Growing a garden is simple, in theory – all you have to do is plant a seed in a sunny spot and water it occasionally. The caveat is that not all soils are made equal, and choosing the wrong type could affect the health and growth of your plants.
Whether you’re planning on starting a garden for the first time or looking for ways to improve your existing garden, the information below will give you a solid grasp of the different types of soil and when to use them.
A high proportion of sand in the soil can be a very good thing, giving it a stable foundation and the promise of longevity. It’s not all good, though, and sandy garden results can vary significantly depending on weather conditions. Its naturally dry, gritty texture makes it difficult for this soil to retain nutrients and feed plant life, particularly under wet conditions.
The good news is that the addition of organic plant matter can make a big difference to soil quality. Sandy soil often makes a great home for plants that thrive in heat and dry conditions, from hardy succulents like sedum to more elegant options like lavender and butterfly weed. Whatever the vibe of your garden, these species will have it looking and smelling beautiful in no time.
Like its namesake, clay soil has a distinctive texture – sticky when wet and rock-hard when dry – which makes it easy to identify by touch. This dense, heavy soil variety does not drain well on its own, which can make it a temperamental plant host.
However, the addition of fertilizer and organic materials such as compost, leaves, and bark can improve these conditions beyond measure. In the right conditions, clay soil can grow a range of perennials, shrubs, summer crop vegetables, fruit trees, and ornamental trees, making it a great selection for any garden.
Made up of relatively small particles, silty soil can be easily identified by its light, powdery and somewhat soapy texture. Its strong nutrient-holding capacity makes this soil variety a welcome guest in the garden where it will remain moist under dry conditions.
The hold is so strong, in fact, that silty soil may require manual draining for best results. Still, plenty of plants appreciates the many positive qualities of silty soil, including an array of grasses, perennials, shrubs, climbers, and fruit and vegetable plants.
Not sure whether your plants need sandy, clay or silty soil? Your best bet may be to opt for loam soil. Combining characteristics of the three soil types mentioned above, loamy soils are, in many ways, the best of both worlds – they drain and breathe well, and retain more than enough moisture to keep most plants happy. That said, plant varieties such as climbers, perennials, shrubs and the ever-so-slightly more exotic bamboo family tend to thrive in loam soil.
Chalky soil is alkaline by nature, and a rich source of calcium, sodium and magnesium. This bodes very well for species that prefer a moist soil environment with sharp drainage – for example, climbing plants such as grapevines, ivy and jasmine; however, the lower nutrient content of chalky soil presents a challenge for a wide variety of other plants. Fortunately, improving this soil type is as simple as adding organic matter to the top layer of the soil, which acts as a natural fertilizer and adds much-needed nutrients to the soil.
Made of organic matter and common to marshy wetland areas, the spongy material known as peat depletes the nutritional value of soil. This makes it difficult to grow plants in peaty soil, although there is a simple way to remedy the situation: add nutrient-rich organic matter such as compost and leaves to the soil.
A word on “garden soil”
While garden soil and topsoil aren’t technically soil types, you’ll likely hear the terms many times on your gardening adventures, so it’s handy to know what they mean. Garden soil generally refers to a loamy mixture of sand, silt and clay which is present in most gardens, whereas topsoil refers specifically to the top five-to-ten-inch layer of soil that contains the most organic matter and microorganisms.
Like so many other pursuits, gardening is easier and more productive with the right preparation, and soil choice is key. Fortunately, working out the type of soil you have – or, indeed, the type you need to grow certain plant species – is often as simple as looking and feeling. Still, if you struggle to identify your soil type, soil experts and staff at home improvement stores or your local garden centers will be able to point you in the right direction.