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Soils.... The Garden Basic...Absolute

Lori

By Lori

45 comments


Oh, Can I grow that in my zone? What kind of fertilizer should I use? Is it getting enough sun? Perhaps I watered it too much…too little? Why are these insects picking my garden? Should I call in a designer? We grow plants we admire and marvel that some thrive when others do not…we are focused on the green and blooming…less often we think about the roots and the soil. I think all gardeners should have a good understanding of the soil conditions where they garden…it’s the absolute basic.
When I first looked at the site of my garden I was worried! mostly because this is an industrial town…has been for most of the last century. Who knows where the “fill” came from which was deposited on the site where our street now exists? When the sod was turned and I did my preliminary dig…I was less than happy with what I found…. there had been a dolomitic shale gravel graded in first with a gray clay component that made it almost like concrete… heavy and almost impossible to dig through~ and drainage? uh-oh…, but below a 24" strata of that I found the true soil~ a layer of black muck, which confirmed what I had heard that the area we lived in had been a swampy forest …but the next layer was even more interesting. It was beach sand!! easy to dig..but very unstable…especially under a layer of rock and clay! That was at about the 3’ depth…relevant only to the selection of trees. So, back to the layer of “topsoil” that contained no living organisms other than grass roots…it was DEAD. So I was faced with the mess above and the clay/stone below!! It was not a happy prospect.
they say that every problem holds an opportunity… well, my opportunity was …to learn how to turn the clay into a rich productive garden soil… I turned to composting (passive and active) to produce garden beds…instead of throwing away the sod I turned it over and composted the grass… I went to the forest nearby and brought home some leaf mold, insects and arthropods to start enriching the soil…and I composted everything I could lay hands on…even weeds. I’ve talked before about composting so I won’t go into details. However; learned a valuable lesson about clay soils. Here’s a precis: When the soil has been dug over put a chunk of it in a glass jar with a tight fitting lid and fill 3/4 full with water.
Shake the jar till the soil and water are a slurry. then set it on a level surface to settle out….this will tell you the components of your soil.
A good garden soil will have a high content of sand…at least 50%- the other 45% should be silt and clay…and only 5% organic matter. This is a starting point—if you have more OM that’s a plus.
A handful of moist soil will crumble if it is sandy, clump heavily if it is clay, but if it breaks into smaller pieces and is mealy it has good organic matter content, it is close to a perfect mix of mineral and organic components. The other essential is microbial life and soil insects. Tilling aerates and gives the microbes and insects and arthropods the oxygen they need. Clay soils are very complete; their mineral content (including trace minerals) are nourishing as long as the plant’s roots can penetrate it’s dense heaviness…
That’s where the soil recipe comes in: if you have a clay base soil…you only need to add some sand and OM… the difficulties are how you handle the incorporation.It’s not easy work!
Once your clay soil is dug and amended make paths and don’t disturb the beds so that you won’t re-compact the clay….
A session under black plastic will solarize the soil killing off undesireables like nematodes…
Water with a drip hose if possible…and add actively composting organic matter (source of heat to warm the soil) or vegetable matter or dried sludge from the bottom of your pond.
Doing this work in the autumn is the best time… the climatic effects help break down the OM. (This was where the prof started talking about molecular bonds…arghh.) It is a very complex natural process that is happening around us all the time… wondrous.
I guess the best summary is to say that put your efforts and investment into the soil…and the vegetation you plant will exhibit your care by growing healthily and handsomely. The water in the jar has now completely settled out and I now know that it’s time to add more OM and maybe a little more clay…but it looks really good and the plants did well this summer…maybe a little top dress with Horse or Sheep stuff…and everything will be ticketyboo!

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Comments

 

Lori ~
Thanks. Lots of interesting information there. :o)

6 Oct, 2008

 

There's a great deal of invaluable advice here, Lori. I founbd over the last few years that paying more attention to the soil and its requirements really pays great dividends.

6 Oct, 2008

 

An excellent Blog Lori. As you so rightly state the soil is the basic requirement of any garden, and it pays to keep it in good condition.We have a clay soil here but we have enriched it with compost over many years, so we now have a really good growing medium. Also we use a good quality compost for all the pots and containers and ensure that the plants are well fed to keep them healthy.

6 Oct, 2008

 

Hi Lori, Thanks for writing this blog.
I've recently had some topsoil in order to raise the level of my garden and it is very clayey. I've been wondering whether to add coarse material and/or compost to it. Your blog has been very interesting for me. I think I'll do that test you explain in a jar so that I can find out more about the composition of the soil I have.
All the best, Hywel.

6 Oct, 2008

 

Lori, Thank you very much :o) Going by the squeeze test I think my soil may not be too bad, it separates into chunks quite readily but doesn't crumble. I'll get a glass jar for your test.

7 Oct, 2008

 

Ido alot of composting near anough every thing, and it as made a differance to my soil, every thing is quite healthy.

7 Oct, 2008

 

Thanks Lori. I must be a lucky person, but I will do a test. I am sitting on fertile volcanic soil and everything in the garden is thriving. There are no rocks either, yet the rain drains well into the ground ( and to the neighbours, lol ). When we had the farm we had soil testing done every few years, also leaf testing, as to see which deficiency the trees had, if any. Very interesting outcomes. Had to add lime as the soil was acid. On the farm I was sitting on bauxite, very gravelly and with many rocks! Hard digging there, yet everything grew but lettuces. I had no sand to add either.
The squeeze test is good too Peter, especially for the humidity.

7 Oct, 2008

Ams
Ams
 

Interesting blog Lori. I live near an area in East Anglia called the Fens, it is reclaimed pre historic sea bed and it is black as you like. Most of the UK's vegetables are grown here due to this rich loam soil. I love to watch the fields being tilled and exposing the black drills.

8 Oct, 2008

 

I sometimes go to dog shows up in the fens and Ams is right about the amazing black of the soil.

Ams ~ it would be interesting to see a photo of a jar test using some of that black stuff ! :o)

8 Oct, 2008

Ams
Ams
 

Black stuff - Guinness, mines a pint please TT. Ta

8 Oct, 2008

 

I guess you could upload a photo of a Guinness and another of soggy fenland soil, and we have to guess which is which?

8 Oct, 2008

 

eeeewwww! I've only tasted Guinness, but have to say that it doesn't have the same bouquet as a quart of alluvium!! My son's a Guinness drinker...he says it's the best brew on earth.
It has been mentioned by a few people...I'm wondering how many have tested their soil with the jar test? I found it to be a great way to 'see' your soil's profile.

8 Oct, 2008

 

Yesterday I fixed guttering and downpipe on a shed. Never done that before. Seems fine!

I now need to dig out nearby, so I'll put some of that in a jar and see what it looks like ! And maybe do a similar test with some soil from a flower bed to see how it compares. :o)

9 Oct, 2008

 

Great TT...will be interested to hear your results.

9 Oct, 2008

 

Hi Lori.

Thanks for your advice in this blog.
I've just put soil in two clean empty marmalade jars.
(Paddington Bear would be proud)

One was soil which I'd dug out of a hole for drainage near to one of my sheds where I'd fixed up guttering earlier this week. The area was home to a large conifer about 6 years ago, and the soil seemed good.

The second was from my flower bed nearby.

I put in the soil with water and shook them up. I now have two jars which I've left to settle, but it really isn't telling me much. The soil doesn't seem to have separated into identifiable components, except that the top quarter of an inch of soil in both jars appears to be made up of finer particles - not sand.

Is there anything further I should be doing, please. Sorry, no camera available to take photos. Thanks. :o)

11 Oct, 2008

 

Hi TT...it sounds like your ratio of soil to water is a little heavy on the soil side.... I use a quart jar... fill it 3/4 full with water....then add about a 1/2 cup of soil. make sure the lid is tight and shake like mad for 30 seconds...make sure there aren't any chunky bits left... if there are~ shake some more... When you're sure it's a slurry then just set it aside and check it in 30 minutes or so...the sand will settle out first...then the clay...then silt which is what you've described (I think)~ it takes quite a while for the silt to settle...the OM will be floating on the water surface. It may not look like a lot...and you may think that you have to add tons of OM...but consider that the sample is only a half cup of soil...and extrapolate that to the whole bed size...and this is the time to add OM...it never hurts to have more!
From your description I'd say you have a clay component to your soil...but you must have a slurry...it's no good if there are still chunks... Shake, Shake, Shake, Shake yo' booty!!
Check out the pic on my page of the mason jar closeup... hth....
Lori

11 Oct, 2008

 

Lori ~ thanks.
I'll have another go tomorrow with less soil and more water.
There certainly weren't any soil chunks left.
There is quite a lot of clay in my soil.
Please confirm - are you saying the sand will be LOWEST in the jar, then clay, then silt at the top ? Thanks.

I'll report back again. :o)

11 Oct, 2008

 

Yes...TT...grit, small stones and sand will be the first...if you have any ... then clay...then silt...then OM. If you are in a clayey area...you may not have much sand unless you've added it...another test you can do right in your garden is to dig a hole as if you were planting something...add water til it's full to the soil line and record how long it takes for the soil to absorb the moisture. If it drains away quickly you've sandy soil... if it takes forever you have clay base with lots of silt...so your aim would be to be somewhere in the middle...and you would accomplish that by adding compost (om) and some sand.

11 Oct, 2008

 

Hi Lori ~
It was a beautiful warm, sunny afternoon here and I had a good look at the jars of soil and water from yesterday. I decided I had included the right amount of water. The mix was all well-settled and I would agree there's little sand. Lots of clay and a bit of OM. Sand not evident.

Last week, after putting up my shed gutter I dug a large hole near the down-pipe. I tipped some water on the roof to see what would happen, and the water ran into the gutter, down the pipe and then sat a long while in the hole. So from your information, that indicates clay.

I've since dug the hole much larger, and filled it with lots of shingle. I'll try to add sand to my flower beds as time goes on.

Thanks for all your advice. :o)

12 Oct, 2008

 

Great! Hope your plants thank you for the work by putting on a show for you! I was prompted to write the blog by a question from Peter about his soil...but I realized as I was writing it how much work I had to put into the soil just to have something my plants could live in...(as opposed to die in!) so it seems that moving to a previously ungardened site was a good learning experience because I had to start from the gound up! Keep composting! ;-o !!

12 Oct, 2008

 

Hi Lori, I am a new member from West Yorkshire in U.k.,
I have made so many friends since I joined.
I am going to a garden class and learning about soil and P.H values. My soil sounds similar to yours. So I will try your advice. I have a bin full of compost I have been trying to make, we are due to take some out early November, so I hope it's worked its magic.

Will add you to my favourite list.

Nice to meet you, happy gardening love Marge.

18 Oct, 2008

 

Hello Marge! Nice to meet you!... so they're going to teach you the litmus test..with the strips that turn red or blue? That's a pretty good specific but perhaps only relevant if you are starting from scratch.. If you've been gardening on your plot for years (or someone else has) the soil is probably pretty good... the plants that have thrived can tell you what needs doing...I decided that I wanted to do all my beds like they were going to be carrot beds...( the soil must be deep, rich and friable) so I first dug a strata...just a large hole, on the side of a hill if possible, and then noted the soil layer(s) and the type of sub-soil. that told me what I had to begin with... from that I knew that I had precious little "topsoil"...the rest is pretty much in the above blog...To me the jar test and the squeeze test work the best...they are perhaps less than scientific...but they give you a starting point...you can take what you see to an "expert" or just order a truckful of loam or sand... If you're lucky you have a clay base to start. Otherwise ...all you likely need is compost...and you are working on that!! forking over the compost and letting the winter frost do it's work..along with the earthworms...can make a world of difference in the spring...otherwise I topdress around my perennials, which is kind of like tucking them in...lol.

18 Oct, 2008

 

Great blog Lori, Terratoonie pointed it out to me as i have had a bit of mistery with my soil, if you get chance please reed my latest blog (today) for all the details. i am going to try the water and jam jar test on mine - once it's thawed that is lol it certainly sounds like you have had your share of problems with soil, and what a wonderful job you have done too, all your plants look like they are thriving. i would love to hear your views on my soil which is Acidic clay!!!! bit unusual i know, but think i am quite lucky. I have worked really hard on it, and well worth all the effort, you are quite right, you have to sort the soil out before anything esle in the garden, after all it is the most important need that our plants have. - unless ofcourse you are growing Bromlieads or Phalanopsis orchids ofcourse lol

7 Jan, 2009

 

Glad you found this okay Angie.
I've messaged Lori, so I'm sure she'll catch up with you soon. :o)

7 Jan, 2009

 

Thanks TT, your a gem x

7 Jan, 2009

 

Hi Majeeka...interesting question and off the top of my geriatric brain I would say that the red/orangeyness is iron... Is your water very hard and sometimes smelly? Iron in soil usually carries oxygen bound to it...and the pH value of iron rich soils is usually low... noticed in two of your pictures the lovely red brick walls...are you in ceramic clay country? best example of this is terra cotta...a pinky red ferrous clay. Most people assume that calcitic soil is chalky and alkaline. The soil can be a big chemistry set... you never know what nature is combining to produce the soil chemistry on your plot. If you are interested you can try a little sleuthing.
The best place to start to understand your soil is to check out previous land use...because your garden has not been actively tilled before you came doesn't mean that the natural acidification of accumulated organic matter( over time) hasn't been lowering soil pH...and you have been adding OM as well. If you can find out what was in the area before your subdivision was built it may be enlightening as well.
Soil's two obvious components are mineral and organic... when you have the components balanced you will have wonderful success with most plants.
I will do some research and further reading to see if I can't make this a little more comprehensible...and send you a thumbnail sketch...meanwhile looks like you're doing wonderfully well! I wouldn't change a thing if I were you!

8 Jan, 2009

 

Thanks Lori, i think i understood...most of that..lol, i think the soil is very fertile most things seem to thrive, apart from the obvious alkerline plants that need lime, i have even got a way with a few that are on that side, with lots of feeding. and the population of worms that i have is truely amazing! this plot has been a garden for many years, just an unkept one. the previous owner was an old lady, in her 80's she had obviously kept it nice in her younger days, but i think in the last 10 years or so he son purely used to cut the grass and not a lot else, so that she was able to sit out there. the house was then empty for about a year, and just before we moved in all sorts of bulding work was done, so a lot of bulders rubbish everywhere, and it all got a bit overgrown. i have found all sorts when digging, maily glass, and general house rubbish. these houses are pre-war, and as i understand it this area was badly hit during the blitz, although Romford is classed as Essex, it is actually greater London. - we do have the foundations of what i think is an air-raid shelter in what i call my 'woodland bed', it is just the foundations, and quite far under the soil, but i found the top of it when digging over this bed, was a lot of rubble in this area, it is deep enough down approx 3ft for it not to be a concern for the plants i am growing here, so i have just left it. getting it out would be a bigger fish than i really want to fry to be honest lol

8 Jan, 2009

 

That's fantastic Lori. I knew you would help, and maybe even do further research. Thank you. I agree with you that Majeeka has such a good looking garden with lovely plants, that much change probably not really needed. Lol :o)

8 Jan, 2009

 

Thanks TT, i also don't think much change is needed i am quite happy with how everything is growing, just a bit interested really, i knew i had clay soil, but judging by the plants that grow well and thoughs that don't i started to realise that the soil was also acidic, to be honest i always thought that clay soil was alkaline, now i know that it can also be acidic, which is good, you are always learning arn't you. and thank you again Lori, for all the very informative advice. i am going to try the water in a glass thing and see how the soil is made, up. i think it will be quite a good mix, especially now it has had 3 years worth of hard graft on it! lol

8 Jan, 2009

 

Last autumn I had a go at the water-and-soil-in-a-jam-jar test.
With my soil, it didn't unfortunately tell me a lot, but would be a good test for some soils.

Truth is ~ the full jar is still out there, several months later.
I reckon it is certainly settled by now - probably even iced up today. Lol.

8 Jan, 2009

 

lol, mind you having said that, when i did the PH test, it said on the pack it will take 10 minutes to settle, mine took a day! lol but when it did the result was quite clear. maybe you should try again TT, it is interesting to find these things out, and also save wasteing time and money trying to grow the wrong things, - i have made this mistake all too often in the past.

8 Jan, 2009

 

You are right. Better to grow the right plants in the right soil.
Your answer did make me giggle though, so I went out and checked my jars. Yes, TWO jam jars. I had TWO attempts and although the soil has now settled for THREE months, LOL., I'm really still not sure about it. I'll take another look when the ice has melted..... :o)

8 Jan, 2009

 

why not post a close up photo of it and point it out to Lori, maybe she will be able to make sense of it for you? - i can see i might be doing that with mine lol

8 Jan, 2009

 

I'll look out for your photos first, please. LOL
My camera doesn't do close-ups very well, but I might learn a lot from analysis of your photo. Thanks. :o)

8 Jan, 2009

 

yep no probs TT, its quite mild today, I may pop out and do it while Brooke is munching on her lunch.

8 Jan, 2009

 

Soil is a complex subject.... as I understand your question it involved the structure of the soil...clay...fine, colloidal, poor draining clay...but by it's colour (red) you know that it has an iron mineral component...and iron in soil is as essential to plant nutrition as it is to human nutrition. Iron in the soil always carries oxygen bound to it...so that even though the clay is dense there is available oxygen attached to the iron and plants only require a small amount of it, anyway. You've added OM and that has encouraged the fauna (gnats, centipedes, earthworms, etc.) that produced a mineral rich, organic soil. It has the active living component and the inert mineral richness...excellent.
The bottle test only helps tell about the present condition of the soil...and shows you what is present separated into strata so that you can improve the tilth of the soil...it's chemistry is already very good to excellent.. You can get into some serious difficulty if you try playing with the pH...I would suggest that if you really really really want the nerines that you make up a large planter with a custom soil mix (from a landscaper) that is higher pH...but leave your garden happily alone... maybe do some research on the plants that will thrive in acidic soils (they are legion) and plant them..and stand back... Perhaps your aged neighbour would know if animals were kept in the back yards at any time...that always enriches the soil! lol.

8 Jan, 2009

 

Lori ~ I enjoyed reading your comment.
Thanks. I learned new facts from that. :o)

8 Jan, 2009

 

Most welcome TT... They don't call it Soil SCIENCE for nothing! lol.... it was interesting to read up on the minerals again...

8 Jan, 2009

 

Funny that I still have those two jars of soil and water in the garden from when you were explaining the soil tests to me last year. LOL
Soil SCIENCE is definitely the right phrase !

8 Jan, 2009

 

Hi I am glad this soil conersation has come to the top again, there is lots of info in there. I will have to go through it slowly when I have my thinking head on, right now it's the preparing to cook head! Thanks Marge

8 Jan, 2009

 

Thanks Lori, very informative, this is really interesting stuff once you start getting into it, and yes i have loads of worms centepeads and knats and no have no intention of playing with the PH. i supected it was on the acidic side, as i have some lovely Rhododenrons, Camellia's, Acers, Skimmia, and well what can i say about the Pieris! lol i actually consider myself very lucky to have soil like this, Roses love it, and i have even managed to get some really good results out of Dianthus, and Clematis, which i have it on good authority do not like acidic soil, but mine seem fine and flowered in abundance last year. i am always working on the soil, i do feel this is very important. i think i will try some Narines in pots this year, i have plenty of spaces to stand them in amonst the beds as in the larger beds i have put in stepping stones through the middle of the beds to allow easy acess when weeding etc. and i use them to also stand pots of seasonal colour on too. Nerines will be perfect for this and definately add to the cottage theme i have. Thanks Lori

8 Jan, 2009

 

Your soil may be only slightly acidic, Majeeka...it could well be neutral...if the pH is between 6 and 8...that's in the neutral range...The Happy Medium!!

12 Jan, 2009

 

the test i took first off was bright orange/yellow which according to my chart is very acidic. atucually i did another test from the other side of the garden and it come out green, which is alkaline, so i think what TT said at the begining of the coverstaion which was some land has strips of soil so can be completely differet PH in different areas of the garden...warrents further investigation me thinks.

12 Jan, 2009

 

I have known other gardens where the land has definite strips of soil. Maybe something common in South East England and East Anglia ?
I don't have enough experience to be sure on that.

By the way, if you like garden history I was lucky to get photos courtesy of the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden for my latest blog, including two archive photos of botanist John Davidson !

Thanks again Lori for this blog, and given a new lease of life by the recent input of Majeekahead. Great ! :o)

12 Jan, 2009

 

well you know what they say TT better late than never lol.

12 Jan, 2009

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