Garden Basics: Soil Savvy
Soil is important to plants--it supplies them with water and nutrients, and it anchors their roots. Here's a primer to help you understand one of your garden's most basic ingredients.
Sandy soils are made of relatively large rock particles that fit loosely together. These soils tend to warm faster in the spring and drain quickly during wet periods. Unfortunately, they don't hold water well during drought and lose nutrients more quickly than other soil types. Sandy soils feel gritty to the touch.
Silty soils are made from medium-sized particles. They shed excess water more quickly than clay, but not as quickly as sand. Silty soils tend to feel slick to the touch when they're wet.
Soils with a high clay content are made of small particles that fit tightly together. Clay soils hold water and nutrients during times of drought, but stay wet longer during wet periods. They're more susceptible to winter heaving (moving around) during periods of freezing and thawing, which exposes and harms roots of perennial plants.
Organic matter helps eliminate the disadvantages of both sandy and clay soils. Organic materials such as compost, decomposed manure, and shredded leaves hold moisture when the soil is dry, but still let soils shed excess water. They reduce soil compaction, allowing plant roots to spread more easily.
Loamy soils are those rich with organic matter. In addition to regulating water better than both sandy and clay soils, loamy soils encourage beneficial microorganisms such as mycorrhizal fungi, which reportedly help plants absorb nutrients and resist disease.
This is a layer of soil so compacted that plant roots can't grow through it. In extreme cases, water won't permeate through the layer. Hardpan can occur when sand is mixed with clay-unless there's a very high percentage of sand, the small clay particles will cling to the larger sand particles and eliminate the spaces between the particles where water moves through. It can also occur by compaction, especially with heavy equipment.
An acidic soil has a low pH (lower than 7.0 on a scale of 0 to 14). The pH of a soil determines, in part, what nutrients plants can take from the soil. For instance, plants absorb iron readily in acidic soils, but have trouble absorbing molybdenum. Some plants, such as blueberries and rhododendrons, have adapted to acidic conditions and require acidic soil to grow well. Sulfur and aluminum sulfate tend to increase a soil's acidity.
An alkaline soil has a high pH (higher than 7.0 on a scale of 0 to 14). The alkalinity of a soil also determines what nutrients plants can absorb. For example, plants absorb potassium more readily in alkaline soils, but have trouble absorbing manganese. Some plants, such as some dianthus, thrive in alkaline soils, but most garden plants prefer a neutral or slightly acidic soil. Lime and wood ashes are two materials that increase a soil's alkalinity. Mulch
While not actually a soil component, mulch (such as compost, shredded bark, and shredded leaves) relates closely with the soil. Mulch helps prevent soil erosion, holds moisture, and reduces drastic temperature changes in summer and winter. An organic mulch will break down, adding organic matter to the soil.
Tuesday, June 01, 2010 12:18 PM
I would like to know anything I can find out about composting. I live in an apartment complex but the manager is letting me plant whatever I want and even to extend a garden well beyond my patio. My grandmother always was so good with flowers and she was adamant about composting. I appreciate any info you can give.
Member #: 85104213
Saturday, June 19, 2010 10:08 AM
I live in Mesa AZ. Im having a hard time planting any flowers or vegetables for my mother. I have never had a garden of my own thought it would be easy. Was I wrong, the dirt is very dry and rocky. Being new at gardening Im having alot of trouble trying to make my mother yard nice. She really loves roses, but I have yet tried such a difficult task. I would appreciate any helpful tips. Thanks: email@example.com Member #85088583
Saturday, February 19, 2011 1:04 PM
what grows in a claw dirt mix i hace a few pants that survive i have a rsoe bush that thrive . i want sweet williams how do i get them to grow.
Wednesday, March 09, 2011 10:00 AM
Composting in an apartment building will be a bit difficult as you need some space for it. You use things like food waste, a little bit of lawn clippings and even less local dirt. You can purchase a few composting bins you can use to turn the compost which is essential to do. If you try to do this with one bin (look up how to build your own in a pinch) you will have to turn the compost daily or at least weekly till mature. The reason for 2 of them is that once you get the first one half filled, then start filling the second while you tend to both and let the first one mature and get ready to use. It can take up to 6 months or so (longer during the winter) to mature and the you can use it to empty the first bin and then start filling it up and mature the second bin. Good Luck
Wednesday, March 09, 2011 10:10 AM
Arizona is most likely Clay soil also and will need some silt (which you can normally find in river beds including dry beds and feels a lot like the sand you would find in a child's sand box) and compost to loosen it up. It is important to have all three components for the proper nutrition for your plants. Deserts are notorious for under nourished high alkaline soil and a lot of clay. A general rule of thumb is the more rain you get the higher the acidic soil you have. You can get an inexpensive PH meter so you can make sure you don't go too far on either the acid or alkaline. With a bit more money you can add on nutritional value also on that meter. Good Luck
Friday, March 25, 2011 4:23 PM
Do you have a chart of each kind of nutrient and what it is good for or what it should be used for? Such as, what does manganese do for a plant or soil, what does phosphate do, what does potash do, what does potasium, etc., etc.????
Sunday, April 03, 2011 11:08 AM
It would be nice if someone would state what the optimum soil mixture is for majority of plants.
I know that you can test you soil's type by putting a decent sample in a large jar such as a mayonnaise jar half with dirt, then fill to about an inch from the top with water and shake till thoroughly mixed and them let it settle overnight or longer. The sand should settle to the bottom with the silt next. Then the clay with the Loam on top.
But nobody ever says how much of each would be the best type of soil to have.
Wednesday, April 06, 2011 12:03 AM
I live in Phoenix, AZ and have never had trouble with roses before. This time I do, it droops. It is a "Rosa Gold Glow". I have planted it along with others on both sides, this is in the middle, but this is the only one that droops. Looks like it needs water, but soil is still moist from watering a couple days prior. It is not an established bush, only 2 weeks old. What is the problems????
Thursday, April 07, 2011 3:32 AM
I am not a rose expert, or even a plant expert. But I do use Miracle Grow Starter mix when ever I start a new plant. Or at least a Root Hormone, which is normally a powder that you apply to the roots.
The Miracle Grow starter mix has the nutrients that are essential to root growth and the Hormone is basically the same thing.
But now that you have already planted it, I would research online for rose sites and they might be able to answer your question.
Thursday, April 21, 2011 4:10 AM
I live in Central Florida where the soil is comprised of sand. What
additives should I use for a good mix for most plants? Most of
what we plant now are in pots of various sizes with drain holes to
prevent root rot and use a commercial mix. I would like to get down and dirty and still maintain healthy plants without using
planters. Thanks in advance for your advice.
Friday, April 22, 2011 9:19 PM
My yard is very patchy,either weeds or bare spots,and lots of trouble with darn fire ants,we have sprayed and tried to plant grass seed,but did not work,and it's seems to be very sandy in yard,what can we do,we have 9 zone sprinkler system,we never had this problem in other areas we lived in florida,of course wish we never moved to this house or area,now with the housing market here in florida being so low,we feel doomed,foe we moved to this rotten area in 11/05 and payed to much,put to much down and did some remodeling,so we need to get money out of this home to move back to NEW England never want to see or hear about florida again,makeing me sick with terrible high blood pressure an dmore,so unhappy,rotten neighbors,and their ways,and nationalities?
Tuesday, May 10, 2011 12:47 PM
I,too live in Central Florida and am learning to grow in this sandy stuff.I had low raised boxs last year for gardens. Mixed potting soil with the sand.Some things grew, but had to baby them along.This year I am planting in pots also.I have to remember to use fertilelizers(the slow time release kind) to make sure my plants get thier nutrients they need.Next year I am going to do raised beds again.But this time they will be higher(12" or higher),gardening plastic on the bottem and then potting dirt mixed with my compost goods. Fertilelize as needed.Plus I plan on putting up the black screen to shade from the harsh sun we have.The plants will get sun but not the harshness of the straight sun. I had my potted plants sitting out in the sun,they were getting burned,so I moved them to partial shade and the are doing better.
Thursday, May 12, 2011 7:17 PM
I live in Tennessee and we have alot of red clay dirt, my boyfriend thinks it's better to add peat moss to the soil and I'm a firm believer of top soil. Which one would be the better product? I don't want to spend an enormous amount of money for a small flower bed.
Thursday, May 12, 2011 8:15 PM
Any kind of compost would do. It doesn't have to be Peat Moss unless you are looking to lower the PH in your soil and if you have to do that for a particular plant then it is best to either to it for potting or raised beds. Because your soil will become alkalined again. Even getting a little sand from a river bed will help to break up the soil, just not to fine of sand. But putting in some cheap potting mix will help to break up the clay you have. I normally use about 6 to 8 parts of natural soil, 2 parts manure, 2 parts compost and 1 to 2 parts river bed sand. That will give you a nice loose enriched soil for just about anything. Top soil doesn't help the clay under it and eventually the plants need to get into that part. I also use a cement mixer to help mix this mixture up or you could do it by hand and a lot of muscle. Harbor freight has an inexpensive cement mixer and you probably can get it online if they are not out there. Also try the classifieds and Craigslist.com to possibly find an inexpensive used one.
Wednesday, December 07, 2011 5:51 AM
I am a new member just looking over the articles and what-nots during my first look here. I foind this article and responses quite interesting, as I have been gardening with my stepdad and mom for the last 25 years here in Sedro Woolley, Washington. Our property sits on what was once the Skagit River. The soil here is so potent and loamy, every time we tried to build a pen for chickens, rabbits, or dogs, the posts would almost immediately take root and grow. Therefore, I have over 13 apple trees, 8 pear trees, 4 peach trees, and that's just the back of the property!
I raise roses, tulips, and other beautiful flowers here as well as a half acre of vegetables.
I don't do any container gardening here, since I have plenty of room and if i needs cover I build a greenhouse over the area. But I do sell a soil to many of my friends that seems to be very similar to your recipes listed. Since I have no formal training I felt a little smarter! ;)
My questions to you begin with: Do you, or have you ever heard of grinding your perlite for a seedling or cutting soil?
I have found this to be better for such soil mixes as they seem to keep from drying out too soon, and the roots are stronger, sooner, as well. My starter mix starts with Miracle Grow Seed Starter mix as my peat, ground perlte, and vermiculite. To that I add either Biotone Starter Plus or my own compost (depending on the type and size of plant).
Another question I have: Do you use or suggest plugs? And which ones? I have never had any luck with them, and wonder what I am doing wrong. Why am I the only one that seems to fail with them?
Reporting live from the greenhouse,
Sedro Woolley's Weedhopper
Friday, December 09, 2011 1:46 AM
I need to build a new fence. Would send me some of those fence post that grow. LOL
I am not a professional I learn from trial and error. The one thing to look for when getting your rocky sand from the stream beds is to make sure there isn't a lot of fine silt in it. The rains from 2010 some how produced a lot of silt so some of my mixed soil became dirt clods when they got wet because I ran out of compost to add to my soil for break up. (I live in the Mojave desert where it is mostly clay).
We couldn't get perlite down here till the later part of 2010 when Home Depot got some in and this year Miracle Grow started marketing it down here. The regular stuff is about $17 a 2 cubit feet bag, but it last a long time so it isn't that expensive when you look at it that way.
If the grinding of the perlite works for you then keep going with it. I wouldn't grind it too fine though. Maybe just crush it with my hand a bit, especially with the Miracle Grow perlite because it is fairly small sized to begin with.
As for using two different starter solutions (the Miracle Grow starter and the Biotone Starter Plus) I would watch that. Too much of any fertilizer on starter plants will burn the roots and remember compost is a kind of fertilizer also.
I am assuming you are talking about grass plugs. In Washington I don't see why you would have to use plugs, just spread grass seeds should do just fine with all the moisture you have there. We have plugs growing naturally around here and here they tend to keep to themselves and not mingle with neighboring plugs even when they grow into each other. We still have a solid round piece of grass and empty spaces in between each one where it isn't round. I just dig them up to get rid of them now.
Good Luck with your gardening
Monday, April 30, 2012 1:19 PM
My soil at the western edge of the Forty Mile Desert in Northern Nevada has a pH of 8.5 and is salty, my well water has a pH of 9.0 and contains a lot of sodium. My soil type is sandy clay and gravel with a hardpan down about 12 inches. Nutrients (NPK) are almost non-existant. Organic matter IS non-existant. Getting any nondesert plant to grow is a challenge. I try to put a lot of compost into my vegetable garden each year along with a shot of balanced chemical fertilizer. Trees, shrubs and flowers are all of a type that tolerate drought and salt. My biggest challenge is keeping the desert critters for eating everything in sight. (fences around everything!)
Friday, May 18, 2012 4:10 AM
I live in florida and I believe I have hardpan soil, I have been trying to grow things but we have a drought going on. Things sprout and grow well early on but when it hits 95 dregrees in April and no rain things wilt turn yellow and never fruit, and if they do fruit it is a dwarfed specium. I have bought many bags of potting soil from the hardware store in the past year. Possibly the problem may be pine needles in compost, pollution? I am glad they have grocreys stores to buy vegetables because it looks like I cannot grow them. Depressed gardener.