Rebuilding Your Soil Through Conditioning

As a gardener, you may live in an area that has less than optimal soil conditions. The composition of soils may contain too much clay or too much sand, making either types hard to work or grow with. However, with the addition of soil amendments, you can condition the soil in your garden to become rich, fertile and easy to work with. The best soil conditioner to use is compost. Various composted manures and mulches like leaf molds help as well.

These amendments help build-up the texture of your soils, and slowly transform poor soils into rich, fertile beds for your flowers and vegetables. It is a long-term process, but the payoff is a healthy, thriving garden after a few seasons, and less frustrations as a gardener. Lets look at the two extremes of soil, clay and sand.

Working with Clay

The heaviest of all soil types is clay, usually yellowish-tan in color, compacted when dry and sticky to the touch when moist. Gardeners who deal with clay soil often say that they can only garden 15 minutes a year, during that brief interlude when the soil is neither sodden and slimy nor so dry and hard that it must be dug with a jackhammer!

The microscopic particles in clay tend to cling together, leaving little room for plant roots to penetrate or for essential oxygen and water to pass freely through them.

Because of its density, clay soil takes so long to warm up that it is often late spring before seeds can be sown. This results in a sharply curtailed growing season, particularly in cool northern climates.

Nonetheless, if you have clay soil, don't despair. Clay does have advantages over other soil types. It is generally fertile, with plenty of the essential plant nutrients, and it holds moisture well, a plus because plants can absorb only those nutrients that are dissolved in water. The problems of gardening with clay soil can be solved by digging in organic soil amendments.

When sufficient amounts, of compost, humus, well-rotted manure and/or leaf mold are added each time a bed is dug or a planting hole is prepared, the soil becomes loose enough for roots to penetrate and water to drain, and also becomes progressively easier to work.

Sandy Soils

Sandy soil is generally grayish-tan in color and gritty to the touch. Sand contains the largest particles of any soil type. Water can drain right through the loose, open spaces between these particles , carrying away most of the essential nutrients , a process called 'leaching.' Sandy soil is often both dry and infertile.

Like clay, however, sandy soil has some redeeming features. This soil type is a pleasure to work, since both digging and weeding are so easy, and the oxygen in the spaces between particles tends to keep plants from rotting out. Sandy soil warms up and dries out earlier in spring than other soils, so seeds can be sown sooner, and since sand creates such a hospitable environment for roots to penetrate, plants establish themselves much faster than in heavier soils.

The prescription for sandy soil is the same as for clay soil - dig in generous amounts of compost, well-rotted manure, and/or leaf mold, every time the soil is worked.

The reason that compost works so well in both extremes is due to the humus it contains. This is a light, fluffy material, slightly spongy to the touch. When mixed with clay, it breaks up the material. When mixed with sand, it binds it together. In both cases, it equalizes the soil into a rich, crumbly mixture perfect for your plants. Finally, the humic acidcontained within binds to nutrients in the soil that may otherwise be inaccessible.

The pH of Your Soil

Once you know your basic soil type, you need to know whether your soil is acid or alkaline, and to what degree. This information is crucial because the level of acidity or alkalinity determines whether or not your plants can easily absorb essential nutrients. Test your soil pH. If it is less than 7 it is acid. Greater than 7, it is alkaline. Generally speaking, areas of the United States and Canada, with normal to heavy rainfall, have neutral to slightly acidic soil. In places where rainfall is low, both clay and sandy soil tend to be alkaline.

To lower the soil pH (make it more acidic), mix sulfur into the soil. Other materials include wood chips, peat moss, cottonseed meed and sawdust.

To raise the pH (make it more alkaline), mix lime into your soil.

These are just a few of the plants that grow in acidic or alkaline soils:

    Acid-loving plants:
  • Blueberries
  • Camellias
  • Bleeding Heart
  • Heathers
  • Mountain Laurel
  • Azaleas, Rhododendrons
  • Serviceberry
  • Turtlehead
  • Wild Ginger

Plants for alkaline soil:

  • Babies Breath
  • Clematis
  • Delphiniums
  • Lilacs
  • Peonies
  • Sweet Peas
  • Sweet William
  • Wallflower

Soil improvement and changing the pH is a long-term process; there is no way to alter the character or texture of any given soil in a single season or two. Eventually, however, you will be rewarded with good soil that will support a multitude of healthy plants.

Article by Ena Clewes, a professional horticulturalist who writes for Goorganicgardening.com. Read more about how to improve your soil using composting supplies materials, and methods.