Quality soil is essential to grow fruits, vegetables, herbs, and other plants. It is also important that you know what type of soil you have in your garden.
Soil is composed of five elements — gas, water, organic matter, minerals, and living organisms. Without these elements, or if any of them is missing, the soil may struggle to sustain plant life and be inhospitable for other plants.
There are six types of soil: sandy, loamy, silty, peaty, chalky, and clay. If you don’t know what yours is, don’t worry, there are ways to identify what type of soil you have in your garden, which can be determined by analyzing the water, squeeze, settle, jar, and acid, and using soil kit tests.
If you have problematic soil, you can amend it by improving the pH level, adding nutrients, such as organic matter and fertilizer, increasing drainage, and retaining its moisture.
In this article, we will differentiate the six types of soils, what plants thrive on each type, and how to water your plants depending on your soil’s type. We will also discuss how to change your problematic soil and identify the type of soil you have in your garden.
Six Types of Soil
Soil is a natural resource, and each type of soil has a recognizable attribute that provides limitations and growing benefits. To support the healthy growth of the plants, it is important to identify what type of soil you need for your plants.
The soil gives the plants nutrients, water, and air for healthy growth and development. Each type of soil has its minerals, organic, and inorganic matter. Analyzing these will help you determine what crops, shrubs, and trees you should plant to achieve the project you want to do in your garden.
The soil conditions can be made in contained plots, like raised beds or planters. For big-size landscapes and gardens, you should know the type of soil you have to work with.
Soils vary in classifications, but the size of the particles that make up a soil defines its gardening characteristics:
- Clay: less than 0.002mm
- Silt: 0.002-0.05mm
- Sand: 0.05-2mm
- Stones: bigger than 2mm in size
- Chalky: contains calcium carbonate or lime
Here are the six types of soil that can be found in your garden, including their characteristics. We also listed the ideal plants that you should grow in each type of soil.
1. Loamy Soil
Loamy soils are ideal for gardening, lawns, and shrubs. They consist of a balanced mixture of clay, sand, and silt type of soils — the ideal ratio being 40% sand, 40% silt, and 20% clay. Loamy soils has an ideal black gold color. When you hold it in your hands, it feels fine-textured and damp.
Loamy soils are fertile, have a great structure for planting, are well-drained, can retain moisture, and are full of nutrients. The drainage property of loamy soils means that the nutrients are washed out and that you need to bring them back by adding compost to the soil. This type of soil warms up fast in the spring but doesn’t drain quickly in the summer, and can be easily cultivated.
Loamy soils need organic matter regularly and tend to be acidic. They can be sandy-loam or clay-loam, depending on the dominant composition and the characteristics of cultivation. With its elements, a loamy soil helps retain nutrients, giving the right amount of moisture for the plants, and provides a stabilized structure, allowing roots to grow freely.
Loamy soils are ideal for plants like:
- Perennials plants
- Dogtooth violets
- Black bamboo
- Climbers plants
Vegetable and berry crops will grow well in loamy soil, too. However, preventing the depletion and drying out of loamy soils requires thorough management. Thus, to retain the soil vitality, it is essential to rotate crops, use mulches, add compost and organic nutrients, and plant green manure crops.
Finally, cacti plants, like tomatoes after the seedling stage, green beans, and late-growing cabbage and brassicas, don’t like loamy soils.
2. Sandy Soil
Sandy soils, also known as light soils, have a high portion of sand and little clay made of large mineral particles. When you hold sandy soil in your hand, it feels gritty and quickly drains after watering it or after a rain shower. However, sandy soils are easy to work with and cultivate. They don’t provide strong stability for plants and are not ideal for compaction.
The downside of this type of soil is that it is low in plant nutrients and often very acidic. Indeed, sandy soils warm up quickly in the spring, and nutrients are often washed out during the wetter period. Besides, such soil requires soil texturizing amendments, like glacial rock dust, kelp meal, greensand, and other organic fertilizers. Adding mulch to sandy soils will retain its moisture.
Sandy soils are great for growing plants like:
- Tree mallows
- Sun roses
- Collards greens
3. Clay Soil
Clay soils, also known as heavy soils, are composed of over 25% clay. However, this type of soil is nutrient-dense. Besides, clay soils are easy to determine, they feel lumpy and sticky when wet, and are hard as a rock when dry.
Clay soils are made up of fine minerals and are potentially fertile for they hold lots of nutrients. But, clay soils are poor at drainage property and have few air spaces. During the spring spell, clay soil warms slowly and is difficult to cultivate, and in the summer, it cracks noticeably.
Due to the capillary attraction of the tiny spaces between the clay particles, they hold up a huge portion of water. Thus, clay soils can be easily compacted when wet and often challenge gardeners’ limits. But when properly managed with the right choice of plants and cultivation, caring for clay soil can be a rewarding job.
Clay soils are great for growing plants like:
- Perennial plants
- Helen’s flower
- Flowering quince
- Fruit trees
- Ornamental trees
Due to its cool and compact nature, carrots, parsnips, early vegetables, and soft berry crops are difficult to grow in clay soil.
4. Silty Soil
Silty soil feels soft in your hands and has a soapy texture. It resembles clay soils, although the particles in this type of soil are slightly larger. Very rich in nutrients, easily cultivated, and compacted with minimal effort, silty soils are perfect for your garden if the drainage property is managed and provided for.
Silty soils drain better than clay soils and hold moisture well. Mixing silty soils with clay soils and organic matter helps improve drainage and structure. Gardeners love silty soils because they can be cultivated easily.
Silty soils are great for growing plants like:
- Most vegetable crops
- Climbers plants
- Perennial plants
- New Zealand flax
5. Peaty Soil
Peaty soils are darker soils and feel spongy and damp when wet due to their high level of peat. Peaty soils are also high in organic matter, very fertile, and hold a lot of moisture. These soils are also acidic and slow down decomposition, leading to lesser nutrients.
This type of soil quickly heats up during the spring and can hold up a lot of water, which requires good drainage. It can be great for growth when mixed with rich organic matter, compost, and lime to reduce acidity. Peaty soils also need soil texture amendments, such as glacial rock dust to raise the pH level due to the soil’s acidity.
Peaty soils are seldom found in your yard or gardens, however, if your garden beds have this type of soil, you need to dig drainage channels to help reduce water draining issues.
Peaty soils are great for growing plants like:
- Lantern trees
- Witch hazel
- Root crops
- Salad crops
6. Chalky Soil
Compared to other types of soils, chalky soils have larger grains, and are rocky and stony with large particles. They are usually found underlying limestone bedrock or chalk, drain quickly, and don’t have many nutrients.
Chalky soils are made up of calcium carbonate and alkaline and may cause plants to experience stunted growth and yellowish leaves. Besides, chalky soils leach out iron and magnesium and require plenty of water and fertilizer due to their high content of stones and rocks.
To change chalky soils, you need to add fertilizers and balancing pH levels, although it requires some work. Adding humus to your ground can also improve the water retention and workability of your chalky soil.
Chalky soils are great for growing:
- Madonna lilies
As a gardener, you need to do a lot to sustain your plants. Chief among them is supplying the best soil, especially when you are nurturing the plants in containers. You may have seen potting soil for sale at Dollar General, but is potting soil from Dollar General good for your garden? Read our article to find out.
Identifying Your Soil Type
You must be aware of what type of soil you have in your garden to know what kind of plants you can grow. Touching and rolling the soil in your hands is one of the ways to identify the type of soil. But it doesn’t stop there.
Below are some tests you can run to determine what soil type you have in your garden.
Grab a good amount of soil in your hands and pour water on it. If it drains fast, it could be sandy soils. On the other hand, on clay soils, water takes longer to drain.
Grab a handful of soil and compress it softly in your fist. If it’s sticky, slick, and remains intact when you open your hand, it is clay soil. However, if the soil feels spongy, it is peaty soil, and if it feels gritty and falls through your fingers, it is sandy soil. Meanwhile, loamy and silty soils are smooth textured and can hold their shape for a while.
In a transparent container, add water and a handful of soil. Then, shake it very well and let it settle for 12 hours.
- Loamy soils will keep the water rather clear with the finest particles at the top of the container and layered fragments at the bottom.
- Clay & silty soils leave cloudy water with layers of particles on the surface.
- Sandy soils leave mostly clear water, and some of the particles will fall at the bottom of the container.
- Peaty soils will have particles floating with some thin layer at the bottom, while the water will be slightly cloudy.
- Chalky soils will leave water looking like a shade of pale grey and with a layer of grit-like and whitish particles at the bottom.
This soil test takes some effort but delivers a precise outcome. You can try to do this with your kids as an interesting scientific experiment.
To do so, first, collect soil in your garden (in different areas), mix it, and spread it out on a flat surface. Wait and let the soils dry until it is crumbly.
Then, remove the large stones, roots, and big masses of organic matter in the soil. Get a mason jar and fill it with 1 cup of soil, add a drop of liquid dish soap, and then, add water. Leave at least an inch of room at the top of the jar to allow for some movement.
Tighten up the lid and shake the jar for 2-3 minutes, then let it settle for 24 and up to 48 hours if you think that your soil has a high clay content.
Once settled, the soil will layer itself. The bottom layer will be composed of sand and gravel. The next layer will have finer sand, while the third one will be made of silt, and the top layer of clay.
You can then measure how thick each layer is and figure out the percentage of each element you have.
Plants like soils with a balanced pH level between 6.5 and 7 because nutrients and minerals usually and naturally thrive at this level. The standard pH for soils ranges from 4.0 and 8.5. You can purchase a pH test kit at your local garden center to test the pH level in your garden.
A general rule for gardening is that areas with soft water will have acid soil, while areas with hard water will mostly have alkaline soil.
Soil Test Kit
To assess the pH Level and primary nutrients — nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium — of your soil, you can use a soil test kit. With such a test kit you can determine the exact condition of your soil and then fertilize it effectively and economically. Soil testing should be done periodically throughout the growing season.
How Does Your Soil Type Affect Your Plant Watering?
Water is called the “universal solvent” because it is a natural resource that dissolves substances. The molecules of water stick together and stick to other surfaces, and with this ability, can reach the top of trees. Gardeners take the benefits of this attribute of water.
How you water your plants also depends on the type of soil you have in your garden. Whereas loamy soils are ideal, other types of soil will be difficult to handle, especially if you are watering your plants the wrong way.
The water-holding capacity refers to the soils’ ability to hold water. Contrary to sandy soils, clay soils have high water holding capacity. Soil’s pore space is filled with water either by irrigation or rainfall, which causes the soil to become soaked. Soil’s field capacity refers to the amount of water that remains in the soil against the force of gravity.
Loamy soils, after irrigation or rainfall, can hold their field capacity for 2-3 days, while clay soils retain more water than sandy soils. You should know your soil’s water-holding capacity to figure out how much water it will release.
- Sandy soils are like strainers; they dry out fast and require frequent watering compared to clay soils. Watering them too much will only be a waste since the water will quickly seep through the porous earth down to the root. Once the water travels down to the roots, it will be useless.Having a program timer for the garden irrigation to release water in several periods is ideal for plants in sandy soils.
- In clay soils, water doesn’t seep quickly. You should water plants growing in clay soils for short periods, but for a different purpose. Give the water time to soak into the soil as too much watering on clay soils will only drown your plants’ roots.
- Silt soils are prone to compaction. Some plants who like wet soil are perfect in peaty soil, while other plants might not like it due to its high water content. Indeed, this soil’s pH level and acidity are some important issues for many plants.
Sometimes, the soil that you have in your garden is not in the best condition to sustain the plants that you want to grow. In this case, there are a few things that you can do to amend the soil, like adding sand for better drainage. The question is, can you use any kind of sand for this task? Is play sand good for your garden? Read our article to find out.
How to Work with Your Soil?
Peaty soils are different from other types of soil. Better drainage will make your peaty soil hospitable for the garden space with a variety of plants. This step is important since most plants don’t like having “wet feet.” After the drainage, work on raising the pH level of your soil by applying garden lime overnight. You can also plant acid-loving plants in peaty areas.
To improve sandy, silty, and clay soils, mix and add some organic compost. Compost will allow water to seep faster in the ground while retaining enough water to prevent the straining effect that torment sandy soils.
To make the soil more alkaline and acidic, add ground lime and aluminum sulfate or sulfur. To improve the texture and enrichment of the soil with low nutrients, supply it with organic matter like compost, manure, and organic mulches.
It is best for clay soil to be aerated properly for if it is oxygen-deficient, it will be difficult for plants to grow successfully. In that, adding a large amount of well-rotted organic matter or greensand will help loosen clay soils and bind sandy soils.
Chalky soils are difficult to cultivate due to their alkaline environment. To modify chalky soils, adding a large amount of organic matter, nutrients, and minerals will help the soil break down over time, making it perfect for plants that thrive in this type of soil.
It’s also best that you treat your soil the same way you treat your plants. Indeed, soil also needs food and water, so make sure that it contains the following fundamental nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, which are all essential for successful plant growth.
Here are ways to keep your soil healthy:
- After the harvest, make sure your soil is renewed before planting a new crop. Plant green manure crops like legumes, vetch, buckwheat, and clover to fix the nitrogen in the soil while adding organic matter, building texture, and improving the aeration and drainage of the soil. After, till the cover crops before they start seeding and quickly break them down. Then, you plant new harvestable crops without any delay.
- Crop rotation, green manures, cover crops, mulches, and the addition of organic matter and fertilizers are the standard ways of restoring the health of your soil.
- To restore the phosphorus level of the soil, rock phosphate or rock dust are the best modifiers in helping the plants to grow vigorously.
- Adding fungus, such as Mycorrhizae, will help the plants in water absorption and nutrients. Worms will also speed up the composting cycle and help scatter the fertilizer through the soil.
- Raised beds are favored by many gardeners for they eliminate the causes of soil compaction. Avoid compacting the soil for it is hard for the plant roots to grow when it is always stepped on or you are pulling over wheelbarrows in the garden beds.
- As much as possible, disrupt the soils in your garden for the more the soil disrupts, the more the ecosystem in the soil is disrupted. This will make the ecosystem healthy, crumbly, and nutrient-rich.
- Add an inch or two of organic matter at the top of the soil and let earthworms work it for you.
How to Modify Your Soil?
No matter what type of soil you have in your garden, it is possible to amend or modify it to make it perfect for the plants you are growing. To control your problematic soil and make the environment better, the ideal solution is having raised beds.
Aside from raised beds, here are other solutions you can implement to modify your soil:
1. Adjust its pH level
Most plants prefer neutral soils, but others like slightly acidic or alkaline soils. Adjusting the level of pH will make your soil hospitable for the plants you are growing. To do so:
- Add ground lime to make the soil more alkaline.
- Add aluminum sulfate or sulfur to make the soil more acidic.
2. Add Nutrients
Soils like sandy soil lose their nutrients quickly. When that happens, it is appropriate to add more organic matter, compost, and manure to help enrich the ground and improve the texture. Adding compost to sandy soil will make it hold moisture longer.
To improve the soil structure and send more nutrients, you can also add organic mulches, like grass clippings or shredded leaves. Organic mulches decompose over time, resulting in feeding the soil with more nutrients.
3. Increase its Drainage
You need to increase the drainage when your soil is stocking too much water. Gardeners usually add compost or sand to the soil to help it drain better.
4. Retain Moisture
To retain moisture in your soil, you can use organic mulches, peat moss, and compost around your plants. Sometimes, soils drain fast, and using these organic elements will help retain the moisture of the soil. However, it will change the structure of the soil.
In recent years, you’ve started finding gardens filled with raised beds that allow the greenery to flourish in healthy soil and away from weeds and insects. If you want to implement this system in your own garden, you need to read our article to know how to properly layer and build a raised bed garden base.
Healthy Soil Characteristics
Aside from fertility as a basis, a good and healthy soil contains:
Soil crumbs refer to the texture of the soils. Gardeners often talk about it. Healthy soils are crumbly like a cookie.
Plenty of organic matter
Organic matter refers to dead plants and animal tissues that decompose and enrich the soils, which would be referred to as humus. Humus improves the texture of the soil by holding together the smaller particles and provides good soil aeration. It also improves the water absorption ability of your soil and helps provide nutrients to your plants.
Soil pH is the measurement of the acidity of your soil. The closer to the neutral level the soil is, the best it is for the plants as it keeps and takes up minerals. The pH level affects the minerals found in the garden soil and their availability to the plants. Most flowers, vegetables, and herbs like to have a neutral level of pH, although some plants prefer acidic soil.
The type of soil you have will determine the success or failure of your garden. It is important that you know the six types of soil and how to identify them so that you know how to provide the perfect environment for the plants or crops you are planning to grow.
It may look complicated and hard to maintain a healthy garden, but, it is best to give your plants a chance to thrive. By following the tips in this article, you will observe a great improvement in the quality of your soil as well as in the beauty and health of your plants.
Carefully sowing, weeding, and tending your soil, just like you do for your plants, will provide you with a bountiful and thriving garden. It sure takes time, but there’s always a prize in holding up to your patience.