Soil 101: Make Friends With Mud

Believe it or not, soil is every bit as alive as your plants. Healthy soil produces healthy plants, and healthy plants mean healthy, happy humans and animals! It is claimed that just one teaspoon of soil contains a billion microscopic organisms and more than ten thousand different species – yet many of us know hardly anything about this microscopic world beneath our feet. Soil is so much more than mud and dirt. It sustains life on our planet. In this blog post I'll explain how you can make friends with the mud in your garden or allotment and get the very best from the plants you grow.

As gardeners we tend to categorise our soil into two categories: good soil, and bad soil. But what makes a good soil? What should we aim for? How do we define what makes up a good soil for growing our plants and vegetables? Well, before you can answer those questions you'll need to begin with the very basics: understand the natural characteristics of the soil in your garden or at your allotment. There are 4 main types of soil and yours will fit somewhere into the following categories, it could also be a combination: Chalk, Clay, Sand or peat. You could also have a loamy or silty soil, check out the quick facts below for more information on these.

Soil types are defined by the geography of the land in the region that you live in. These soil types also have a unique chemical structure, and as such a pH value. So, back to Chemistry class we go! But only briefly - and you can CHEAT to find find the pH value of your soil really easily. Nearly all garden centers and home-wares retailers such as Wilko or homebase will stock pH testing kits. I actually use this little gadget as it tells me moisture levels and pH value simultaneously. They're cheap and easy to use and will give you an accurate reading in most cases. Just be sure to use them in your actual soil - not composted or mulched areas as this will not give you an accurate reading. (If you want to read up on pH testing in more detail, check out the RHS website here!). Understanding the two combined characteristics of your soil, the type and the pH value means you can focus your efforts on growing plants and veg that thrive in those specific conditions. Of course you can add things to your soil to change the pH or texture, but you need to understand what you have first, before you can think about changing it to what you want.

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There are so many ways you can use your soil type to your advantage. Novice gardeners often give up with their gardens simply because their plants do not thrive despite watering regularly and ensuring they have the correct amount of light. BUT without knowing which type of soil you’re planting in, you could be wasting time and money on plants that simply dislike the type of soil you’re trying to grow them in or the pH value of the soil.

For a flower garden, generally speaking to most reliable method for getting the very best from your display is to plant according to your soil type. By figuring out which soil type your have and doing a little research you can easily choose plants and flowers which thrive in acidic, alkaline or neutral soil. Allotmenteers often face a greater challenge when it comes to growing fruit or veg because their soil needs to be full of nutrients and free draining to get the most successful yield. You may already be familiar with adding comport, manure or fertiliser to your soil to give your crops the best chance of a successful. Additionally, whole groups of veg thrive in alkaline conditions; for example brassicas. However, from my own experience I can assure you that almost everything will grow well, providing you dig in some compost or manure.

Here is a brief description of soil types from the RHS website:


Quick facts:

Clay soils are heavy, high in nutrients, wet and cold in winter and baked dry in summer.

Sandy soils are light, dry, warm, low in nutrients and often acidic.

Silt soils are fertile, light but moisture-retentive, and easily compacted.

Loams are mixtures of clay, sand and silt that avoid the extremes of each type.

Peat soils are very high in organic matter and moisture.

Chalky soils are very alkaline and may be light or heavy.


So, let's head back outside and over to the area of ground you would like to test. Which type of soil do you have? As mentioned above, chalk, sand, clay or peat are the four major types of soil, but you may also have loam or silty soil. Aside from the chemical composition of soil, thankfully there are various physical characteristics that define each soil type, making your job a lot easier! Those who live on the coast are likely to have either sandy or chalky soil which is very alkaline. In other areas you may have peat soil which is acidic or clay soil which is more often than not very alkaline.

VIDEO: Sand, Silt or Clay? Watch now

Dig up some soil and look at it, better yet pick it up, get your hands dirty and feel the texture. Experiment with it! Fill a flower pot and water the soil. Is it free-draining or water retentive? Is the texture fine and crumbly or thick and heavy? Maybe it's somewhere in between. Here are two easy ways to give you a general idea of what type of soil you have in your garden or allotment. No fancy equipment required!

Clay Test Method:

  • Grab a handful of soil, add a little water and squeeze it! If the soil molds into your hand, and stays in that shape then you have soil containing a clay. If you can roll the sample into a ball and it still keeps it's shape, you have high clay soil.

Float method:

  • Get jam jar and add a few spoonfuls of soil. Fill with water, shake it up and leave for an hour or overnight. In the morning you will see that the water has enabled the soil particles to float, sink and settle into mini geological strata. Any sand present will settle to the bottom of the jar with a layer of clay if present followed by silt. This will be a simplified, miniature reflection of how the soil layers in your garden are constructed.

Jam Jar Test

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So, I hope by now you have all the tools you need to understand why soil is so much more than mud and dirt. Treat it well, choose plants carefully and you're almost guaranteed success.

Any questions, let me know in the comments box below! Don't forget to sign up to my newsletter for monthly updates on my allotment.

Hope you have a great week at your allotment or in your garden!

Katie xx

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