Starting a Garden – Understanding Your Garden Soil

Making a Good Beginning – Starting a Garden

So, you are a beginner, new to gardening, and starting a garden for the first time perhaps and with ideas about the sort of thing that you would like to have, often with little chance of ever getting it.

looking at the soil

A garden can give practically everything that the human heart can desire because it is probably the one place in the world that you can make your own; only please don’t make a labour of it. As soon as it becomes a chore there is something wrong with either you or your garden.

When I say this, my friends and neighbours usually turn round and say “Ah, but it’s alright for you, you know what to do and when to do it”. That may be so but I’ll guarantee to make a gardener out of anybody provided he is genuinely interested.

It makes no difference if your garden is only a window box or a bit of soil in the back yard. I know an old lady who has been struggling to grow two lettuce plants in a tin of dirt perched on the top of a backyard wall. They are going to be so bitter and dirty that nobody will ever eat them, but for the first time in her life she has known the thrill and the joy of watching a plant emerge from a tiny seed, knowing she has coaxed it into life.


Looking at the Soil When Starting a Garden

I have just mentioned a tin of dirt; well that’s how many people think of soil – as dirt, muck, mud, soil, earth, good earth. It depends on who you are; mothers and small boys for example look at the same substance from different angles. But the gardener has only one way of looking at it – and when I say gardener I am not thinking of the professional, but anybody who is a gardener at heart.

The soil is our raw material; the factory from which, with the help of all sorts of forces, we can conjure up all the colours of the rainbow and every scent imaginable as well as good food. This is possible because the green plant is the only living thing that can manufacture food directly from the earth’s natural resources. In fact, if all the green plants just stopped growing, all other life would quickly cease.

The different sorts of soils we find are the result of millions of years’ work. They nearly all started off as solid rock. Then frost, the heat of the sun, rain, sea water and the acids from plants broke them down to varying degrees of fineness. So we get silts, which have very fine particles; clay, with particles a shade bigger; and coarse, gritty sand. On top of this, innumerable plants and trees have grown up, died, rotted down and got mixed in with all this finely ground rock. So, when you are faced with that awful looking stuff outside your new house, just console yourself with the thought that there are possibilities in the worst looking soil.

However, there is even more to soil than this; if it was just a collection of sand, clay, stones and rotted vegetation it would still be of some use for growing plants in, but it also contains countless numbers of living organisms. By these, I don’t mean those creepy crawlies that run and wriggle about in and on top of the ground; I mean something much smaller – microscopic in fact. Although they  are so small, they are extremely important for if they get killed accidentally or deliberately then the soil becomes dead or sterile.

Here’s a way of proving it. Put a tin lid full of soil from the garden in the oven and bake it thoroughly, then smooth it out, water it and sow some seeds on it. They will germinate and grow for a few days and then die. But if you put just a teaspoonful of unbaked soil in the corner of the tin you will find that the little plants will grow quite well in this. If the soil is left for several weeks and kept moist, the living organisms will spread quite happily through the baked soil and it will become fertile again.

Later on I will tell you how we make use of this knowledge in practical gardening. Therefore, a gardener’s first job is to make these living organisms happy and comfortable in the soil and provide them with fresh air, food and water. They must have this before you can think about growing plants and I will try to show you how we can give them the right conditions to multiply and work for us.

I cannot stress too much how important it is to get the soil into good ‘heart’ and good heart means good health and good condition. Take a look around the plot and see what sort of trees and weeds grow naturally because this will give you some indication of what the soil is like before ever you put your spade or fork into it. For instance, the beech thrives where there’s lime and this indicates that stone fruits such as plums and cherries will be perfectly happy. Naturally occurring hawthorn means that apple trees and roses will do well because they are all related.

Then, take a look downwards at the weeds, as these too, will tell a story. Dandelions and docks, for example, are happy in a moist sticky clay, whilst nettles and chickweed flourish in loose, open soil and fat hen loves sandy conditions. Well, perhaps you can’t tell one weed from another, so let’s have a look at the soil itself.

Get a trowel and a basin or container of some sort and take samples of the soil from about 2 inches down from the surface at various parts of the plot. Or if it’s a very big one divide it up into convenient sized squares, 20 feet by 20 feet, and take about five samples – on, two or three ft inwards from each corner and one from the centre. Put them all in your container, mix them up thoroughly and then sift the soil that you’ve collected through a 1/4inch sieve. You can then proceed with what is known as mechanical analysis.

You can also have a chemical analysis done later on, but for my part, I like to feel the soil and find out its physical characteristics.

Into a large jam jar put about four dessert spoonfuls of the mixture, fill the jar three quarters full with water and stir up the soil without breaking down all the lumps. Then stand it somewhere undisturbed for twenty four hours. After this time you will see that it has settled out into layers of stones, sand, clay and humus. The little stones and the heavier particles will settle quickly and will be found at the bottom of  the jar, and the organic matter or humus will float on the top. The finer particles of the humus will settle above the clay as a dark sediment.

garden soil mechanical analysis You may find that after twenty four hours the water is still cloudy and this will indicate that there is a fair amount of clay because the clay and silt particles are very fine indeed and take a long time to settle out. If there is no humus or organic matter, either settled or floating, you know that your soil is going to need as much organic matter as you can possibly give it.

If the water is nice and clear then you are lucky, but if it remains cloudy then mix a spoonful of hydrated lime in about a glassful of water, stir it well and add a spoonful or two of this to your jam jar. You will find that the fine particles will curdle, or more correctly, flocculate, and sink to form a layer on top of the sediment. This shows that your soil needs some lime, particularly if you want to grow vegetables.

Unless you know the history of a particular garden then it is always worthwhile making this simple test.

At the same time as you are rubbing the soil samples through the sieve or, if you haven’t got a sieve, through your hands, you will get a real feel of the soil texture. You should be able to tell whether it feels gritty and therefore contains a fair proportion of sand, or soapy if it is made up of clay or silt. if it feels greasy and is dark in colour then it could well be peaty.

In addition, if you let your hands dry with the soil on them, you can actually read the soil’s character so that next time you meet these conditions you will have a better understanding. This will stand you in good stead when it comes to seed sowing, pricking off seedlings and making up various mixtures.

Don’t be afraid of getting your hands dirty when starting a garden, you can always do the gardening wearing gloves later on if you like, but greet the soil initially like a friend with your hands.

Later on as you gain more experience you can learn not only how to feel the soil but to feel plants as well. Just by a touch or caress they will tell you whether they want water or feed and if they are happy or healthy. Sounds daft I know, to talk about caressing plants but watch an old gardener going amongst his plants in the greenhouse or in the garden touching here, stroking there. He’s not doing this just because he loves them or is expressing his affection, like stroking the cat, but more simply to say, ‘Hello, how are you and how do you feel today?’ And they will tell him.

For instance, a tomato leaf when overcharged with nitrogen is dark and brittle and will crack if partially folded. A limp flabby leaf is as indicative as a limp handshake.


01. August 2010 by Dave Pinkney
Categories: Soil Cultivation | Tags: , , | Comments Off on Starting a Garden – Understanding Your Garden Soil

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