Secrets of the soil

Have you ever wondered why the plants you just stuck in the ground in your backyard don’t seem to flourish?

The ground we start with often had its fertile topsoil removed by bulldozers when our houses were built. The topsoil contained the worms and microbial life essential to healthy soil.

Whatever you are growing, healthy soil is the cornerstone. Not only will whatever you planted grow stronger and look better, but it will also be less prone to pest issues. It’s our job as gardeners to get the soil back to its healthy natural state. To do this, it helps to understand the soil’s texture.

Soil is a mixture of broken-down rocks, living organisms, organic materials (dead plants and animals), and mineral particles.

There are three main components of soil: sand, clay, and silt. These components are usually found in different proportions in different locations.

The mix of these components will affect how the water drains, how well the soil holds nutrients, how much oxygen roots get, and how quickly soil erodes.

Too much sand in the soil means it will dry out quickly and won’t hold nutrients. On the other hand, the ground with a high clay content is great at holding moisture and nutrients, but its poor drainage may lead to your plants getting fungal diseases. Silt combines the best qualities of sand and clay.

Your ideal soil is called loam, and this contains the perfect balance of sand, clay, and silt. With loam, plants don’t have to use so much energy to get through the soil.

 How to figure out your soil’s structure?

No pricey lab tests are required. All you need is a basic 1-quart (liter) jar and a little bit of patience. Knowing your soil’s structure is essential as it helps you determine what soil amendments to make and ultimately how much water and fertilizer your plants will require.

Here’s how you do it:

Step 1: Fill half of your clear jar with soil. The soil sample should be taken from at least 6-inches deep (15 cm). Before adding the ground to the jar, use a sieve or kitchen strainer to remove any larger rocks or other organic matter.

If you have a big garden, consider doing the soil test in different sections of your garden.

Step 2: Fill it up with water until it’s ¾ full. Now, add a teaspoon of liquid dish soap and close the jar tightly.

Step 3: Shake the jar vigorously until the mixture becomes a uniform slurry and set it down on a flat surface to rest for about a minute.

Step 4: You will see a coarse sand layer will have settled at the bottom. Mark this layer on the outside of the jar.

Step 5: Leave the jar for a further 2 hours until the next layer has settled. Mark this silt layer with the marker and leave the jar again on a level surface.

Step 6: After 48 hours, you can mark the final layer with a marker. This will be the clay layer that’s settled on top of the silt.

Step 7: Measure the height of each layer with a ruler as well as the three layers’ total height.

Soil structure triangle

Deciphering your results:

Using the results from step 7, calculate the percentages of sand, silt and clay using the following formula for each component: For example:

% Sand: (height of sand layer) / (total height of all the layers)

Next, plot your results on the soil texture triangle below. You’ll find the type of soil you have by seeing where the lines cross. For example, if your results are 20% clay, 40% silt and 40% sand. Then, congratulations, you have loam!

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