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Soil 101

May 21, 2019
Written by Aaron

Soil doesn’t always get the credit it deserves. It may not be the prettiest part of your garden, but soil has the most important job. Without it, it wouldn’t be possible to grow beautiful beds of flowers and vegetables.

Soil is like our planet’s skin, serving to protect the plant life that grows beneath. It’s vitally important that your soil has everything it needs to nurture life. As a gardener, here’s what you should know about what makes up your soil and how you can improve its quality.

What is Soil?

Soil is more than the dirt your shoes track into your home. Soil is full of living matter. It provides a home and habitat for plants, insects, and small rodents, and it processes and filters recycled nutrients to feed life on earth.

Soil is made up of five major elements:

  • water
  • minerals
  • gas
  • organic material
  • and living organisms.

Each one of these elements serves an important role in keeping your plants strong and healthy. Without a proper balance, your plants will suffer.

One of the most important qualities of garden soil is proper drainage. Good soil should retain enough water to help plant roots absorb soil nutrients, but not so much that you run the risk of drowning or rotting your plants’ root systems. Soil drainage, combined with its composition of major elements, dictates the soil type. There are six main soil types, which are:

Loamy

This is the term we use to describe the ideal soil type. Loamy soil has a high nutrient density and drains well without drying out too quickly.

Clay

Clay retains moisture well, but it can weight itself down, pack in too tightly, and suffocate many plant species’ root systems.

Chalky

This is soil with poor water retention. It often contains a lot of stones, and tends to need more than its fair share of fertilizer.

Peaty

Peaty soil drains well but has a higher acid content, so organic matter breaks down slowly.

Sandy

Large mineral particles means moisture (and nutrients) pass right through. Not a great quality for garden soil.

Silty

Silt is more nutrient-dense than sandy soil and with similar water retention to clay soils.

As you dig deeper into the ground, soil is made of up different layers containing different ratios of these soil types, from your topsoil, to subsoil, to bedrock.

Just because your soil is a little too chalky or sandy doesn’t mean it can’t be improved. When you’re gardening, you can always correct soil quality with a soil amendment. Soil amendments can fix nutrient, density, and acidity issues, counteracting them to improve soil quality over time.

Types of Soil Amendment

Your soil is likely not naturally loamy. If it is, you’re lucky. If not, there are plenty of soil amendments you can use to balance it out. Here are the most common garden soil amendments:

  • Organic Matter - From fertilizer, to manure, to kitchen compost, organic matter makes your soil richer in nutrients to feed your plants. Add organic matter to clay, chalky, and sandy soils.
  • Gypsum - Gypsum is a soft calcium sulfate mineral. When added to soil, it improves structure and slowly releases nutrients. Add this to bring balance to clay soils.
  • Lime - Unlike the small green fruit, this mineral lowers acidity in your peatier soils.
  • Clay and Shredded Bark  - These amendments help your soil retain water. Add them to sandy and chalky soils to prevent water and nutrients from passing right through.

Using the Best Soil in Your Garden

If you aren’t sure what type of soil you have in your yard, you can test it with a soil testing kit to find out for sure. Then it’s just a matter of adding the right soil amendment to it. Otherwise, you can purchase soil with the right balance of nutrients, drainage, and moisture retention. The more you reuse soil in your planters and pots, the more it depletes its nutrient stores, so be sure to add more organic matter to your soil every season.

Great soil is the backbone of every garden. While it may not get as much love as your prized perennials or crisp vegetables, without great soil those showy blooms and juicy tomatoes just wouldn’t be possible. Think of your soil as the ingredients for your favourite recipes—using the best quality available always pays off with phenomenal results!

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