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Every experienced gardener knows the secret to a great garden is building good organic soil. Even if you are lucky enough to have started with a garden of rich soil, over time you will need to add compost and manure to keep it that way. Natural or organic fertilizer, if required, is used only during the growing cycle to boost plants that need it.

Building organic soil does not need to be a complex matter, but it can take time and hard work. How much work depends on the base you are starting with. There are a few things you need to know and you will be on your way to building rich organic soil any gardener would envy.

There are 4 basic soil types: clay, silt, sand and loam - with loam representing a grain mixture of sand, silt, clay and organic matter. Officially Loam is a mixture of sand, silt and clay, but gardeners have come to know loam as having organic matter.

Sand: is the largest particle in the soil. When you rub it, it feels rough. This is because it has sharp edges. Sand doesn't hold many nutrients.

Silt: is a soil particle whose size is between sand and clay. Silt feels smooth and powdery. When wet it feels smooth but not sticky.

Clay: is the smallest of particles. Clay is smooth when dry and sticky when wet. Soils high in clay content are called heavy soils. Clay also can hold a lot of nutrients, but doesn't let air and water through it well. Although clay may be hard to work with, the high nutrient levels make it good for building up.

Particle size has a lot to do with a soil's drainage and nutrient holding capacity. To better understand how big these three soil particles are, think of them like this. If a particle of sand were the size of a basketball, then silt would be the size of a baseball, and clay would be the size of a golf ball. Line them all up, and you can see how these particles compare in size

It is difficult to determine or recommend how much of each amendment to add to your soil. This can only be done after testing your soil. Locate a horticulture professional in your area to determine what is required to optimize your soil.

Soil amendments (additives):
A soil amendment is any material added to a soil to improve its physical properties, such as water retention, permeability, water infiltration, drainage, aeration and structure. One or more of these would be added to the various soil types above to improve the overall quality of the soil.

An amendment must be thoroughly mixed into the soil. If it is merely buried, its effectiveness is reduced, and it will interfere with water and air movement and root growth.

Organic amendments include sphagnum peat, wood chips, grass clippings, straw, compost, manure, biosolids, sawdust and wood ash. Inorganic amendments include vermiculite, perlite, tire chunks, pea gravel and sand.

A Different Way To Look At Soil?:
The first and most important thing to remember, is that good soil is a living, breathing mass. Try to picture your soil as a living being, it needs to breathe, retain moisture and provide a good food supply to all the microorganisms, insects and other members of this intricate community.

This may sound silly, but imagine yourself as a microscopic member of this world, as part of this system, trying to find food, water and all the nutrients you need to stay healthy. Would you be able to move freely, find water and store food. If the soil is to dense, you might have trouble moving around or extracting food. Water might be hard to find and you would be limited to where you can travel. If the soil is to sandy, your water supply may drain away to quickly and you might have to survive periods of drought - impeding healthy growth. To much water and you might start to rot or drown.

When you look at soil this way, it is much easier to feel out what your soil needs. Testing the soil makes this more precise.

If you are starting a garden on a new property, a simple digging test will give you some clues to the composition of the soil. After about a week of good dry weather, take a standard long handled garden spade (turf removed if any), push the spade straight down into the soil in several spots where you plan to put your garden and dig up the soil.

  • If you have to jump up and down on the spade, the soil is to dense.
  • If the spade just sinks in with little effort, the soil may be to sandy and light.
  • If you have to apply a medium amount of foot pressure the spade and the soil lifts with a reasonable effort you probably have a good soil density.
  • If the soil is hard and does not break apart easily you probably have clay.
  • Squeeze the soil, if it feels gritty and does not stay in a clump, it is probably high in sand content.
  • If the soil will clump but break apart with little pressure, you probably have a good soil base from which to work.

Trust your natural instincts, after a spring rainfall and the sun has come out, we are all familiar with that wonderful smell of spring. Smell your soil, does it smell rich? Does it look rich? Ever pickup a chunk of clay and smell it - it does not have the rich smell of a good soil. Sand is the same. Not sure what good soil smells like, go to a landscape supplier and do some testing, check out the sand, the peat and of course their best soil.

Lime and liming:
If you need to raise the pH of your soil ground limestone and dolomitic limestone (also contains magnesium) are the organic gardener's choice. Their action is much slower and gentler than gardener lime. They are best applied in the autumn, at a rate of around 8oz/sq yd. If the soil is very acid, another application may be needed the following year but measure pH first. The full effect is felt in the second year.

Mulching as an amendment?:
Amending a soil is not the same thing as mulching, although many mulches also are used as amendments. A mulch is left on the soil surface. Its purpose is to reduce evaporation and runoff, inhibit weed growth, and create an attractive appearance. Mulches also moderate soil temperature, helping to warm soils in the spring and cool them in the summer. Mulches may be incorporated into the soil as amendments after they have decomposed to the point that they no longer serve their purpose.

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For a very good overview of each amendment visit this page at the This page will provide answers to many question regarding soil amendments and soil building.


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