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Home > Types of Gardening > Backyard Gardening > Soil -- Testing
Soil -- Testing
Soil -- TestingGet acquainted with the soil in the plot. A soil test will reveal fertilizer needs and composition of soil. Soil testing is available for a nominal fee through area extension services and some private testing labs. Soil testing for home gardens is recommended every three to five years.

Soil tests determine the pH, salt concentration and level of nutrients. On a scale with a pH of seven being neutral, many vegetables will grow quite well from 6.0 to 8.4. With the analysis, the lab or extension service will provide information on needed soil improvements.

Topsoil

Although crops prefer a perfect soil, most will adapt and grow satisfactorily in a wide range of soil conditions from sand to clay provided they are handled correctly. Avoid the temptation to haul in topsoil to improve on what is already there. It is almost always better to work with existing soil than to haul in topsoil.

There are no legal definitions for topsoil, so providers can sell soil of nearly any composition and call it topsoil. Hauled in soil may not be any better than the existing soil in the garden plot. It could be a source of noxious weeds with a less than favorable pH or of worse texture than what is there. When fill is needed to raise the level of the yard or to fill in a coarse gravel bed, soil must be hauled in. Be aware that it may or may not improve the area where it is placed.

Soil Texture

The minerals in soil are tiny particles of weathered rock. Texture refers to how the relative sizes of the particle structure deal with their arrangement.

Most soils contain varying sizes of minerals. The relative amounts of sand silt and clay determine the type of soil in your garden. Soil scientists use a soil triangle to illustrate the relative proportions and resulting soil structure. Very large soil particles are sand, medium sized particles are silt and fine particles are clay. The different sizes of the particles do not mesh tightly, allowing for tiny pores between them that allow the water, nutrients and air to move through the soil to the roots. An even mixture of the three makes the best garden soil. Since most soils are not an even mixture, compensate for the parts that keep the garden from producing as it should.

Knowing what type of soil is in the garden makes planning and cultivation easier. Sandy soil, which warms early in the spring and allows water to drain freely, is less likely to compact than other types. However, it does not hold water well.

Clay soil, composed of tiny particles that cling together readily holds moisture and locks air out. Typically it feels heavier than sandy soils because it holds water so well. Roots do not develop as well in clay soils because they have to penetrate the dense material and because they have difficulty getting enough oxygen for optimum growth.

Loam soils contain somewhat equal proportions of sand, silt and clay. Loam soils hold moisture and nutrients around the root zone, and drain well enough to deliver needed oxygen to the roots.

Between the three basic types of soil, very light sand, heavy clay, and loam are other variations - sandy loam, loamy clay, etc.

To determine the type of soil in a garden plot, test it by turning over a shovel full of soil and squeeze it together. If it does not stick together well, the soil is probably sandy, if it forms a sticky ball that does not easily come apart, the soil is clay. Soil that forms a ball, crumbles easily and is not particularly sticky is considered loam.

Optimum plant growth occurs in soils that hold water and nutrients around roots, yet drains well enough to allow oxygen into the area. It should also offer support for plants. Always correct soil imbalances before planting.
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