Identify your soil type before planting

Have you ever looked at the soil in your garden and considered it as anything more than soil? If not you should, because there is a lot more there than meets the eye.
It performs many functions that you may not be aware of and having good quality soil in your garden is essential for your plants. This column will look at the functions of soil, the different types of soil, and some ways to make it healthier.
All life on earth is dependent on soil, either directly and indirectly. The most immediately apparent function of soil is a medium to support plant life. It provides support both physically and biologically.
Physical support is provided by allowing the plant to grow its roots through the soil to hold itself in place. Biological support is provided by its ability to hold and provide the nutrients and water the plant needs.
Soil also supports other types of life, as well. Microorganisms and insects live in the soil and they, in turn, aid plant life by helping to decay organic material and adding structure to the soil.
Soil allows the growth of food crops, which are consumed by humans, and also plants used in the creation of medicines. Microorganisms like fungi and bacteria that live in soil are used to produce antibiotics.
The four major components of soil are mineral matter, organic matter (humus), water, and air. Mineral matter refers to the inorganic elements in the soil (e.g., stones, gravel) and makes up to 40-60 percent of its volume.
This part of the soil usually originates from the bedrock that lies beneath it.
Organic matter (humus) is the decayed remains and waste products of plants and animals, and has a great effect on the chemical properties of the soil (e.g., availability of nutrients).
Almost 40-60 percent of a soil’s volume can be space and this is occupied by water and air.
Soil texture is defined as the size distribution of different mineral particles. These mineral particles, at their most basic level, are the following: sand, silt, and clay.
Sand particles are two to 0.05 mm in diameter, silt particles are 0.05 to 0.002 mm in diameter, and clay particles are less than 0.002 mm in diameter.
The combination of these particles exhibit different properties in soil, and some combinations favour plant life better than others. The following are the most common classes of soil texture:
Clay soil contains a high percentage of clay particles and feels lumpy to the touch. The small size of the clay particles means that they clump together quite readily and there is less room for air spaces.
Consequently, clay soils have poor drainage and do not hold nutrients very well. This is a heavy soil and is sticky when wet, making it hard to work with.
As much as possible, you should take steps to improve the drainage of this type of soil. Much of our district, for instance, is covered in clay soils.
Silty soil contains a high percentage of silt particles and feels smooth to the touch. This soil is a well-drained soil due to the size of the particles allowing space for water to permeate.
This soil holds nutrients more readily than clay soil due to the spaces. It is easy to cultivate, but can be compacted quite easily.
Sandy soil contains a high percentage of sand particles and feels gritty to the touch. That allows for quite a lot of space in between particles and, as a result, is very free draining.
This has its disadvantages, however, as it does not hold water and essential nutrients can get washed away.
Loamy soil is the best type of soil texture you can have in your garden. This is soil whose properties are controlled equally by the percentages of clay, silt, and sand particles.
It is well-drained but does not lose water too easily as is the case with sandy and sometimes silty soils. The fact that it retains water means it also retains nutrients for your plants to use.
It has a great structure and is easy to cultivate.
This column outlined the different types of soil. Now the next step is to step out into your garden, take a look at your soil, and determine if it needs some help to become healthy to support plant life.
Next week’s column will guide you on this matter.

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