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The Toil with Soil: Part I

The Toil with Soil: Part I

By Karen Dressel
UCCE Master Gardener

You moved to a new home and plants don’t seem to grow, or your existing gardens are no longer lush and productive. The problem is likely the soil. Soil is composed of weathered rock and organic matter, water and air. The magic in healthy soil is the organic matter — small animals, worms, insects and microbes. These flourish when the soil elements are in balance. Soil requires room for air and water to move around the mineral particles to create a healthy environment. A shortage of one or more of these elements disrupts the ecosystem and impacts plant health. Generally, good soils are loose enough to dig easily. Also, excess water will drain freely, and soil will remain moist, not wet, after watering.

Soil health can be disrupted by compaction — compressing the soil particles tightly together by vehicle, equipment or pedestrian activity or working ground that is too wet. This results in soil that repels water, or when wet, is unable to dry out. It is also low in oxygen needed by plants. This is a common problem in areas of new construction.

Excessive tillage and/or use of inorganic (chemical) fertilizers can also disrupt the soil ecosystem and cause environmental damage.

To be able to improve your soil it is essential to understand the soil type and structure:

Clay soil: Clay soil particles are very small and flat and tend to pack together so tightly there is hardly any pore space. Lack of pore space means clay soils are low in both organic matter and microbial activity. When clay soil is wet, it feels lumpy and sticky and is unworkable. When dry, clay soil is rock hard and difficult to dig.

Sandy soil: Sand particles are large; the soil feels gritty and dries out fast. Sandy soil warms up quickly in the spring. Because it drains so well, it may not retain nutrients as water washes through.

Silty soil: Silt particles are medium- sized and feel like flour when dry and feel slippery when wet. It is usually rich in nutrients and easily cultivated but can be compacted easily. While a good soil for the garden, drainage needs to be managed.

Loamy soil: Loam is a relatively even mix of sand, silt and clay. It feels fine-textured and slightly damp. It has good structure for drainage, retains moisture, is full of nutrients, warms up quickly in the spring but does not dry out quickly in the summer. Loamy soils require replenishing with organic matter regularly.

Of course, there are soils of various combinations of the above types. To determine your soil types, a soil lab can be consulted, or simple tests can be used:

Squeeze test: Grab a handful of damp soil and squeeze it. If it is sticky and slick to the touch and remains in shape when you let go, it is clay. If it feels gritty and crumbles apart when you let go, it is sandy. Loamy and silty soils will feel smooth and hold shape for a short period.

Jar test: Add soil to about a third of a clear quart jar. Then add water to almost full, screw on the lid and shake to break up any soil clumps. Let the jar sit without disturbing for 12 hours or overnight. In a few minutes the sand portion will settle to the bottom of the jar. Mark this level on the jar without shaking or moving it. After several hours, the silt particles will settle on to the sand and be a slightly different color. Again mark the silt level on the jar without shaking it. Overnight the clay particles will settle over the silt layer. Mark this layer again. The organic particles will be floating in murky water over these layers. If not full of floating organic particles, you will need to add organic matter to improve your soils. The thickness of the layers will help identify the predominate soil type.

To improve problem soil type and structure:

Sandy: Lightly work in 3 to 4 inches of organic matter such as well-rotted manure or finished compost. Mulch around plants, without touching stems, stalks or trunks. Mulch helps retain moisture and cools the soil. Add at least 2 inches of organic mulch each year. 

Clay: Minimize tilling or spading. Lightly work in 2 to 3 inches of organic matter into the soil. Gypsum can also be added to improve porosity and drainage. Add at least 1 inch of organic matter annually in the fall. Keep foot traffic out of growing areas by using paths, stepping stones or raised beds. 

Silty soil: Add at least 1 inch of organic matter annually to the top few inches of soil to avoid surface crusting. Prevent soil compaction by avoiding unnecessary tilling (roto-tilling or deep spading ) and microbial activity. When clay soil is wet, it feels lumpy and sticky and is unworkable. When dry, clay soil is rock hard and difficult to dig.

Sandy soil: Sand particles are large; the soil feels gritty and dries out fast. Sandy soil warms up quickly in the spring. Because it drains so well, it may not retain nutrients as water washes through.

Silty soil: Silt particles are medium-sized and feel like flour when dry and feel slippery when wet. It is usually rich in nutrients and easily cultivated but can be compacted easily. While a good soil for the garden, drainage needs to be managed.

Loamy soil: Loam is a relatively even mix of sand, silt and clay. It feels fine-textured and slightly damp. It has good structure for drainage, retains moisture, is full of nutrients, warms up quickly in the spring but does not dry out quickly in the summer. Loamy soils require replenishing with organic matter regularly. 

The UCCE Master Gardeners will be available to answer your gardening questions each Saturday at the Visalia Farmer’s Market in the Sears parking lot from 8 to 11 a.m.

Read Part II of this column next week in The Sun-Gazette.

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