Mar 4, 2011

How to Get a Green Thumb (Or Garden Soil Types)

Whenever someone tells me they have a black thumb when it comes to growing plants, I ask them what sort of garden soil they have. The response is usually a blank stare or a shrug. But here's the thing: Knowing the answer to that question (and what to do about it) is really the key to having a so-called green thumb. So if you want to grow more wholesome, organic food for your family, don't let past failures keep you from it. Instead, check out the new Proverbs 31 Woman Gardening 101 guides. Starting with this one.

Soil Types
In gardening, soil is roughly divided into three types: Clay, sandy, and loam.

Clay soil is made up of very small particles, densely packed. Water sits in clay soil for a long time (drowning roots) and may seep into it slowly (parching roots). Clay may also make it difficult for plants to spread their roots. From personal experience I can tell you some plants will struggle along in clay soil, while others will die in a season. Clay soil can be made more friendly to plants, but it takes a lot of time and effort.

Sandy soil is, well, sandy. The usefulness of sandy soil depends on how much sand is present. Few plants grow in pure sand, in part because nutrients so readily wash away. However, sandy soil drains very well. If the soil is 50 percent sand, it's usually decent for gardening. In addition, sandy soil can be made less so with patience and time.

Loamy soil is a mixture of soil types (clay and sand). It is great for gardening, in part because it retains the right amount of moisture and nutrients for plants.

There are also lots of in-between soil types, but suffice it to say most soils fall into one of these three broad categories.

What Type of Soil Do You Have?
Sometimes it's obvious what type of soil you have. If you live on the beach front, for example, it's going to be pretty clear when your soil is sandy. But other times, you may not be certain which category your soil falls into. In addition, you may have different soil types in different parts of your yard. Fortunately, there are several do-it-yourself tests to help you learn what sort of soil you have.

The Squeeze: Sprinkle some water onto the ground. (The soil needs to be moist, but not wet.) Grab a handful of soil and give it a squeeze. Open your hand. Does the soil retain it's shape? Does it crumble when you poke at it lightly? Then the soil is loam. Does the soil retain its shape, even when poked lightly? Then the soil is clay. Does the soil crumble the moment you open your hand? Then it's sandy.

Down the Drain: To determine how well soil drains, dig a hole about 1 foot deep and 6 inches across. Fill this hole with water, let it drain completely, then fill with water again. Time how long it takes the second batch of water to drain away. If the water takes over 4 hours to drain, the soil has poor drainage.

It's Wormy: When there are lots of worms in soil, it's a good indication the dirt is rich with organic matter and nutrients - stuff plants like. When the soil is at least 55 degrees F. and moist but not wet, dig a 1 foot hole (deep and wide). As you dig, place the soil you're removing on a piece of cardboard. Look through that soil and count the worms as you put the soil back in the hole. If there are 10 or more worms, the soil is relatively healthy. If you find less than that, there probably isn't enough organic matter in your soil - or the soil may be acidic or alkaline.

What's the pH?: The level of acidity in the soil can either nurture or kill plants. Soil acidity is measured on a scale from 0 (very acidic) to 14 (very alkaline). Most plants want soil at 6 or 7. There are three ways to test your soil's pH level: Hire a soil testing company, hire the local Cooperative Extension, or do it yourself. The do-it-yourself method is easy and least expensive, so I recommend it, but any of these methods work just fine. pH test kits are available at local gardening center and are in the $20 range. (I don't recommend the electronic kind.) The kit will explain every step needed to get an accurate result, will explain what the result means, and will offer advice on how to change the acidity in the soil to make it more favorable.

Now What?
If you've tested your soil and it's loamy with a middle of the road pH level, you're ready to turn over the earth and start planting. But if your soil is less than ideal, don't assume you can't grow anything. Tomorrow I will post about ways to change or work around your sandy, clay, acidic, or alkaline soil.

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