We are in the midst of the spring planting season, and if you are a garden newbie, you may not have any idea where to start. While it can be exciting to start building your garden boxes or researching the best vegetables to plant, don’t forget to start with the basics. Like knowing your dirt. Being aware of your soil type can save you time and money when planting and maintaining your garden.
The Dirt on…..the dirt
Garden soil is comprised of three particle types: clay, silt, and sand. The largest particles are going to be sand, while the smallest will be clay. The ratio of each of these three particles will determine your soil’s texture, how easy it will be to work with, and how well it will be able to sustain what you plant in it.
Sandy soil dries out quickly (somehow this doesn’t seem surprising) so it requires more water. It is also poor in nutrients, but it drains pretty well. On the other end of the spectrum, clay soil is slow to drain, holding its water and nutrients in. Silt is the medium of the three. Ideally, you want to have a good mix of the three, but sometimes this doesn’t always happen. So what do you do? Add about two to three inches of compost. This will allow your soil to hold more water and nutrients yet prevent soil compaction.
The Two A’s: Acidity and Alkalinity
When I think of chemistry, I tend to imagine that mad scientist Bunsen burners flaring kind of thing, never stopping to consider that soil has chemical properties. Yet when you are a seasoned gardener, the pH level of your soil can be a life or death (if you are a plant) factor. Soil pHs run from 1-14. The higher the pH, the more alkaline your soil is, while a low pH level indicates acidic soil.
Garden soil pH levels rarely run below 5 or above 9, tending to stay in a pocket between 6 and 8. That pH sweet spot is where most garden plants will do well, though there are some exceptions, like certain hydrangeas, blueberries, or azaleas which prefer more acidic soil.
If you find that your soil has a pH balance that is too low, you can balance it out by adding wood ashes or lime. Some people habitually add lime to their gardens, but there isn’t a reason to do this unless the soil pH is really low. Should your soil have the opposite problem and have too high of an alkalinity, the best ways to lower the pH is to add compost or an acidifier like sulfur. You may have to continually make these additions, as soil can bounce back. It may take several years to make the pH changes stick.
Testing Your Soil’s pH
Most likely, you have never gone out and tested the pH levels in your soil. No judgement here! Once again, the goal is to save you some time and money, so I do recommend conducting a soil test if you are desiring to build and/or maintain a nice garden. While you can have a professional come out to determine your soil’s levels, it may be cheaper to buy a soil testing kit, like these from Home Depot, Lowes, or Amazon. If you do decide to go the DIY route, make sure that when you are obtaining a soil sample to test, that you are collecting multiple samples from different places in your yard and mixing a little bit of each together in order to get accurate or averaged out representation of your soil.