Let’s Talk About Dirt

Ilona Erwin

Lots of gardeners take their soil for granted. Knowing a few basics, many of us want to get on to the “fun” part of choosing our plants, designing our borders, and generally get everything growing. But sooner or later we have to deal with the dirt.

Get To Know Your Soil

dirtTypes of descriptions range from clay to silt, and loam, to sand. Texture chart to help visualize this range.

Basic soil Textures

  • Clay
  • Clay-Loam
  • Loam
  • Silt-Loam
  • Silt
  • Silty-Clay
  • Sand
  • Sandy-clay

That representative list describes the texture, but for many plants the pH is just as important. If the pH is high, the resulting alkaline conditions will be poor for ericaceous plants which need acid conditions to grow well; if the pH is low, the necessary nutrients may not be available for good vegetable produce, etc. Specific plants have their needs and tolerances for pH levels. An example of a crop that will need acid conditions is the Blueberry shrub. Vegetables like broccoli need slightly acidic to neutral, which is a 6.0-7.5 soil pH level, numerically.

Click to learn more about pH levels

Measuring the pH ranges from 0 to 14, with 7 being neutral. The pH is important because it governs many plant processes.Plant nutrient availability is the major impact of the relative pH measurement.


Ways To Determine pH

  • Observe which plants grow naturally:”Look to the weeds
  • Use a pH meter or test
  • Use litmus paperMix soil with distilled water, dip a strip of litmus paper within the mixture. Paper turns red for acidic, blue for alkaline.
The classic test for discovering the texture: hold damp clod of dirt in your hand, squeeze it, if it holds together in a ball it has lots of clay, if it crumbles well, it indicates loam, if it has trouble holding its shape, it has more sand.


Soil Survey

Most of the time we understand the fundamental idea of whether our soil consists of clay, loam, or sand and sometimes we pay attention to the pH… but do we know the soil profile we are working with? Do we know its assets and drawbacks? Well, if you are interested I have a place for readers to start: The National Resources Conservation Service’ Soil Survey site. It has loads of information and is pretty easy to use. Being an ongoing project, they may not have your county online yet, but in that case you can contact your county extension agent to request a hard copy soil map. Here’s the Ohio counties info.

By the way, did you know your state has a state soil, like a state bird or state flower? Yep, those politicos think of everything. Ohio’s suggested State soil is “Miamian”


Get Your Own Soil Survey


Years ago, when first moving to my rural home, the real estate agent thoughtfully provided the county extension soil map survey to me. It had aerial maps of the county with soil types mapped onto them, and explanations of the soil profiles. There were also lists of trees, etc, and land use charts for the soil types. I have always appreciated this information, and it helps gardeners make long range soil amendment and planting plans. It doesn’t replace personal observation, but supplements it with expert evaluation. flat fields of fertile land An example of the information I gained is that my property is made up of two types of soil: Kokomo and Crosby-Lewisburg.

Kokomo soils are on broad flats, are very poorly drained, and have a high water table. Crosby soils are on the slopes of knolls and ridges, are somewhat poorly drained, and are prone to seasonal wetness. –The Darby Watershed

More examples of how this information helps:
Soils of this type are often drained by artificial means, thus all the county ditches and farmers laying drainage tiles throughout acres of land. Of the evergreen trees recommended, the Norway spruce handles the conditions well. I now have a number of large specimens that help provide windbreak to my home and garden.

Once you know about the basic soil you are given, it is time to begin improving and maintaining its productivity.


Do you have a compost bin or pile? Learn the basics about composting.

compost tumbler bin Compost Tumbler Capacity: 70 Gallons

It seems that you can’t discuss soil without the topic of compost coming up at some point. Compost is the way we improve the tilth* of the soil, add fertility, … it is the commerce of “organic matter” that is listed every time one is advised to improve their soils in a large number of circumstances.

The One Greatest Garden Tip of All

*tilth: “the physical condition of soil in relation to plant growth” Wondered about diatomaceous earth?

Heavy clay soil? Add organic matter (humus). Sandy fast draining soil? Add organic matter. Moisture retention? Add organic matter. Yes, we get it. So however we decide we want to attain this rich soil building humus, it helps to set up our own compost manufacturing area. Which reminds me. There is something new on the horizon in composting: Bokashi composting. I came across this tidbit of info:

“compost can suppress plant disease. Israeli researchers discovered that vegetable and herb seedlings raised in a mix of 40% vermiculite, 30% peat moss, and 30% composted cow manure grew faster, with less incidence of disease, than those raised in a 40% vermiculite/60% peat moss mix” – ATTRA.

Compost Bins: Worm Factory 360 4 Tray with Accessory Kit

One key element in composting is the heat from the heap that destroys organisms. Composting can be a whole lot of science, but for most of us, we just muddle along with rotting things down. It all works, so long as a few basic rules are followed. A component of composting is earthworm activity. Lindis’ experience is ideal for discovering this underground world. Make the earthworms happy, I say. They do good things for your soil. A worm blog, and worm composting blog are great for learning more. seed starting

Potting Soil

Garden soil isn’t all there is to know. A whole world of soil attributes are contained in … potting soil. You can mix your own or buy soils designated for about any purpose under the sun. I always liked getting my soils for pots at WalMart or K-Mart, but in the early days I mixed my own. I just found that obtaining things like oak leaf mold was pretty pricey. Here are a few links to follow to know more about potting soils and how to make your own: National Organic Standard on the ATTRA site, HGTV,The Best Potting Soil, Potting Soil Recipes

Some Questions to Ask

So what do you want to know about your soil? The composition, what are the proportions of clay, sand or loam? The pH, is it an acid, neutral, or alkaline soil? What are the known fertility problems, if any? Magnesium deficient? What can you do to increase the nitrogen? When do you want more potash? Or potassium?

Take your time and familiarize yourself with the dirt in your garden, it can be fun and pays off in better blooms and produce. We all want that!

Compute The Amount Of Amendment You Need Helpful Links Remineralizing your soil
Soil pH,What It Means

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Ilona Erwin, author

Meet the Author

Ilona Erwin

I started working on this website beginning in 1998, when it was part of Ilona's Reflecting Pool. Since then I've branched out into a number of online endeavors and work at writing lots of content for my sites. "Ilona's Garden" remains my primary site and is dedicated to home gardener's success.