Soil Guide - Find out your soil type
Each garden is unique, from the trees and plants growing in it, to the unique characteristics in the soil.
Soil is made up of many different components which directly impacts what can be planted into it. Some soils drain well but hold very little nutrients, some are nutrient rich and retain moisture well.
You don’t need to be an expert in horticulture to find out what soil type you have in your garden. Conduct a few simple tests from our soil guide and you’ll be well on your way to finding the perfect trees and plants for your garden.
What Soil Type Do I Have?
There are 5 main types of soil that you can find in the garden. These are chalk, clay, sand, loam, silt and peat.
The easiest way to check soil type is to take a sample, wet it and roll it between your hands. A general rule of thumb is as follows, if it feels smooth, sticky and can be shaped into a ball then it’s mainly clay. If it feels gritty, cannot be formed into a shape and crumble through your hands easily then it’s mainly sand.
For a more detailed analysis of each of the 6 types then keep reading below.
Chalky soil can be both heavy and light depending on the area and clay content. It is usually found over a limestone or chalk bedrock creating an alkaline environment.
Chalk soils are free draining and stony. It’s free draining qualities means that minerals like Iron and Manganese can quickly be depleted. Remedy this issue with added feeds and fertilisers.
It is hard to improve the pH of a chalk scale to create and more acidic environment and ericaceous trees and plants will not tolerate being planted in areas of chalky soils. If you do find that your garden is more on the chalky side, consider planted any acid loving plants into pots where the conditions can be controlled.
Clay soils are known for being rich in nutrients but can get a bad reputation when it comes to watering. The small particles of clay create a heavy soil that retains a lot of water, meaning you’re left with sticky, waterlogged conditions. It allows for little aeration around the roots of the plant and can be hard to work with.
When it gets very wet in the winter it can take a long time for it to warm back up in the spring. Throughout the summer, clay soils can become very dry and even start to crack making it hard to work with at times.
Even with some of the negatives, clay is an essential part of soil and can be added to other soil types to help increase both nutrient and water content.
Clay soil will feel sticky or slimy to the touch when wet and can easily be balled up or moulded into a sausage shape.
Loam is the ideal soil type for planting and can be a gardeners best friend. Unfortunately for us, it’s one that is also rarely found in the garden.
The perfect balance between clay, sand and silt soils while avoiding the extremes of each type. Due to the range of particle sizes in loamy soils it creates the perfect conditions and allows air to move freely between the particles keeping the soil aerated and light. It’s draining while still retaining moisture and packed with essential nutrients, it warms up well in spring and is easy to work with.
Loam soil balls up easily in the hand but won’t hold it’s shape, it should feel smooth with a slightly gritty texture. Due to the levels of organic matter in the soil it will appear darker in colour.
Peat soil is rarely found in a typical garden setting. It sits on the acidic side of the pH scale and contains a low amount of nutrients.
The high level of organic matter found in peat soil makes it good at holding onto water, the downside is that it can also become waterlogged quite quickly.
As peat isn’t usually found in the garden it is commonly used as a material to help improve existing soil conditions. It can be added to areas with ericaceous trees and plants as they will thrive with the extra acidity.
Peat is usually dark in colour and can sometimes appear almost black. When touched it should feel spongy and if squeezed when wet, water will be forced out of it.
Sandy soils contain the biggest particles out of each type. This makes it very light and free draining. Sand type soil is easy to work with in the garden and warms up the quickest in the spring. They range on the acidic side of the pH scale.
Due to its lack of moisture retention, the runoff from the rain and frequents waterings can lead to low levels of nutrients. Throughout hot weather, sandy soils will need to be watered more regularly than others. Sandy soil will benefit greatly from added organic matter and fertilisers.
Sandy soils feel gritty to the touch and cannot be moulded into a shape. When rolled between your hands it will crumble easily between your fingers.
Silt soil is great to have in the garden. It is light and fertile, grazing the middle ground between a sand and a clay soil. The medium sized particles allow for the soil to be light and free draining while still holding onto just the right amount of water.
It has a medium amount of nutrients, again, slightly more than a sandy soil but less than clay. It’s a very easy soil to work with and warms quickly in the spring.
It can become compacted easily so be wary when using garden machinery or when walking on it.
Silt type soils should feel smooth and sometimes even slippery like soap when wet.
Testing Your Soil
Testing by Hand
The most common way of identifying your soil type is by touch. Wetting the soil and rolling it around between your hands is a great indicator to what soil you have in the garden. Using the indicators listed above you should be able work out which type of soil you have without any other knowledge.
The Jar Test
If you don’t fancy getting your hands dirty then why not try the jar test?
Another common way to test soil is to put small sample in a jar filled with water and a dash of washing up liquid or salt. Once it’s all in the jar, give it a good shake and let it settle overnight.
Once you come back in the morning you will see the distinct layers of each soil type. Sand settles at the bottom, clay on the top and silt will appear in the middle. Depending on the levels of each amount will indicate to the soil type you have in the garden.