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How to Do A Simple Soil Survey of Your Garden

Conducting a soil survey in your garden might seem daunting, but it’s a crucial step for effective garden planning and care. Knowing your soil type is key to selecting plants that will thrive in your garden.

Once you’re aware of the soil composition, you can make informed decisions about enhancing its quality. This process not only boosts the health of your garden but also contributes positively to environmental sustainability.

Moreover, it’s an enjoyable and educational activity, reminiscent of primary school science experiments. The best part? It’s budget-friendly, with no need for pH tests or trace mineral kits. Such a straightforward soil analysis provides valuable insights, guiding you in choosing the right plants for different areas of your garden.

Clay soil

How to do a Simple Soil Survey

You will need

  1. Large clean jars with a lid;
  2. Soil;
  3. Water.


  1. Move aside any mulch and scoop about a cup’s worth of soil into your jar.
  2. Fill the jar with water, secure the lid and shake it.
  3. Place it on a bench and leave it for a few hours.

Next, I’ll describe the most common soil types and you compare to what you have in your jar.

Soil Types

There are five main soil types:

  1. Sandy
  2. Clay
  3. Peaty
  4. Chalky
  5. Loamy
  6. Hydrophobic Soil

Sandy Soil

If your soil is sandy, you’ll notice that the larger particles quickly settle to the bottom of a jar test, forming a distinct layer. The water above these particles will remain relatively clear. Generally, sandy soil is alkaline and offers excellent drainage, but this also means it often lacks essential nutrients.

Sandy Soil Characteristics:

  1. Sandy soil is gritty and coarse, with large, easily visible particles.
  2. It has excellent drainage, allowing water to flow through quickly.
  3. This soil type often lacks nutrients due to its low retention capacity.
  4. Sandy soil tends to be alkaline in pH.
  5. It warms up faster in the spring compared to denser soils like clay.
  6. The soil’s loose structure makes it easy to cultivate and work with.
  7. Sandy soil usually requires more frequent watering due to poor water retention.

To improve sandy soil, you can mix in clay and add compost to enhance its structure and nutrient content. Exercise caution when applying soluble fertilizers to sandy soil. Due to its high drainage capacity, plants may not absorb these nutrients effectively, leading to rapid nutrient loss and potential pollution of groundwater.

Clay Soil

If your soil is clay, you might have guessed it while collecting your sample, as clay soil can be tough and compact. When testing, clay soil is indicated by cloudy water with a slim layer of sediment at the bottom.

The persistent cloudiness occurs because the fine clay particles settle slowly. Silty soil exhibits similar characteristics. Clay soil has poor drainage, which can lead to waterlogged roots or hindered root growth in plants.

Clay Soil Characteristics:

  1. Clay soil is dense and heavy, often becoming compacted and hard to dig.
  2. It consists of very fine particles that contribute to its sticky texture when wet.
  3. Clay soil has poor drainage, leading to water retention and potential waterlogging.
  4. This soil type is typically rich in nutrients due to its high mineral content.
  5. It warms up more slowly in the spring compared to lighter soils like sandy soil.
  6. Due to its density, clay soil can be challenging to work with, especially when wet.
  7. It tends to hold onto nutrients well, reducing the need for frequent fertilization.

Improving clay soil involves working gypsum and compost into it. Adding earthworms to the soil is also beneficial, as they help to aerate and break up the compact structure.

Peaty Soil

Living near marshes or swamps often means your soil is peaty. When testing this soil, expect to see some debris floating on top and minimal sediment at the bottom, with brown, murky water.

Peaty soil is largely organic, acidic, and has a high risk of waterlogging. Additionally, it tends to have a distinct, somewhat earthy or musty odor.

Peaty Soil Characteristics:

  1. Peaty soil is predominantly organic, composed largely of decomposed plant matter.
  2. It is characteristically dark, rich in color, and often feels spongy when wet.
  3. This soil type is highly acidic, affecting the availability of certain nutrients.
  4. Peaty soil has excellent water retention, but this can lead to waterlogging.
  5. It usually contains a lot of moisture and has a characteristically earthy or musty odor.
  6. Peaty soil warms up quickly in spring, which can benefit early plant growth.
  7. Due to its high organic content, it can be nutrient-rich but may need mineral supplementation.

To improve peaty soil, introducing clay can help absorb excess moisture and provide better structure to the soil.

Chalky Soil

If you have chalky or lime-rich soil, you’ll notice a layer of white, gritty particles settling at the bottom of your jar test, with the water above appearing cloudy and pale. Similar to sandy soil, chalky soil is alkaline, drains well, and tends to be low in nutrients for plants.

Chalky Soil Characteristics:

  1. Chalky soil contains a high proportion of calcium carbonate, giving it a light, stony texture.
  2. It is typically alkaline, which can limit the variety of plants that thrive in it.
  3. This soil type often has poor water retention, leading to quick drainage.
  4. Chalky soil is usually shallow and may have a layer of chalk or limestone underneath.
  5. It tends to be low in fertility due to its alkalinity and rapid drainage.
  6. The soil warms up quickly in the spring, beneficial for early planting.
  7. Chalky soil may require regular organic matter addition to improve structure and nutrient content.

To enhance chalky soil, consider mixing in some clay and compost to improve its nutrient content and water retention.

Loamy Soil

If your soil test reveals clear water with a layered sediment consisting of sand at the bottom and clay particles above, you’re in luck – you have loamy soil! Loamy soil represents a well-balanced mixture of sand, clay, and organic matter.

Loamy Soil Characteristics:

  1. Loamy soil is a well-balanced mix of sand, silt, clay, and organic matter.
  2. It is known for its ideal drainage and water retention properties.
  3. This soil type is typically fertile, supporting a wide range of plant life.
  4. Loamy soil has a fine, crumbly texture that’s easy to work with and cultivate.
  5. It generally has a neutral pH, making it suitable for many different types of plants.
  6. The soil holds moisture well, yet drains sufficiently to prevent waterlogging.
  7. Loamy soil often contains a wealth of beneficial microorganisms, enhancing soil health.

This soil type is ideal for plants, offering high nutrition, good water retention, and a friable texture that promotes healthy root growth.

Hydrophobic Soil

Hydrophobic soil, which repels water instead of absorbing it, is a significant problem for gardeners. This condition can affect all types of soil, including those that are normally free-draining like sandy and chalky soils.

Interestingly, soils often become hydrophobic when they dry out, making them hard to re-moisten. You’ll know you have hydrophobic soil if, during watering, you notice water pooling on the surface or quickly draining away without being absorbed.

This issue is particularly noticeable in potted plants, where water can flow straight through the pot as quickly as you pour it in, without being retained by the soil.

To amend the hydrophobic soil you need to do the following steps:

  1. Aerate the soil gently to improve air and water movement through it.
  2. Mix organic matter, such as compost or aged manure, into the soil to increase moisture retention.
  3. Cover the soil with a layer of mulch to help maintain moisture and reduce evaporation.
  4. Water the soil slowly and deeply, allowing moisture to penetrate effectively.
  5. If the problem persists, consider replacing a portion of the soil with a well-balanced, loamy mix.
  6. Maintain a consistent watering routine to keep the soil evenly moist and prevent it from becoming hydrophobic again.

Soil Health

Understanding your soil type is key to successful gardening. For instance, blueberries thrive in acidic soils, while carrots and capers do well in sandy and chalky soils.

Remember, there’s a symbiotic relationship between plants and soil: healthy soil nurtures healthy plants, and in turn, healthy plants contribute to soil health.

Amending soil is a gradual process that may take years, but it’s crucial for garden health. Regularly conducting a soil survey each season helps in continuously improving soil quality and identifying any problem areas.

One of the most effective soil amendments is the addition of compost and worm castings, which enrich the soil with essential nutrients and beneficial microorganisms. If you haven’t started composting or worm farming, now is an excellent time to begin.

Remember, healthy soil is the foundation of a thriving, sustainable garden. You can’t grow healthy plants in unhealthy soil.

So what were your soil survey results? Please share your results in the comments.