How to deal with any type of garden soil

The biggest factor in your garden's success is what goes on underground. To have a successful garden, you need to know your soil and understand how to improve it.

How to deal with any type of garden soil

How to identify your type of soil

To find out whether your soil is sand, loam, clay or a mixture, follow these steps:

  • Take a handful of soil from your garden and mix it with a little water.
  • Try to form the soil into a sausage shape. If the soil crumbles and falls apart, you have sandy soil. If it just holds together, it is loam. If you can mould it into a firm sausage shape, then you have clay soil.
  • Methodically repeat this test throughout your garden, as different areas may have different kinds of soil.

How to deal with sandy soil

Although sandy soils drain very efficiently, their small particles don't hold onto nutrients well and can dry out rapidly.

  • Dig in lots of compost and well-rotted manure before you start planting. Add more manure and organic mulch on a regular basis in order to replenish the nutrients in the soil and improve the soil's water-holding capacity.
  • Line the base of the planting hole with a few sheets of newspaper. This slows down water loss and allows the plant to gather more moisture. Eventually the newspaper will break down, but by the time it does, the root system should be well-established.
  • Add a layer of either loam or sandy loam to improve the soil structure. Mix it in with a rotary hoe, fork or shovel.
  • Add some lime to correct the level of acidity in your soil. This will also improve the soil structure because lime helps to bind sand particles together.

How to deal with loamy soil

This is the best type of soil you can have in your garden. Usually rich in nutrients and easy to dig, it drains well yet holds moisture.

  • Keep loam in good shape with regular additions of compost.

How to deal with clay soil

Clay can be hard to dig. It can also crack when dry and become a mud bath when wet. But don't despair, you can transform clay into a workable soil.

  • Add gypsum, a naturally occurring mineral composed of calcium sulphate. If the spade bounces off the surface, hire a rotary hoe to turn the gypsum into the soil.
  • Add well-rotted organic matter, such as compost and animal manures, to improve the drainage and aeration of the soil.
  • Add some sand. As sand doesn't mix easily with heavy clay, combine it with some organic matter first.
  • If all else fails, build raised beds of good-quality soil on top of the clay.

How to test and amend your soil

  • Most plants prefer neutral soil. Very acidic or very alkaline soils will 'lock up' some nutrients (such as iron), causing growth problems.
  • Use a pH kit (available from nurseries or hardware stores) to test if the soil is likely to cause nutrient deficiencies. The pH (potential of hydrogen) of the soil measures the soil acidity on a scale of 1 to 14.
  • If your soil has a pH over seven, it's alkaline. Add sulphur or iron sulphate and organic matter to grow acid-loving plants.
  • If your soil has a pH below seven, it is acidic. Add some lime to grow plants that like a more alkaline soil.

Most roots need a soil with a supply of nutrients that is moist, but not waterlogged, and easy to grow in. The better the drainage, structure and chemical balance of the soil, the better your plants will grow and flower all season long.

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