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Knowing your soil

(10 Posts)
Methenyouplus4 Sun 20-Mar-16 07:45:45

I'm trying to understand our garden better before deciding what plants to buy. Obviously I know direction each one faces and which patches are sunny/get shade. I have also bought a PH testing kit so I can understand that aspect.

I read lots about 'good quality' soil and it's importance but I really don't know what that is!

Is there anything else I should try to out/observe, in terms of soil, before investing in plants/trees etc to suit the garden (obviously other than aesthetic and individual plant requirements)?

mumsnit Sun 20-Mar-16 08:18:38

See what grows well in your neighbours gardens and also look at the weeds! They will often tell you what kind of soil you have.

Mulching makes a big difference especially if you have heavy clay. Digging in loads of manure (well rotted) helped with the very poor soil I inherited in my garden!

cooper44 Sun 20-Mar-16 20:54:38

I'm sure someone will come and put it more eloquently - but yes your soil is pretty much everything - it will dictate quite a lot what you plant - even with trees. Some plants and trees are happy with a wetter/heavier soil, others prefer sandy, more free draining soil.
You can tell a lot just by digging down in your garden - I am on quite a sandy loam soil so it's very free draining but I have to dig a lot of organic matter in in to enrich it. And in summer it can dry out fast. If you have clay soil you also dig in lots of organic matter but to lighten it and improve drainage.
And then how acid/alkalilne your soil is will affect some plants too - although I think the drainage issue is what you tend to think of more.
Once you have a good idea of what soil you have you can then choose the best plants for it - although having said that I am forever winging it with plants that shouldn't really work but then they still do ok.

mummytime Sun 20-Mar-16 21:44:23

Great I love a good soil thread (don't garden but love soil).

Now is a good time to start by looking at your soil. Where is it wet and soggy? Where is it dry? Is there a lot of moss anywhere? That's a sign of bad drainage (or maybe a leaky pipe underground).
What is in your garden at present? Grass is often good. Bare ground is often not so good.

What colour is it? The best solid tend to be a nice rich brown. Worrying ones are very pale, or green/grey. Even worse if it's a bit smelly and slimy - again possible drainage issues.
Then there is the soil texture test. Grab a lump of soil, make it a bit damp. Can you roll it into a worm? Can you make that worm into a ring?
If the answer is yes, it's clayey, and more clay if you can make the ring.
Get a little bit, does it stay in a ball as you drop it from one hand to the other? If it starts to break apart it's probably quite sandy. Make it wetter and just rub a bit between your forefinger and thumb, can you feel sand grains? If it feels soapy, then that is silt.

Ideal soil will be a bit clay so retain water, a bit sandy so drain, and maybe a bit silty. It will also have lots of organic matter in.

Next dig a hole and see how deep it goes. I live on chalk and the soil can be surprisingly shallow. Sometimes you can dig and suddenly the soil is hard like concrete (I have used a pick axe in the past to dig soil), that will affect how deep roots can get and drainage.

The pH wil give you an idea of plants. And most garden centre plants are labelled with the kind of soil they like. But looking at close neighbours will help soon.
In my town, most people treat ivy as a bit of a weed, as it grows no problem. But if you move off the chalk onto the sand, suddenly the soil is more acidic and ivy struggles.

If you really like something but it doesn't suit your soil, try using tubs.

Methenyouplus4 Sun 20-Mar-16 21:50:44

Thank you do much, been in the garden all day but just read this now. Is it quite normal for different parts of the garden to be quite different?

Also, when people talk about organic matter, where do you get it from? Does it get delivered? I'm sure you could get it from a stable but just thinking the amount I would need for all the veg/flower beds would take an awful lot of car runs and be pretty stinky!

Thank you again for all tips, I plan on having a play with soil/PH kit mid week so I'll try all the rolling etc and see how we get on.

mummytime Mon 21-Mar-16 10:03:16

Organic matter good sources: well rotted manure (my grandparents made a very good garden on London Clay using this); compost - you want to make your own, your council may sell cheap compost bins, and even some cheap compost, so I'd check there first. Collecting up leaves in autumn and allowing them to rot down in black bags over winter can produce some nice leaf mulch.

You may be lucky and the soil is pretty good anyway. Lots of earth worms is a good sign (as is moles but they can be a pest).

Don't put fresh manure in the soil, it needs to rot down first. Its not that stinky really then.

Whatever you use dig in well. To keep your soil in good condition needs some planning, careful planting and taking care. If you are in one of the drier parts of the country you might want to think about water lose over summer, so maybe cover the surface with bark chips (keep weeds down) or grow a good crop to put fertility back in and to cover the surface.

PurpleWithRed Mon 21-Mar-16 10:38:42

You are looking for 'soil conditioner' - beware, 'compost' can mean many things, from the stuff you make in your own garden to expensive multipurpose potting compost for potting plants in.

Round here we have a company who compost and sell on bagged horse manure pretty cheap, but check out local Facebook gardening pages or free cycle. I don't dig it in - I mulch everything with it, and it gradually works its way into the soil either by worm activity or when I'm weeding or planting new plants.

shovetheholly Mon 21-Mar-16 17:33:25

First of all, you're absolutely doing the right thing in investigating this first, before you buy anything!

Definitely do that pH test as it will tell you a lot about whether you have chalk or peat. Also, just have a play with the soil. Water the ground and pick up a bit of dirt and roll it between your fingers. If it holds together, chances are you are on clay. If it feels really gritty and you can see quite large particles (like sand) you may well have a sandy soil. If you put a spade in and the soil tends to clump together rather than falling apart - also more likely to be clay.

The good news is that whatever you have, something can be done with it! Very few of us are lucky enough to be gardening on the perfect soil! There are only really a few places in the UK where you can put a spade in unimproved ground and find perfect loam. Most of us have to add quite a bit of organic matter on a regular basis. However, what you add depends a LOT on what you want to grow.

Say you find you have a sandy soil, for example. You could go in two directions: you could add loads of organic matter and plant things that like a reasonably free-draining soil. Or you could add rather less organic matter and do a dry garden. If you want to grow veg, whatever soil you have you'll probably want a big ole pile of well-rotted horse manure. If you don't want veg, though, too much horse manure can make flowering plants go very leafy instead of very flowery.

So basically, what you do with your soil depends a bit on what you have and a bit on what you want to do. But there are also some other factors to consider - and here's where it gets a tiny bit more complicated.

The first and most obvious one is weather. If it rains constantly where you are, then a dry garden is potentially going to be up against it. I'm in Sheffield, which is not exactly known for its hot, dry summers and the desert garden in the Botanic Gardens looks rubbish pretty much all summer. Of course, the same will be true if you plant shade-loving bog plants somewhere incredibly sunny and baked. Now there are people who relish this type of challenge - you always hear about those growing bananas and other exotics in the Pennines or tender plants in the north of Scotland - but you have to be a certain kind of person, with a certain amount of time on your hands, to make it work! It's generally easier and more rewarding to work with nature rather than against it. Particularly when you are just starting out!

The second one is your microclimate, and a big part of that is aspect. What way does your garden face? What kind of light do you get? Things like trees, structures that cast a shadow, slopes make an enormous difference here. I'm north-facing, but because the house next to mine is at an angle, I get a triangle of light during summer afternoons that enables me to part partial-shade things in that bit of the garden, with full shade things elsewhere. So have a look at where the light and shade fall at different times of day. Also, are there any problems with shelter: are you high up, windswept, or near the coast and liable to be challenged by sea breezes? These things are all part of the picture!

I realise this sounds complicated, but trust me - it's not. As you get to know your space more closely, it all starts to make sense. In the meantime, just try to observe really closely what's going on out there!

Methenyouplus4 Sat 26-Mar-16 07:22:47

Thank you again, forecast bad weatger for next two days so up early to do ph testing and investigate soil. PH test takes 24 hours but will let you know how I get on. ..

Pipbin Sat 26-Mar-16 07:44:15

Can I thread hijack? I have lots of trees in my garden and I leave the fallen leaves on the flowerbeds. The soil seems quite loamy. Do I still need to add anything?

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