It’s only natural to want to feed your family pesticides-free products and reduce your grocery bill, but before you start you need to know the types of soil so you can figure out what you can grow in your garden and what not. Same is true if you want to grow flowers and ornamental trees. Whether you’re looking into gardening as a hobby or as a means to put quality fruit and vegetables on the table, this guide will help you use your soil type to your advantage.
You certainly don’t want to end up at harvest time with a bunch of sorry-looking vegetables, do you? And you probably don’t want your flowers to wilt and look sad, either.
We would not want that to happen to you either. So we put out minds together to bring you an in-depth guide to the 6 basic types of soil and their respective qualities.
Don’t worry, figuring out what type of soil you have in your garden is not that complicated.
What Is Soil?
When you’re out for a walk you call it ground, but when you’re looking at it with the eyes of a prospective gardener, that layer of organic and inorganic particles is called soil.
What is in that soil? A lot of things, starting with various minerals and gasses that make up the inorganic part.
As for the organic components in the soil, there is of course water, the essence of life without which you cannot grow anything.
Then there are lots of micro-organisms and a generous amount of decaying plants and insects.
Sort of the circle of life if you want—withered roots and fallen leaves disintegrate and release vital molecules back into the soil to sustain new life.
Fact: About 10% of the total carbon dioxide emissions are stored in the soil.
More Facts About Soil
When you come to think of it, the soil is what sustains us. If the planet was covered in solid rock, no food could grow.
Yet, most people don’t look after soil too well, and sometimes they call it dirt, too. But when you at these amazing facts about soil, you begin to feel at least some awe for the everyday soil we walk on.
- Did you know that if you pick up a handful of soil from your garden you will be holding in your palm billions of micro-organisms, more than there are people on Earth? One gram of soil contains 5,000 types of bacteria!
- The soil you’re looking at right now started accumulating hundreds of years before you were born. According to scientists, it takes approximately 500 years for just a measly 1 inch of that topsoil layer to settle down. That would be back in the 1500s that the small particles started gathering there patiently waiting for you to be born!
- Soil is made up of 45% minerals, some of them essential for plant growth, but it also contains sand and pebbles.
- Then you have 25% water. Even during a drought, there’s still water down there.
- And 25% gasses trapped among the other compounds. Finally, you have a tiny 5% organic matter, dead or alive, like those billions of microscopic organisms.
Soil Terms Explained
If you want to grow anything in your garden, you have to consider things in-depth, starting with the soil.
Simply looking at soil or rubbing a bit of loose soil between your fingers won’t tell you anything of value. In-depth look means just that, like drilling a hole and analyzing what lies beneath the surface
To determine the profile of your soil you should, theoretically, dig a very deep hole and look at the different layers exposed.
You won’t have to do this in your garden, that’s only for scientists, but you should at least have an idea about it as those layers with different compositions will ultimately determine the quality of the vegetables you grow.
But then remember that you can also grow vegetables indoor.
In scientific terms, those layers exposed by digging a hole are called horizons and they bear different names according to the main characteristic of each of them.
Usually, these horizons are distinguished by a capital letter, which might be different according to the area you live in and the classification system used in your country.
However, they’re very easy to understand.
- Horizon O usually refers to the topmost layer of soil and comprises mostly of organic matter—you know, the micro-organism and decaying plants and part of plants mentioned above.
- Horizon A is the surface layer of soil, which is very rich in organic matter that accumulates here mostly through decomposition. It’s also the layer where you can find iron oxides and many of the minerals clay is made of. (More on this later on.)
- Horizon B is the subsoil, generally rich in oxides. Depending on the type of soil, you can find many soluble elements from the surface layer seeping and accumulating in the subsoil.
- Horizon C is also called the substratum, which is mostly rocky with traces of minerals that have made it so far down.
- Horizon R means bedrock and you don’t want to hit bedrock, not in general and especially not as a gardener. As the name says, this is a bed of continuous rock in which the roots of the plants cannot penetrate.
Fact: You can find this careful layering in undisturbed locations. If there’s been intensive digging, during construction works for instance, or a lot of plowing on your land, those horizons were probably disturbed and mixed together.
Types of Soil for Gardening
Enough with the science, what you as a gardener want to know is what soil you have and what to do with it. Let’s have a look at the six types of soil.
Enough with the science, what you as a gardener want to know is what soil you have and what to do with it. Let’s have a look at the six types of soil.
You can easily tell a certain soil is sandy, as you can feel it with your bare hands. It’s a bit gritty when you run your hand through the top layer of soil.
If you’ve ever been to the beach (and we hope you did!), you won’t be surprised sandy soil is described as free-draining. Its loose structure helps water drain quickly.
At the same time, this type of soil tends to warm up rapidly once the good weather starts in early spring. This is important as it will allow you to plant early.
On the other hand, the fact that it allows the water to drain quickly makes sandy soil a bit lacking in essential nutrients plants need to grow as they are washed away by rain.
What You Can Grow in Sandy Soil
- Unfortunately, sandy soil is not good for growing many plants. You can, for instance, grow melon and coconut, if the weather in your area allows it. It’s ideal for cactus plants, which seems rather obvious as these grow in arid areas.
- However, if you have a good irrigation system, you can use your sandy plot to grow maize, millet, and barley. Or, if you prefer, you can cultivate strawberries, lettuce, and squash.
- As for flowers, sandy soil is good for bearded iris, lavender, salvia, phlox, foxglove, and butterfly weed.
You’d be quite lucky to have silty soil on your plot of land as this is rich in nutrients and quite easy to work with. Silt soils are composed of fine particles that can be easily compacted.
Dry silt feels almost like flour. The texture of this type of soil feels smooth and soapy, as it retains more water than sandy soil. Adding a layer of organic matter to this type of soil can improve drainage if you find you have a problem with that.
Overall, it’s a very fertile soil, better than clay soil in any case.
What You Can Grow in Silty Soil
- This type of soil is well-suited for most veggies, as well as for climbing plants and perennial plants. If you’re interested in some shade, you can plant willow and birch trees.
You know clay, don’t you? It’s sticky and tends to be rather lumpy—that’s how clay soil feels to the touch.
The good part about clay soil is that it is very fertile as it is quite rich in essential nutrients needed to grow fine crops.
The bad part about this type of soil if that it’s hard to work with whether it’s wet or dry. Very dry clay soil gets rock-hard so planting will require a lot of effort.
On the other hand, clay soil that accumulates too much water becomes lumpy which makes it difficult for plant roots to grow and find more nutrients.
There has to be a middle way, right? Yep!
Tip: By mixing your soil with organic matter those annoying lumps break down into more manageable crumbs which improve drainage and make your plating work easier.
What You Can Grow in Clay Soil
- Clay soil is recommended for summer crops, fruit, and ornamental trees, or perennial plants.
- As for veggies, you can have your pick between broccoli, cauliflower, kale, peas, potatoes, cabbage or Brussels sprouts.
- This sort of soil is good for weigela, bergamot, flowering quince shrubs, or delicate aster flowers.
This is a gardener’s dream come true. If the soil in your garden is loamy, you’ve struck gold, as this is the best type. You can recognize it by its soft fine texture.
Loamy soil is basically a mix between sandy, silt, and clay soil—taking the good parts from all three and leaving out the worst.
Loamy soil is rich in nutrients and drains very well yet manages to retain enough water so it doesn’t dry out under a hot summer sun. What more can you ask for?
This sort of soils warms up quickly in spring, so you can start cultivating early.
Regularly adding some organic matter will make sure your loamy soils stay fertile and easy to cultivate year after year.
What You Can Grow in Loamy Soil
- You can grow plenty since it is the best soil there is. Vegetables thrive in this type of soil, but you can also cultivate wheat, cotton, and sugar cane.
- As far as flowers are concerned, you can have rose bushes, irises, gladiolus, a climbing wisteria plant, and various types of lilies in your garden, to name just a few.
This term refers to an acidic type of soil that inhibits decomposition causing the accumulation of organic matter (peat) in the top layers.
If organic matter takes longer to decompose this means this type of soil is poor in essential nutrients. You can work around this problem by using fertilizer or you can reduce the acidity level with compost and limestone.
Another problem with peat soil is that it tends to retain too much water, but you can solve this with drainage channels.
What You Can Grow in Peat Soil
- Peat soil is excellent for root crops, salad greens, or witch hazel, on condition the soil is well-drained.
- You can also grow rhododendrons and lantern trees. If you don’t know what lantern trees are, it'a pity!
Chalky or Lime-rich Soil
You can easily recognize this type of soil as it feels, well, chalky or stonier than other types of soil. You will find chalky soil over limestone bedrocks.
The problem with this soil is that it is too alkaline and it lacks certain minerals, like iron and manganese. Plants cultivated on such soil are often stunted and present yellowish leaves.
You will need to balance the pH of your soil by using the appropriate type of fertilizer.
The good thing about this soil is that it has adequate drainage, so you won’t have to bother with that.
What You Can Grow in Chalky Soil
- Being an alkaline soil, it’s best to stick with those plants that prefer this type of soil.
- If you have chalky soil, your garden can be transformed into a riot of colors with beautiful flowers like lilac, weigela, madonna lilies, Californian poppies, or wallflowers.
- At the same time, spinach, beets, cabbages, and sweet corn do very well in this type of soil.
How to Identify Your Soil Type
It’s time to put your soil to the test and see just how lucky you are. Besides looking and touching the soil in your garden, you need to be a bit more scientific about it. There a few quick home tests you can do.
The Water Test
Just go and water a part of your plot and watch how fast does it drain. If the soil absorbs water easily, it’s probably a sandy soil or a chalky one. If the water pools to the surface, it’s clearly clay soil.
The Squeeze Test
Take a handful of soil and try to compact it or roll it into a ball shape. Sandy soil won’t allow that and will crumble in your hand, whereas peat soil will feel like squeezing a sponge.
If you can make a small ball of soil that stays in that shape, your soil is clay and you might want to consider taking up pottery instead of gardening. Just kidding. Or not.
If the soil in your hand has a fine texture and only maintains a certain shape for a short time, you are indeed lucky and you’re soil is either silt or loamy. Hurray!
The Settle Test
This is an easy DIY soil test for which you will need only a transparent water container, like a Mason jar, and a handful of soil.
- Drop the soil into the water, shake it well, and leave it to settle for 12 hours.
- If you find the water clear and the soil particles neatly layered at the bottom, congratulations, that’s precious loamy soil!
- If the water is cloudy, but most particles are deposited at the bottom of the container, that’s probably a clay soil or at least silty.
- When the water is murky, but you see many particles floating around, that’s a peaty soil.
The Acidity Test
You need to know the pH of your soil, as some plants thrive in slightly acidic soils, while others prefer an alkaline soil.
For this, you will need an easy-to-use soil pH test-kit which you can buy online or at your local gardening store. But bear in mind that these kits are mostly DIY soil tests and some people complain the results were inconclusive.
That’s why it’s better to go for a professional test kit.
Professional Soil Test Kit
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This kit comes with detailed instructions, plus a prepaid envelope to send your sample to the test lab. Besides pH, this test also gives information about the nutrients your soil contains.
Tip: The accuracy of the test depends on the way you collect the soil. Follow the instructions carefully!
How to calculate how much soil you need
"How much soil do we need for X plant?" is a question our readers email us a lot. Especially when you're just starting out with gardening and the cultivation of plants, it can be a little daunting.
However, fear no more, below you will find a soil calculator as a guide to help you calculate how much garden soil you need, whether it is topsoil, mulch, or compost.
Once you know the total weight of soil you have to buy, you won't have to worry about overspending or having to go to your garden centre multiple times!
Tips to Use Your Soil to Your Advantage
There is no such thing as bad soil. Even if you’re not entirely happy with what you have in your garden, you can make it work if you know a thing or two about types of soil.
Balance the pH Level
The easiest thing is to grow those plants that prefer the type of soil in your garden, more acidic or more alkaline.
If the soil in your garden is a bit too acidic for the plants you have in mind, use lime to balance the pH level.
Improve a chalky soil that is too alkaline with aluminum sulfate fertilizer.
Add More Nutrients
- A soil fit for gardening needs to contain three basic minerals: Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium, which will make your vegetables or whatever plants you have in mind grow up big and strong.
- If the tests reveal your soil lacks essential nutrients, you can enrich it by adding compost and manure. You can also use organic mulches with straw, leaves, and grass which will slowly decompose leaking vital nutrients into the soil.
- You can use organic rock phosphate, also known as rock dust, if your soil lacks phosphorus.
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Other Ways to Improve Your Soil
- Clay soil poses specific problems as it tends to be chunky. You can correct that by covering it with a thick layer of decomposing plants but also by adding a bit more peat a few weeks before the planting season starts.
- If worms make you squirm, know that they are good for your soil as they help with composting and also do your work for you carrying the fertilizer around so that it is evenly spread throughout.
- Certain types of fungi, like Mycorrhize, are beneficial to the soil and will help your plants absorb water and nutrients efficiently.
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Fun fact: More than 1,400,000 earthworms live in one acre of cropland. You just don’t usually get to see them.
Don’t Forget Crop Rotation
Cultivating the same type of plants over and over will mean certain elements in the soil might get depleted. Which is why you want to alternate crops.
For instance, corn uses up a lot of nitrogen, so you should alternate it with soybeans which help replenish nitrogen stores in your soil.
Use cover crops that are typically planted in fall and tilled under in late winter or early spring.
The best cover crops for your garden are hardy legumes, crimson clover, winter rye, oats, barley, or grasses.
Fact: Did you know that the soil works as a filter, keeping pollutants out of underground waters? Just make sure you don’t use toxic chemicals in your garden. You don’t want those in your vegetables!
Types of Soil FAQ
Now that you probably know quite a bit more about types of soil than you knew before you started reading this, let’s do a recap. Here are the key questions.
How many types of soils are there?
What are the 6 types of soil?
What are the 4 types of soil?
What are the 3 types of soil?
What Matters Most—The Soil or the Skills?
You can have the best soil in the world and be blessed with perfect weather but if you don’t have a green thumb—and work very hard—you won’t have much to show as a gardener.
True, some soils are better than others, but the key to success is to make the most of what you have, and not only in gardening. Examine your soil carefully, have it tested, and then get to work.
If you use the right fertilizer, see about watering, and drain the soil as necessary, you can grow wonderful plants and the best vegetables you’ve ever tasted.
Now, why don’t you try one of the soil tests we suggested and tells us the result? Knowing your soil will make you a better gardener, guaranteed.