Soil Health: How to Improve Your Soil

Healthy soil is the secret behind good harvests – it absorbs water, feeds our plants, and provides an anchor for roots, helping crops to grow strongly and be productive. Understand your soil type and you can work to improve it, ensuring more robust plants and even better harvests.

Most soils tend towards one of four categoriessandy, silt, clay, or loam, which has a balance of sand, silt and clay. Each soil type has its own characteristics.

Sandy soils, also described as light soils, are made up of very large particles which gives a gritty texture. Sandy soils drain quickly, so they tend to be drier than other types, and they don’t hold on to nutrients very well, which can present a challenge for hungry crops. However, they are easy to work with and warm up quickly in spring. Root crops such as carrots, together with onions and asparagus, are just a few of the many vegetables that grow well in sandy soil.

Silt soils have smaller particles than sandy soils, giving them a slightly slippery, floury feel. This type of soil holds onto moisture and nutrients for longer.

Clay (or heavy) soils consist of very fine particles. Clay soil holds its shape when rolled into a ball, and it’s smooth to the touch. It is slow to both absorb moisture and drain, which means soils like this can bake hard in summer then become waterlogged in winter, making them difficult to dig and wet and cold in spring. However, well-cultivated clay soils are very fertile and are preferred by brassicas such as cabbage as well as beans, peas, and salad leaves.

Loam is the ideal soil type that gardeners dream of. It’s fertile, drains well but not too fast, is easy to work, and has a good amount of organic matter that supports just about any fruit or vegetable.

All soil types can be improved by adding organic matter. Organic matter can take many forms – for example leafmold made from decomposed leaves, or good old-fashioned garden-made compost. Farmyard manure can also be used, assuming it can be guaranteed to be free of all traces of herbicides which may have been sprayed on the pasture that the cattle or horses grazed. Organic matter of any type should be well-rotted so it can easily be incorporated into the soil. And to avoid future problems, check it for roots of pernicious perennial weeds such as bindweed.

Organic matter works to improve both soil structure and nutrient content. In light, sandy soils it works as glue, binding particles together to improve its ability to retain moisture and nutrients. For heavy clay soils, it opens them up so they can drain more easily.

No matter what your soil type, it will truly benefit from regular applications of organic matter to feed and sustain the plants grown in it. You can add organic matter at any time of year, but the end of the growing season is an especially good time. Barrow it onto vacant ground, then spread it out to a depth of at least 2 inches(5cm). It’s usually not necessary to dig it in – just leave it on the surface over winter and by spring the worms in the soil will have done a great job of incorporating most of that organic matter into the soil. Should any remain on the surface, you can always fork it in a few weeks before it’s time to sow or plant. Organic matter may also be laid around established fruit trees, shrubs and canes, and around perennial vegetables such as artichoke or asparagus where it will have the twin benefits of feeding the plants and suppressing weeds. Do this towards the end of winter. Soil pH determines whether a soil is acid, alkaline, or somewhere in between. Knowing your soil’s pH will help you to decide what to grow in it.

For example, particularly acidic soil is great for acid-lovers like blueberry, while soil with a higher (or alkaline) pH is preferred by brassicas such as cabbage and cauliflower. Test your soil using a pH test kit. The accompanying color chart will help determine whether your soil is acidic, neutral or alkaline. For best results, take soil samples from several parts of your plot so you can decide which areas need amending.

For example, soil can be improved for growing brassicas by adding garden lime, which works to raise soil PH so it’s more alkaline, while organic matter will generally move pH towards a level that’s ideal for most fruits and vegetables.

Getting a little familiar with the soil that sustains our crops means we can keep it in tip-top condition. And your crops? Well, they’ll reward you for it!

Happy Gardening!

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