A gardener friend used to get quite upset when you would use the word “dirt”. “It’s NOT dirt”, she would say, “It’s soil.” Is there a difference? Perhaps they refer to the same thing, that brown stuff that gets into the house and that we dig in to grow tomatoes. But SOIL is really so much more, a complex thing full of life and the ability to give life. The reverse is also true. The wrong kind of soil can kill a plant, so it is worth knowing a little about it.
Now, before you hit delete, or save this blog for later when you can’t sleep, we will promise that we are not about to go into a long lecture on soil science. For those who are interested in more in-depth information, we have provided links to good articles on the subject. However, a very basic knowledge of the intricacies of soil will go a long way towards helping you grow a successful garden. So without further ado, here is a quick overview. If you already know your soil type and just want to know what to do about it, then scroll down to “What to do once you know”.
Acidic or alkaline? Soil has a pH, and it can be different in different parts of the garden. It is measured on a scale from 1 to 14, with 7 being neutral. Below 7 is considered acidic, and above 7 alkaline. Why does this matter? Well, different plants grow best in soils with different pHs. This is because each plant needs different minerals to be healthy, and the pH of a soil controls which nutrients are available to a plant. For example, Blueberries like acidic soil, and lilacs prefer soil that is more alkaline. If you plant blueberries in alkaline soil and the lilacs in acidic soil, neither would thrive, even if each soil were simply packed with nutrients. The ones that each plant specifically needs would be “locked up” by the pH of the soil. Reverse the plants’ positions, however, and both will flourish. In summary, it’s important. For more detailed information, click here.
How do you find out the pH of your soil? There are home tests and various gadgets that do a decent, if basic, job. You can also send a sample of your soil to your local cooperative extension (Click here for the link to the soil lab at the University of New Hampshire) for a more thorough analysis. And they give recommendations, too, so it’s good value for the money.
Soil texture. Soil is usually made up of three types of particles, with infinite combinations of each. The space between the particles is important, as that is what holds water and nutrients for the plant. Clay particles are the smallest, and thus have the smallest spaces between them. (Imagine a jar full of dust.) This means that water and nutrients are held there for a long time, which is both good and bad for the plant; good, in that the water and nutrients are held there, and bad, because water doesn’t drain well from clay soil and so the plants can drown from too much water to the roots.
Sandy soil has the biggest sized particles (Imagine a jar full of golf balls) This kind of soil has the best drainage. However, water and nutrients drain away so quickly that often the plants can’t benefit from them. Silty soil is somewhere in between (jar full of peas).
How the soil behaves due to its texture can also affect which plants you might want to choose for your garden. For more information on how to find out your soil texture, click here. Again, if you want to get it professionally analyzed, your local cooperative Extension or University should be able to help.
What To Do Once You Know:
Now that you know the pH and texture of your soil, what do you do with that knowledge?
- Right plant, right place. Knowing what kind of soil a plant prefers goes a long way toward success. Do your research and you won’t be sorry. Click here for a helpful article that lists plants by soil type.
- Amend your soil with loam or compost. You can’t go wrong doing this. Loam is soil that contains clay, sand, and humus (organic material that has totally decayed.) This means that you are adding particles that drain, particles that hold nutrients, and organic material that will hold water and nutrients but that won’t hold either too long. Compost (organic matter in the process of decaying) works the same way as humus. No matter what the balance of particles in your soil, it will be better with the addition of loam or well rotted compost.
- Build raised beds. If you are still having a hard time after doing the above, or want to grow blueberries in amongst your lilacs, then consider building raised beds. The environment inside a raised bed can be anything that you like, and as long as you fill it with the type of soil that your intended plants will thrive in. Thus you can bend Mother Nature to your will a little bit.
Soil is often ignored, but getting it right is one of the best things that you can do for your plants. Plus, playing in it is so much fun! As Margaret Atwood said, “In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”
SOIL, that is.