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Updated: May 17, 2021

How does understanding your soil type make you a better gardener?

Is my soil type perfect for growing those delicious nutrient-dense vegetables?

If you have been pondering these questions in your growing journey then you are in the right spot. Today in this blog post I am going to discuss with you the importance of knowing your soil type, how to identify the soil type of your garden, and how all this information can indeed make you a better gardener.

To begin with, let’s first define soil type and what types of soil are common.

What Are the Four Common Soil Types?

Soil is made up of essentially three basic ingredients, sand, clay, and silth. And the ratio or combination of these ingredients will determine your soil type or more scientifically your Soil Structure. Below may seem just a long list of definitions kind of like in a dictionary. But I couldn’t find any other way to explain all of this information.

Clay is very small particles that stick together and hold moisture very well, almost too well.

Sand, the largest soil particles, acts as a sieve when it comes to water retention.

Slith is actually both sand and clay in very fine particles. It holds water perfectly but because of the particle fineness, it is prone to compaction.

Organic Matter is also an intricate part of soil composition but it is not listed as an ingredient because it is plant-based and not a rock. I mention it though because I am going to talk about it again so I want you to be thinking about it.

Understanding Your Soil Type

Clay soil is soil that is heavy in clay or has a larger amount of clay in the soil ingredient ratio. It also feels lumpy and is sticky when wet and rock hard when dry. Clay soil is poor at draining and has few air spaces. The soil will warm up slowly in spring and it is heavy to cultivate. If the drainage for the soil is enhanced, organic matter, then plants will develop and grow well as clay soil can be rich in nutrients.

Sandy soil is soil that is heavy in sand and thus does not retain water very well. Sandy soil feels gritty. It drains easily, dries out fast, and is easy to cultivate. Sandy soil warms up fast in the spring and tends to hold fewer nutrients as these are often washed away during large weather events.

Silty soil is a balance of sand and clay but the particles of each are very small. It feels soft and soapy, it holds moisture and is usually very rich in nutrients. The soil is easily cultivated and can be compacted with little effort. This is great soil for your garden if drainage is provided and managed. Mixing in composted organic matter is usually needed to improve drainage and structure while adding nutrients.

Loamy soil is the goal of all gardeners, it has an even ratio of sand and clay and silt. Loamy soil feels fine-textured and slightly damp. It has ideal characteristics for gardening, lawns, and shrubs. Loamy soil has great structure, adequate drainage, is moisture-retaining, full of nutrients, easily cultivated and it warms up quickly in spring, but doesn’t dry out quickly in summer.

Know that we have the definitions out of the way. Let’s get to how you can figure out what type of soil you have.

Test Your Soil For Soil Type

There are several ways that you can determine the structure of your soil. And each has its benefits and weaknesses.

Water Test

This test is very quick to do but is also the least accurate.

  • Pour water on your soil and if it disappears quickly then it most likely that you have sandy soil. And if the opposite is true then you have more clay soil.

Squeeze or Touch Test

This test again doesn’t take much time but is dependent on your sense of touch and I know that everyone is made differently, so what one person might call soft another could call rough.

  • If the soil feels scratchy and doesn’t hold its shape when squeeze put instead runs through your finger is most likely sandy soil

  • If the soil feels sticky and slick and when squeezed in your hand the soil maintain that shape it would be clay soil

  • If the soil is a combination of the two; sticks together but also comes apart in a short time and feels more smooth textured then it is more likely loam

Composition Test

I give full instruction for this test in my eBook, Dirt: Finding the Solution to Building Soil Health, because it is an easy home test but is very accurate.

  1. First, collect a handful of soil and place it in a clean quart canning jar.

  2. Fill the jar with the soil with water to an inch from the top.

  3. Place a lid on the jar and seal firmly.

  4. Shake the jar until the soil is broken up in the water.

  5. Leave on your counter for 12 to 24 hours or until the soil has settled to the bottom of the jar.

  6. Examine your results. The particle of your soil will have settled in the jar according to weight and size.

When looking at these results you should see different lays and each layer is going to be a different kind of particle. I will include a slide below from my Soil Is Your Foundation Master Class that will help you see what the different layers mean.

Professional Soil Test

Every spring you should have a professional nutrient level soil test done for your garden soil. I promise you this test is not hard and if you want to learn more about why this test is important and how to do it you can read my eBook! I promise you that you are all the expert your soil needs.

Now when you send your soil off to be tested just ask for them to include a structure analysis too. It is very easy, a little time-consuming, but it is the most accurate.

You have the composition results of your soil, now what? You use the results to see how your soil compares to the Ideal Soil for your garden.

The Ideal Garden Soil

Soil health is measured in two ways, what your soil produces and the life in your soil. Both of these things are living things, plants and microorganisms, and both have a set of nutrients and environment that will help them grow their best. Understanding your soil structure is going to help you determine the environment that both plants and microorganisms love. And that is Loam soil, a soil that has a nice mix of sand, clay, silth, and most importantly organic matter.

Loam soil is your goal but that doesn’t mean that the soil you are growing in right now can not be helped or changed in some way. Elliot Coleman said, “Almost any soil can be made productive for growing crops, the difference lies in the effort needed to make it so.”

You can improve your soil health and learn more about the ideal soil and why it is your ultimate goal you can listen to Season 2 Episode 3, What is the Ideal Soil?, from the Pray, Just Plant Podcast.

Your Soil Type Understood

One thing I do want to say is that you can not realistically change your soil type by mixing in another soil type. For example, I have done research on improving my clay soil and many sites say just add sand but that is not the answer, here is why! For me to add the appropriate amount of sand to my soil to help it become more balanced I would need to add 10 tons of sand, that is 20,000 pounds of sand, in just a ¼ acre garden. Do you see why this would not work?

Now you can improve your soil type. I am not saying you can’t but when you do decide to, I want you to remember these two words, Organic Matter!!

How Does Knowing My Soil Type Make Me A Better Gardener?

Once you know your soil and it has told you all its secrets you can use this knowledge to your advantage. Like I told you before each soil type has its good and bad qualities. And when you match these to your soil you in a sense have the upper hand. Let me explain.

Clay Soil

Clay Soil is very high in nutrients, which is great for your plants but it also does not absorb water very quickly. So as the gardener who wants to make sure that those nutrients are available for your plants you need to make sure that you water clay soil differently. Your plants need a liquid diet of soil sludge. And if you water too much and the soil is not given enough time to absorb it, the water will just run off the surface and not enter the soil. So when watering clay soil you want to water in short intervals. The breaks between the watering will give the soil time to let the soil soak in the water before the next watering. Also because clay soil will hold on to water more easily you will not need to water as often. Watering too often can drown your plants.

And Clay Soil is also slow to warm up in the spring. So you may need to warm the soil with solarization before planting any early crops. It is also hard to grow soft berry because the soil is too cool and compact. I know I have a very hard time growing strawberries. They do great that first year but then winter kills because the soil stays too cold and freezes too hard.

But also on the other hand summer crops do great in clay soil because it does keep the roots cooler. And shrubs and fruit trees love clay soil!!

Sandy Soil

Sandy soil holds water like a horse tank with a hole in the bottom. Which is not very well. So just like clay soil it is important not to water too long at one time and is best to water more often but only for a short time. Sandy soil is low in nutrients and any added nutrients are usually easily lost in huge water events. So it is important to use natural fertilizers because their particles are large and heavy.

Sandy soil also warms up nicely in the spring and easier to cultivate. This makes it great for a vegetable garden as long as the above factors are taken into account.

Silthy Soil

Silthy Soil is a great combination of sandy and clay soil but is very prone to compaction. And is great for gardens as long as drainage and proper watering intervals are practiced. This can all be solved with my two favorite words, organic matter.

Loam Soil

Last comes Loam! Loam is the ideal soil. It has great structure, adequate drainage, is moisture-retaining, full of nutrients, easily cultivated and it warms up quickly in spring but doesn’t dry out quickly in summer.

But it is also not perfect. This greatness needs to be maintained with you guessed it, Organic matter. You will need to rotate crops, plant green manure crops, using mulches, and add compost and organic nutrients to retain soil vitality. Your plant in your garden will use up all of this goodness and it up to you to give your soil a continuous supply of food to keep it healthy!

Thank you for joining me. To learn more about improving your soil health don’t hesitate to grab my free Soil Health Guide, which was designed to take the guessing out of improving your soil health.

Have a blessed day,


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