What Does Soil Texture Mean to Your Organic Garden?
Learn How to Use This Soil Characteristic to Your Advantage
When your garden comes to a screeching halt with little warning, do you ever blame it on "that darn clay soil" or that "baking hot, no good sandy soil" of yours? If you do, then you have more than an inkling as to how soil texture can affect your organic garden. In order to learn how to work with your soil's natural texture (which can't easily be changed), you'll first need to find out what your soil's texture is.
Is it sand, silt or clay?
In other words, you should know whether you have a "light" or "heavy" soil. Commonly, soils with lots of sand are referred to as "light" soils and soils with lots of clay are known as "heavy" soils. Both have advantages and disadvantages. Sandy soils warm up earlier in the spring, have better drainage and are seem to suit certain crops (carrots, for example) better than clayey soils. Clay soils, on the other hand, usually have better water and nutrient holding capacity. This means that you may be able to get away with less frequent watering than you could with a sandy soil and that your nutrients will "stay put" better than they would in a sandy soil.
You can figure out your soil's texture (sandy, silty, or clayey) with no tools except your bare hands and a little bit of water. The long and short of it is this: If your soil feels very gritty and won't stick together when wetted, it's sand. If you can make it into a long ribbon or "snake" just like you did with Play-Doh when you were in kindergarten, then it's clay. However, your soil is probably not either of these but a mix of sand, silt and clay (big, medium and small particles).
Amazingly (and somewhat confusingly) some soils have textures that are known as Sandy Clay Loam or Silty Clay Loam--this just means that they have a fair amount of sand, silt and clay in them. There is a flow chart that can walk you through several steps that will help you determine your soil's texture. See the SOIL TEXTURE FLOW CHART
Once you know what your soil's texture is, you will be able to make more informed decisions about what crops to grow and when to plant them, how often to water your garden and how much compost (or other source of nutrients and organic matter) you need to add to help your crops stay healthy.
It is important to realize that any soil, no matter what texture, can benefit from having organic matter, such as compost, added to it. Organic matter helps clay soils become better aerated and "lighter" so that they will be less likely to turn brick hard just when you were planning on putting your tomatoes in. Organic matter helps sandy soils absorb more water so that your garden crops will be thirsty less often. It also provides an organic source of nutrients to your plants.
By identifying your soil's texture and becoming informed about the advantages and disadvantages of its texture type, you'll gain a new appreciation for your soil and it's natural characteristics. This is the first step (other than putting away the pick axe!) in reaching a truce with troubled garden soils and learning to appreciate your soil.
For More information:
There's a Goosefoot in my Garden
It's Easy to Grow Great Garlic
How Does Your Garden Grow Part One: Getting to Know Your Soil
Tammy Biondi has been growing organic produce for over 10 years. Besides running Blue Horizon Farm, Tammy teaches about sustainable farming at the Central Carolina Community College. She also is a successful freelance writer, focusing on agricultural topics. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.