Getting to Know Soil

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So you’ve got your bucket, and seed packet ready. But the question remains, how do you know what kind of soil to fill your bucket up with?

Soil is one of those things that I never really thought about when it came to gardening. I always used to think, well whatever is in the ground will work. But this isn’t always true. It depends on where the soil is coming from, what has been growing there before, and what kind of texture, pH level, and nutrients it contains.

Its one thing if you are growing in a backyard, or directly into the ground, and another if using containers.

What should I look for?

The main thing is that plants, and in particular vegetable plants tend to do best in a soil that has a pH balance of about 6.0-7.5. It doesn’t mean that plants can’t grow in other conditions, but its unlikely that they’ll produce much of anything.

Anything below 7.0 on the pH scale is acidic, and anything above is basic, or alkaline.

Some people want to test their soil before they start growing in the ground. If its your first time planting something in a new location, it can be one way to understand what’s happening with the soil.

You can do that if you are interested, but its not really necessary. If you run into difficulty with growing, then its something you can consider doing. It doesn’t have to be a high tech process either. You can get some pH test papers at a pharmacy, and use those to see where things are at.

Keep in mind, if you do want to test the pH, its best to do this step in the fall.

Another way is to know where to start is look at the texture, and type of soil to determine what it might need.

If you are growing in the ground, and not in a raised bed, or container, this will be a more important step.

If you are container gardening, then you will have a lot more control over what is in your soil, as you will be pre-mixing it before you plant.

What you need to know about soil

Soil offers our plants a key piece of its nutrients, and can sometimes have pretty dramatic effects on growing outcomes.

If you’ve ever seen blue hydrangeas, they grow that way from having a specific acid added to their soil. Hydrangeas are a really great example of how the pH balance can really impact the outcome of the flower.

Just starting out with gardening, you will want to make sure your soil has a balance of nutrients.

This might not seem very intuitive if you’ve never really looked at soil before. I mean looking at soil is one thing, but LOOKING at soil is another.

You can use this chart to get an idea of where to start

A flow chart to determine what type of soil is in your garden

•	Start Here
•	Soil is hard to work
•	Soil looks smooth when wet, with no pores
•	Crusty and deeply cracked when dried out
•	Rock hard when dry
•	Greasy, or sticky when wet
•	Slow to absorb water
•	Its Clay!
•	Soil is easy to work
•	Quite porous
•	Looks loose and full of large particles
•	Feels grainy, or gritty
•	Crumbly, and does not hold shape
•	Quick to warm up in spring
•	Its Sandy!
•	Full of organic matter in varying stages of decay
•	Slow to warm up in spring
•	Feels moist when squeezed
•	Slow to warm up in spring
•	Its Muck, or Peat!
•	Spongy
•	Holds shape when squeezed, falls apart when prodded
•	powdery when dry
•	Absorbs moisture, but drains well
•	Its Loam!
Soil chart to help determine what type of soil you are starting with. Clay, Sand,Muck, Peat, and Loam are common types of soil

The chart above can help you determine what type of soil you might be starting out with if you are growing straight to ground. Loam is the ideal growing soil we are after. We can use other types of soils to help create loamy growing conditions by mixing in what is missing.

Clay

Clay is a really dense material. If you find your soil really difficult to break up with a shovel, or digging fork, and it sticks to your blade this could be signs of clay. Clay is really sticky when wet, or damp, and when it dries out it can have deep cracks. It is also very hard when fully dried out.

If you have clay in your garden, you will need to add a lot of organic materials. Compost, manure, peat moss, are all good ways to help break up the density, and add in texture. Adding in sand, wood chips, or sawdust will also help create a spongier, more absorbent soil that will have a better chance of draining well.

You can play with the ratios depending on how dense things start out. If you have a lot of heavy clay, then you will want to lighten it up with more texture, and add in compost and manure to help increase nutrient levels and improve drainage.

Sandy

Sandy soil is very easy to work. It can come in many different forms, including sand granules, gravel, or other granular loose particles. Sandy soil does not hold its shape, drains fast, and can crumble easily. It is also quick to warm up in the spring weather.

Having sandy soil means that you will need to add in a lot of additional matter. Specifically because sandy soil doesn’t have a lot of nutrients, you will need to create a mix with heavier loads of nutrients. Things like compost, leaf mold, sawdust, and peat moss can help bulk things up.

Sandy soil also drains quite rapidly, which risks drying plant roots out. Adding heavier composts can help retain moisture longer, and reach a more loamy growing condition.

Peat

Peat is partially decomposed. It is usually low in minerals, and has a spongy feel to it when wet. When dry, it can look very fibrous, and break apart easily. Peat generally absorbs water very well, and retains it, meaning it can take longer to dry an area out that has been waterlogged.

To balance waterlogging out, it is best to offset peat with sandy soil, or adding in some gravel for drainage.

As peat decomposes further, it enters the muck stage.

Muck

Muck is a more decomposed version of peat. It is in a more advanced state of decay, and tends to be more water logged. It is usually quite rich in nutrients, but lacking in lime – which can be added.

Muck, like Peat, also needs to offset the water absorption by adding in aggregates or sand to help with drainage. Muck is already nutrient heavy, but adding in lighter materials like well mixed compost, or sand will help it mix better, and provide a more loam like condition for growing.

Adding Lime

If adding lime (from limestone) to your garden soil, add it in the fall. Lime takes a long time to break down in the garden. If you add it in the fall, it has several months over the winter to start dissolving into the soil before spring planting. To add lime, consult a chart on the back of the packaging.

There are two types of lime that are recommended: dolomitic lime, and calcitic lime. If you are adding lime, you will want to make sure you check the pH of the soil before you add it to know how much to add in. You don’t want to overcompensate by adding too much lime. You can learn more about lime use here.

Loam

If you haven’t guessed already, Loam is the type of soil we are most after for growing vegetables. It is a nutrient rich, even balance of well draining and moisture retaining soil. It isn’t too compact, yet still holds enough shape that plants can root themselves and get the necessary support.

Depending on what type of particles make up your soil, your loam could lean toward clay, sandy, or stony loam. Topping up your loam with a rich compost at the beginning of each season will help ensure it stays balanced.

You may have to adjust your loam soil every now and again as the vegetables you grow take nutrients out of the soil. Crop rotating will be another way to help ensure your soil stays fertile.

Soil for container growing

Ultimately, you just need to make sure you are giving your plants a balanced diet. So to do that you will want to give them a mixture of things that create that balance.

As we discussed above, the ideal mixture has excellent drainage, moisture retention, and nutrient levels, and a pH balance in range of your growing needs.

Mixing soil for container growing is great, because its a controlled environment that you create. For vegetables, it is recommended to mix up one third each of compost, manure, and top soil. This mixture will work for most smaller containers like buckets, or small raised beds.

If you are using larger raised beds, consider increasing the amount of compost you are using to help off set your costs, making sure to top six inches are covered in a triple mixture as outlined above.

Let us know how it goes

As always, we would love to hear about your growing adventures. Please leave a comment, or any questions down below. You can also email, and we’d be happy to get in touch.

Enjoy the start to a great spring season.