Knowing about your soil- what type it is and its pH – will help you select the best plants for your site and learn ways to improve it so they will thrive. Soil is a mixture of particles of rock, organic matter, living organisms, water, and air.

The volume of an ideal soil is nearly 50 percent space that holds air and water between soil particles. If the soil particles are very fine, it is a clay soil. Soils with very high clay content hold too much water and not enough air. They’re sticky when wet, and when dry, they harden like concrete. Soils with some clay content are good, however, because clay helps hold nutrients in the soil for plants. Sandy soils have very coarse particles. They tend to be droughty because they hold little water, and nutrients tend to wash down out of the soil.

Here’s a simple test you can do yourself that will give you an idea of what the mineral content of your soil is. Pick up a handful of moist soil, one that doesn’t drip water when squeezed, and make it into a ball. Sandy soil won’t hold together enough to make a ball. A sandy loam will hold its shape but will crumble into large chunks with even gentle pressure from your thumb.

Clay soil will hold its shape-you may even be able to roll it into a little sausage. It’s very likely that there are different types of soil in different areas of your property. So you may want to look at samples from several places in your yard.

The organic matter content of the soil is very important. Humus particles, which are decayed organic matter, hold lots of water, but also have lots of air spaces at the same time. Organic matter is nature’s time-release fertilizer: As it decomposes, it slowly releases nutrients into the soil to feed the plants. Making and using compost–as a mulch or dug into the soil is an easy way to ensure that there is plenty of organic matter in your soil.

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