Evaluating Garden Soil

Most of our homes are on land which has either just been graded or has been worn out by improper care over many years. Very few of us are fortunate enough to settle on land which has been properly cared for. We must make do with what we have.

Start by looking at your soil and what plant life it is supporting. Newly graded areas show characteristics different from areas which have been planted for many years and which have declined in fertility. The fertility of the soil is what needs to be determined and perhaps corrected.

Newly-graded areas have a light, poor look. Plants grow slowly and are not deep, rich green in color. Grass is weak, light green, and sparse. Evergreen shrubs are not full and healthy; trees seem to be stagnant without any signs of bursting forth into heavy leaf.

Old plantings have the look of decline. Leaves may be smaller than normal and lawns filled with weeds. Trees seem to be the only plant material which is thriving.

Now look at the soil itself. Dig a hole about a foot deep and a foot across. Remove the soil, laying it carefully beside the hole. Take some of the soil in your hand, break up the clumps, and recompress them into a ball in the palm of your hand. Then try to break the ball with your fingers. If the ball breaks easily into crumbles, the structure is good; if the soil is hard to break up and feels slick, it needs humus.

Look at the hole you have dug to remove the clump of soil. The side of the hole will show the soil in layers. Inspect these carefully. How deep is the dark, perhaps rich-looking area beginning at the surface? This is your topsoil. Noe the condition of each layer and what the bottom-most layer is like. Crumbling stone makes planting difficult and moisture a real problem.

In newly-graded areas there will be little demarcation between the topsoil and the subsoil. The whole profile will have a light look.

A test for drainage should be made. Fill the hole with water, and leave it until all of the water has been absorbed. Then fill the hole again and observe how long it takes for all the water to be absorbed. A good indication of poorly drained soil is when it takes several hours for the second filling to disappear.

Make these test in several different areas of your property. Very soon you will discover the good and bad characteristics of the soil in each area.

The soil profile and drainage tests are not the only things you should observe. Note other symptoms of poor soil:

  • Presence of moss indicates an acid condition and poor surface drainage.
  • Sour-smelling soil indicates very poor drainage.
  • Light red or yellowish soil indicates low humus content.
  • Late afternoon wilting of weeds or grass indicates poor moisture holding capacity.

Wet and Dry Soil

A "dry" area is one which drains excessively or is so tight and hard that water cannot penetrate and be held in the topsoil. Within a day or two of a hard rain or heavy watering the soil is dry once again. Such an area needs humus and enriching to develop the ability of the soil to take moisture and hold it without becoming and staying so moist that plant roots do not develop and grow properly.

"Wet" soil is that which holds too much moisture. The rain or water which is applied stays in the topsoil for long periods of time. The test for drainage suggested above will help you determine if a particular area is a wet area. Loosening the soil with humus and sand or perlite will increase the drainage and keep the area from being a "wet" area.

Evaluating Garden Soil

Moist-Holding Capacity

The term is important to understand as you strive to make plants grow better. "Dry" soil has very little moisture-holding capacity, "wet" soil has too much. Soil which has been properly conditioned with humus has a greater capacity to hold the right amount of moisture while allowing excessive amounts to percolate through the topsoil and away from the root zone of the plant. The addition of drainage-improving materials like perlite or sand will increase the percolation of water through the soil and will help prevent too much moisture in the root zone.

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