essential substances and also warms up quickly during spring season. This soil is a mixture of three components like clay, sand and silt that means it contains different sized particles in it which makes it a perfect soil for gardening. Loamy soil has an open structure which makes it a good aerated soil and also can be made into shapes when rolled with hands, but the shape won’t stay intact when it gets dry as like that of the clay soil.

Peaty soil – peat soils are acidic in nature with high organic matter content but unfortunately very low in nutrients. It holds high level of moisture content and for that reason it is more prone to water logging. The basic colour of this kind of soil will be dark and somewhat a spongy look. This soil can do well for plants which are acid loving and are hardly found in gardens.

Sandy soil – this kind of soil is easy to work with as it is free draining and warms up quickly with the start of spring season. There is a major concern with this soil and that is, it dries out very fast by making leaching of nutrients very easy during rains and due to this reason we need to keep adding organic matter and fertilizers from time to time to maintain the moisture as well as nutrients. You can make shapes out of this soil as it is made of larger coarse particles which will crumble away easily.

Silty soil – It is made up of fine particles and is free draining but holds the moisture level intact. Compared to sandy soils this soil is highly rich in nutrients and easy to handle. It has a smooth texture and can be rolled into a ball easily but never keeps the shape and breaks off easily.[/restab]
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How to improve your soil types

Since you have given a glimpse into your garden soil, by now you know what soil type you have. So lets us discuss how to improve each soil type and how to start with the work.

Let’s play with each soil to make it more comfortable for the plants.

Clay soil  – This soil as mentioned before is also rich in nutrients and are fertile, apart from their easily drying nature. So you can solve this problem by adding in more organic matter which will break down the clay crumbs easily and make it hold water as well nutrients readily available for the plants. By breaking the clay crumbs the soil will get warmer and are easier to work with than just the clay alone.

Sandy soils – As this soil has as free draining feature it is very low in nutrients as well as loses water very quickly than any other soil. This can be prevented by adding organic matter which will increase water holding capacity as well as leaching out of nutrients. Loose sands will be bonded into crumbs as organic matter is added. To give an extra boost to the plants you can add fertilizers.

Silt soils – Such soil types can be easily worked up using garden tools as they are made up of fine particles that can be easily compacted and set. These soils are fertile as they have more nutrients and water holding capacity than sandy soils. The main problem faced by such soils is that, they are easily washed away by wind and water. To rectify this problem you can add organic matter to make this soil more stable and suitable for plants.

Loamy soil – This is the perfect soil for any gardener as they contain everything in proportions. Even though it is a perfect soil, don’t forget to add fertilizers and organic matter regularly if you are working with it every year. This will help to maintain the fertility of the soil intact and gives a healthy environment for plants.

Chalky soils – These are alkaline in nature and will not support plants which need acidic content in their soils. Chalky soils are hard to work with as they contain white chalk stones or lime stones and due to this reason it is hard to make them acidic. You can only cultivate those plants which thrive well in alkaline conditions. Chalky soils are shallow and less fertile but if clay is present then things will be different.[/restab]
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Test the soil p H before setting up a garden

Before you design or plan for a garden make sure to check for the p H of the soil as this can help to determine the needs and requirements of the plants. Soil test is nothing but a tool which will help you to understand the nutritional requirements of the plant and how to manage it. In this method a soil sample is taken to check for its nutrient levels and other aspects like lead contamination. It is an easy and quick method which is inexpensive and the results will be known very soon from a lab analysis.

Why should we test the soil?

Whether you are a beginner or an expert it is very important to know more about your soil and its nature. With the help of soil tests you will be able to determine the p H levels and essential nutrient contents in the soil. By p H it simply means the level of acidity in the soil as too much acid content in soils are not suitable for any plant growth. Any soil should have a balance of everything in right proportions for a healthy plant growth. Too much nutrients and fertilizers can harm the plants as well as pollute the environment. Similarly very less nutrients can hinder the plants growth. So with the help of soil test you will be able to determine the amount of lime and fertilizers that should be added if necessary.

Benefits of soil testing

  • Saves time and unnecessary work
  • Helps to create environmental well being and quality
  • Prevents water pollution
  • Keep a check on funds which you would otherwise splurge buying lime and fertilizers when there is no need of it.
  • Helps you to plan and encourage plant growth
  • Results obtained from a soil test
  • The level of p H will be known which will decide whether your soil is acidic, alkaline or neutral in nature.
  • Richness of organic matter level if present.
  • Presence of lead contamination and this is done mainly for health reasons
  • The level of fertilizers or lime that can be added to the soil
  • Presence and percentage of minerals like potassium, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and sulfur.
  • Presence of micro nutrients
  • Texture and characteristic of the soil
  • Helpful tips to plant and maintain your crops

How frequently should you test your soil and what is the right time?

If you are a rigorous farmer then testing every year would help you to monitor changes in soil fertility as well as help you save money on fertilizers and other soil amendments. But generally others can do a test at least once in two or three years and analyze the results with previous tests to know the changes that have occurred to the soil. Some people go for a soil test when they face any problems with handling the soil or when growth rate of the plants are not up to the desired levels.

Testing can be done at any time whether in spring or during fall, but the results will be based for your next growing season. So the ideal time is to test during the fall season as it will help to give you ample time to work on the soil well before planting crops. Also make sure not to test the soil within three months of adding any lime or fertilizers as that may give results which are misleading and of no use.

  • Different ways to test the soil p H
  • DIY kits can help you do the test right at your home
  • A laboratory test can get your work done

Do it yourself kits are available at local garden centers which will enable you to check the p H level of the soil. These kits are cheap and can be very useful for fast results. Such kits will not help to give any detailed analysis of the soil like the laboratory results. If you are planning to give a soil test to the laboratory then take a sample of the soil mentioned by the lab representatives or details provided by them.[/restab]

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How to construe the results of a soil test

A range of p H 7.0 is considered as neutral and that means the soil is neither acidic nor alkaline. A p H value below 7.0 indicates that the soil is acidic and above indicates that the soil is alkaline. This will help you to decide what amendments are needed for your soil and the best suited crops.

Very acidic soil (p H 3.0 to 5. 0)

Such soils make it easier for nutrients like calcium, magnesium and copper to become highly soluble due to its acid nature and hence are washed away with water or a heavy rainfall easily. A p H below 5.1 indicates that phosphates are present but cannot be absorbed the plants. Sandy soils in such conditions will be deficient in minerals and nutrients making them unfavorable for plant growth. Adding organic matter can help solve problems but if the p H of the soil is below 4.7 then it will be difficult for the bacteria’s to convert organic matter into nutrients needed by plants. To sort out this problem you can add lime to increase the p H level of the soil to above 5.0 and help break the soils into crumbs for better growth of the plants.

Acid soil (p H 5.1 to 6.0)

This kind of soil is Ideal for plants like rhododendrons and heather’s as they dislike lime in their soil. If you want to grow different crops which do not like too much acidic nature then add lime to make it moderate and suitable for plants.

Moderately acid soil (p H 6.1 to 7.0)

A wide range of plants can be grown in such soils as it has the best ph range. But this soil will not be suitable for plants which do not require lime content in their soil. This is the optimum ph in which bacterial action is at its peak which converts organic matter into plant nutrients. Earthworms love this kind of soil as they work well to make the soil fertile. These kinds of soils do not require any amendments or additions as they are rich in essential nutrients.

Alkaline soil (p H above 7.1 to 8.0)

Availability of minerals like iron and manganese becomes scarce and they are less soluble than acidic soil. Alkaline soil is not great for plant growth as they don’t allow water and essential nutrients to penetrate the soil easily. Plants get stunned growth due to poor alkaline soils. Slightly alkaline soils may be good for certain plants but highly alkaline soils will cause nutrient deficiency in plants and hinder its growth. Adding sulfur and organic matter will help the soil to reduce its p H value to a certain degree and make it acidic.

Tips on how to improve soil fertility

  • Add organic matter as much as possible to improve the quality of the soil. Organic matter will help to increase the water and nutrient holding capacity as well as provide a strong base for the roots.
  • Prevent compaction of soil as it might cause poor aeration, decreased water penetration and less space for the roots and organisms to flourish.
  • Cover the ground by planting cover crops as they will add essential nutrients and organic matter to soil. They also help to prevent soil erosion caused by wind and water.
  • Plant a variety of crops in each season as diversity will help to add more nutrients and residue to the soil also help to control pests and weeds.
  • Add compost or organic matters to the soil minimum of 5 cm thick layer and then start digging the soil or forking it. This will help to mix well and if required add fertilizers and level the surface for planting.

Conclusion

Soil is very essential and a basic necessity for most of the farmers and gardeners. Most of the traditional farmers knew just by feeling their soil as what is required for them to induce plant growth. But presently most of us are new to this gardening activity so make sure you do a through analysis of your soil type before planting any crops or setting up a garden. This will help you to decide what kind of plants you can go for and how to grow a beautiful green garden.[/restab][/restabs]

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