Chalky soils are generally very alkaline and often called basic soils. Such soils are free draining, able to hold water but only a little and easily dry out. Chalky soils are made of particles from solid but soft and easy-to-break down rocks.
Chalky, alkaline soils are common in Britain and many of the country’s most productive agricultural areas are based on chalky soil. But while they’re usually fertile, plants can find it hard to take advantage of the nutrient content because of chalky soil’s high alkalinity – stopping plant roots from absorbing iron. Moreover, it’s shallow and stony while the organic matter added to chalky soil can easily decompose, making it very challenging to garden.
It’s common for plants on chalky soil to suffer from poor growth and chlorosis (or yellowing of leaves) since they cannot absorb manganese, iron, and other minerals through the roots.
The challenges brought by gardening in high-alkaline, chalky soils could overwhelm a home gardener – and crossing out other plants in your garden (even if they’re a favourite) and sticking to ones that easily grow in alkaline conditions is usually the most practical option.
Chalky soils have a layer of chalk or limestone bedrock beneath the surface, hence the name.
These soils however can differ greatly from each other despite being in the same category:
Some chalky soils can have a light and peaty top soil, others have a lot of gravel, and there are chalky soils rich in clay content. It’s not surprising that properties of certain chalky soils depend on other components or particles present in the ground.
Soils rich in chalk are common in the south-east region of England. These soils are usually very shallow, have full clumps of white chalk, and can contain flint which often proves annoying when cultivating or digging the ground.
The chalkiest of chalky soils are usually stony and contain hard-to-penetrate regions coupled with large, sharp flints, giving plant roots trouble expanding as they often bump into these hard lumps.
It drains too easily and is unable to hold on to water for plants. This can be a problem especially during the summer season. People who garden on chalky soil must be prepared to water and feed their garden with greater frequency than what’s necessary in other types of soil (E.g. clay and silty).
Chalk-rich soils often have a pH of 7.5 or more, making them alkaline, a problem for most plants and gardens as it means minerals like manganese and iron are unavailable.
This stifles the growth and yellows the leaves of many plants – and one should regularly fertilise the ground to avoid these problems.
These soils can have a clay-like feel and appearance as mentioned – but be careful as the clay-like element might be fine calcium carbonate which makes the soil poor for planting. If the particles are indeed clay, that’s good news as these fine bits are known for holding onto water and nutrients very well, counteracting the chalky soil’s free draining properties.
There are several ways to find out and determine if you have chalky soil in your garden. You can perform a vinegar test by placing a handful of your soil in a jar of vinegar. If the soil froths, it means it has chalk content and is rich in lime.
Alternatively, you can add a handful of soil to a glass jar and fill it with water. Stir it well and let the particles settle for two hours, then check out the glass jar. Chalky soil will leave the water greyish in colour and will have a white, gritty layer of chalk fragments at the jar’s bottom.
Chalk soils share many similarities to sandy soils – poor water and nutrient-retention properties being examples. Those that only have a thin layer of soil to cover the chalk beneath are likely to suffer from lack of moisture as the water easily flows through the chalk and out of reach for the roots.
The high alkalinity of the soil is also an additional problem – taking roses, hydrangeas, and other ericaceous plants out of the question as these plants require iron and manganese for proper, healthy growth. The mentioned plants often suffer from dwarfing and chlorosis when grown in chalky soil.
It’s clear that successfully gardening on chalky soils – especially those that have thin layers of soil covering solid chalk – need a lot of work and preparation. Adding a lot of organic matter to the ground is a must and should be done regularly. Organic matter decomposes faster in chalky soil due to its properties – and going overboard on adding organic matter is near-impossible.
It’s recommended that you dig as deeply as possible into the ground each year, allowing you to really knead or mix the organic matter into the soil. It takes years of regularly carrying out the above steps to achieve results, but doing so will increase the depth of soil that’s suitable for gardening. Don’t forget that the topsoil of a chalky garden site needs some loving too so add organic matter to the topsoil as well and mixing it in for good measure.
Just about any organic matter will do for chalky soils as it will help keep it fertilised.
There are gardeners, however, that recommend peat, leaf moulds, and other acidic materials to counteract the soil’s alkalinity – only slightly though.
You need all the help you can get when gardening with chalk-rich soil so keep this in mind too. Don’t forget to apply fertiliser to your chalky, garden soil before you plant during spring for good measure.
It is possible to reduce chalky soil’s alkalinity by adding sulphur into the ground, but this isn’t recommended for home gardeners. Large applications are necessary to counter the free calcium carbonate content (0.5-1kg of sulphur per meter squared) and applications are necessary over many years.
You also need to be choosy when gardening on chalky soil as many plants don’t thrive in it. Roses, azaleas, rhododendrons, and camellias are to be steered clear from since planting them on chalk-rich soil may only frustrate you. You also want to pick plants that tolerate not just the soil’s high alkalinity but also its shallow depth and poor water-retention properties.
We’ll take a look at some of the suitable plants for chalky soil in a later section.
You may get the impression that gardening in chalky soil is almost doomed to failure after reading its characteristics above.
But remember: some of Britain’s most successful and productive agricultural regions are based on chalky soil. It’s a challenging soil to garden, but it can be done with the right preparation. Chalky soils can be moderately fertile and provide ideal growing conditions for a wide variety of plants as long as you regularly apply organic matter and fertiliser.
Not to mention you don’t have to worry about floods in chalky soils: they’re usually elevated and are very porous like sandy soil so flooding is very rare. The same sand-like properties of chalky soil makes it easier to warm especially during spring. This allows gardeners to start seeding and sowing at an earlier date.
Chalky soils are generally full of hard, sharp flints and stones, which makes digging the ground challenging. It’s shallow and light – and depending on the plants you pick, it may not provide ideal growing conditions. It’s advisable that you go for plants that can thrive in well-drained soils.
The poor water and nutrient-retention means chalky soil can be extremely dry during summer, requiring frequent watering to keep the ground moist. That, combined with its high alkalinity, makes chalky soil nutrient-poor since plant roots are unable to absorb the locked-up iron and manganese.
This bushy and deciduous tree dons leaves that are usually 10cm in width and have a heart-shaped appearance. The tree loves well-drained soil and can thrive both under the sun or partial shade. Its flowers are rosy-pink in colour, shaped like peas, and are often found in clusters. The fruit of the Judas tree has a noticeably flattened pod-like appearance and purplish colour.
This deciduous tree is massive and robust – donning a broad and spreading crown, dainty flowers, and rough fruits. Its leaves are elliptic in shape, yellow-green in colour during spring but are rich brown in winter. It grows easily in well-drained soil and would appreciate the free-draining properties of chalky soil.
Chalky soil is rich in lime content, but as long as the green is deep and fertile the lime-tolerant common oak doesn’t mind. It’s a large tree that grows a broad, impressive crown. Its leaves have shallow and rounded robes that turn reddish brown during the winter season.
This is an evergreen shrub that thrives in well-drained soils and is flexible enough to grow both in sun or partial shade. It’s commonly grown in flower borders, courtyards and informal gardens, and other places because of its ornamental value. Its leaves are broad – green in colour but are bordered by bright yellow (pink during winter) margins.
Not only does it grow well in chalky, free-draining soils, the Norway maple is also shade and pollution-tolerant - precisely the reason why it's commonly grown in parks and gardens in the UK since the 17th century. The Norway maple can grow male and female flowers on the same or separate trees. Its female flowers develop into samaras or winged seeds once pollinated.
The ragwort is a fast growing shrub that’s very tough against severe and extended frosts. It’s a popular shrub in gardens that can grow up to 2 meters. Its new shoots grow rapidly with sudden changes in its direction, giving the ragwort a very roundabout appearance when surveyed beyond the leaves and flowers.
Clay soils – those that have at least 30% fine clay particles – are often categorised as “heavy soil” and for good reason. Gardening in it is often met with drainage issues due to clay’s physical characteristics. Moreover, clay-rich soil is susceptible to damage when worked or walked on, and it can take a while to restore its former structure.
But while it is hard to manage indeed, clay soil has its share of advantages: it’s self-cultivating – swelling and shrinking when wet and dry –and can be very fertile when cared for properly.
Soil – particularly its texture – is often defined according to the distribution of different mineral particles and these are clay, silt, and sand at the most basic level.
Of the 3 basic particles, clay is the smallest with an average diameter of less than 0.002mm – viewable only through an electron microscope. This allows a large amount of clay particles to fit in small spaces minus the gaps common in larger soil particles. This explains why clay’s texture feels smooth to the touch: the particles are too fine to create a rough surface.
The extremely small clay particles also contain micro-pores, leading to a larger overall pore space and greater water retention compared to other particles.
To beginning gardeners, this feature of clay may sound positive (and it is) but it could lead to inadequate drainage and aeriation when left unchecked. The air pockets in the ground are soon filled with water, greatly reducing the availability of oxygen which is essential for optimal root development and health of soil organisms.
Hampered drainage in clay soil also keeps it saturated long after the rainy season. Slow to warm, planting certain seeds and vegetables at the right time during the spring season becomes tricky – and it’s twice as troublesome for gardeners living in low temperature regions with already short growing seasons.
Clay alone doesn’t offer much as far as plant nutrition is concerned. It has very little organic material and often found lacking in the nutrients plants need for growth and photosynthesis. Clay soils rich in minerals, on the other hand, are often alkaline in nature – which can be problematic for plants that thrive in soils with a neutral pH.
Don’t get us wrong though: successful gardening with clay soil is possible. It all boils down to preparation, which we’ll get to next.
But before we discuss clay soil preparation in-depth, you need to determine first if you indeed have clay soil. Here are some tell-tale signs to keep an eye for:
One of the upsides with clay soil is that its compact, dense nature helps it retain nutrients well. But while that sounds nice, plant roots can have a hard time growing especially if your soil contains more than 35% clay. Fortunately, it’s possible to dilute the concentration of clay – making your soil easier to work on and more favourable for planting.
Large volumes of grit and other materials are often used to quell clay’s dominant physical properties. Soils with 40% clay particles, for example, would require 250kg of grit/square meter to reduce the concentration of clay in the top cultivated part of the soil.
But while a large amount of grit gets the job done, there’s some bad news:
First, it’s often impractical for most gardeners whose budgets are limited. And second, it’s not a be-all-end-all 100% guaranteed solution – one should remember that adding other materials to clay soil can lead to instability. So if you’re going down this route, be sure to start at a small scale to see if it’s worth your while.
The good news, however, is that there are budget-friendly ways to improve your gardening ground and reduce its concentration of clay.
Before we discuss specific methods for enhancing clay-rich soil, it’s important that you decide first how much area you need for your home garden. It’s almost mandatory to work on the whole area at once instead of starting slow with planting holes… working only on the area you intend to use as backfill. Doing so will accommodate your plants’ needs… but only for a while.
Eventually, your plants will grow (which is why we’re gardening in the first place) and so will their roots – creeping beyond the confines of your amended, backfilled soil. But since the planting hole is surrounded with dense and untended clay soil, the roots will start circling around the plant hole as it’s almost impossible to expand beyond it.
The end result: A root-bound plant that will not grow as large and as healthily as it should.
No doubt, working on your gardening area all at once will take a lot of time and effort. But know this – the hours and effort you put in will improve your garden soil’s structure instantly, making future projects easier to carry out as most of the upfront work is done. Hopefully, positive, long-term results are enough to convince you that it’s worth your while.
Here are the steps for preparing and gardening in your clay-rich garden soil:
When reading its properties, you may get the feeling that clay is a gardener’s curse. But this is far from the case – clay soil has its share of bright spots once you learn how to work with it.
For starters, it is easier to fertilise and water than other soil types. Its microscopic particles filled even smaller pores means clay has greater CEC than silt or sand – able to hold on to a lot of nutrients and water. This reduces the need for fertilising and watering – something that a busy gardener always welcomes with open arms!
The dense nature of clay also helps provide a sturdy foundation for plants and their roots. People that garden with sandy soil know sand’s notoriety for letting plants jump out of the ground and fall over – and many of these gardeners add clay to increase the ground’s density for better support.
Perennials and annuals – Lilium regale, Arthropodiumcirratum, Geummagellanicum, etc.– thrive better in clay soils than plants that require regular sowing, planting, dividing, etc. The tiny particles help the roots get a firm grip in the ground – allowing the plants to weather extreme temperatures and high amounts of moisture that plants in other soils cannot.
So to sum things up, you get to water and fertilise less while giving your plants a better foundation with clay soil. But as you’ll now see, clay soil has its share of disadvantages that you should consider, too.
When you decide to garden with clay soil, you better be ready for numerous challenges – most of which are hard to tackle (though not impossible) and one of them is waterlogging. Unable to drain water freely, waterlogged clay soil prevents plants from getting enough air from the ground – leading to yellow leaves, root rot, or even death!
This is especially true during winter when clay ground is almost impossible to dig. And even if you can, you probably wouldn’t want to dig in your clay soil in winter as it almost inevitably leads to further compression of soil particles – leading to greater waterlogging. And let’s not forget how mucky and messy your tools, gloves, and clothes can get when working with wet clay.
The summer season doesn’t provide any relief as far as digging is concerned as clay particles shrink and turn rock-hard when dry.
Clay soil is more than equipped to retain water and nutrients from fertilisers, but it also means it will retain unwanted guests like salt and other materials – leading to harmful build-up which is a pain to get rid of thanks to clay’s gripping properties.
Don’t let the name fool you. The false sunflower isn’t in any way inferior to real sunflowers. The perennial is one of the resilient plants you can have in your garden – shrugging off heat and drought with its amazing tolerance and bringing lovely blooms throughout summer.
This plant is a toughie – able to resist dry conditions and even deer! But make no mistake about it: it’s a tough plant but it’s beautiful too! It can grow silvery foliage along with a bouquet of golden blooms that never fail to attract butterflies.
These versatile flowers can have a variety of colours – white, purple, pink, lavender, and more. They grow anywhere from 2 to 5 feet tall and bloom during the Autumn.
The Russian Sage doesn’t mind growing in hot, dry, sunny clay. But be careful: Many consider it invasive and the plant is restricted in some areas so please double-check. Should you decide to grow a Russian Sage though, you’ll be rewarded with its lavender flower spikes and silver foliage – always a great addition to your garden!
Our garden-loving buddies in the USA dedicated an entire society – The American Fern Society – to this leafy plant, celebrating over 12,000 species of fern available today. What made the plant extremely popular is its unparalleled versatility – able to grow outdoors, indoors, and with or without shade, ferns can easily thrive in your clay-rich garden soil.
Want to adorn your garden with beautiful blue, star-shaped flowers in mid-spring and fall? Start planting bluegrass – a top performer in the garden that easily adapts to various growing conditions. Its supple foliage changes to a magnificent bright gold colour during the Autumn.
This flower thrives best with adequately drained soil. But no worries, it doesn’t mind growing in clay-rich ground. If your spot is sunny enough, there’s an added incentive for growing purple coneflowers as their beautiful blooms and colours (yes they are hybrids) are sure to turn your garden to a haven for butterflies and birds.
Gardeners – old-fashioned folks especially – love the bee balm for more reasons than one. Able to grow in heavy soil, rabbits and deer steer clear of it while hummingbirds flock to its red, lavender, and pink flowers.
The Japanese iris is like the peacock of the gardening world – it’s one of the showiest garden flowers around and people easily recognize it when they see one. As long as you keep your clay soil moist, this flower can adapt and thrive.
Standard loam soil – composed of 40% sand, 40% silt, and 20% clay – is the ideal soil for gardening and growing vegetables especially.
The concentration isn’t set in stone however: the proportions of sand, silt, and clay can vary resulting to variations of loam soil. These include silty loam, sandy loam, sandy clay loam, and silty clay loam, containing 10% sand, 70% silt, and 20% clay.
Clay soils are known for being dense and having good water and nutrient retention characteristics. This makes the soil a good medium for growing flowers and plants with demanding watering requirements.
Sandy soil, on the other hand, is the choice for plants that can handle the summer heat like cacti, tulips, shrubs, and other plants that don’t need a lot of water to thrive.
Outside of desert plants however, sandy soil isn’t a great soil on its own because it doesn’t have good water and nutrient retention like clay soils do. On the plus side, its good drainage means the soil warms quicker than others, allowing gardeners to start working on their garden sooner.
And then there are silty soils whose particles are smaller than sand but larger than clay. While not as fine as clay, silt can hold moisture and nutrients well, but it also has the tendency to get compacted when under constant pressure. Known to be more fertile than other soil types, it’s no surprise that coloured flowers, grasses, vines, and other plants thrive in moist soil that’s high in silt content.
Loam soil is the result when you combine silt, sand, and clay, carrying the best characteristics of all 3 soil types and allowing gardeners to grow just about any plant or tree they want.
Having loam soil in your garden means you don’t have to amend and add too much to the soil. The clay and silt particles allow loam soil to retain moisture and nutrients, while the sand particles ensure that the ground doesn’t get easily compacted and waterlogged.
It has all of the strengths of 3 soil types but without their weaknesses, making loam the ideal gardening soil regardless of the season: it doesn’t dry under the summer heat like sand nor does it get waterlogged during winter like clay.
Unsurprisingly, fertility is another trademark of loam soil – moist, loose, and teeming with organic matter and healthy microscopic organisms that help optimise nutrient cycling for plants. Loam soils are usually filled with decaying insects and plants, which can only help enrich the soil.
These decaying organic matter are broken down slowly but surely – releasing nutrients into the ground for your garden plants to feed on.
Worms and other friendly critters, on the other hand, move through the ground – mixing the soil and creating water passages as they go their way. This ensures that the plants have a good base to grow in – one that drains water well but retains enough moisture and plant food for healthy growth.
So how can you tell if you have loam soil?
Distinguishing loam soil is quite easy with its rich and dark brown appearance. If you pick up a handful of loam soil, it’s usually moist and can be easily rolled into ball – but easily crumbles upon touching when the correct proportions of silt, clay, and sand are present. You can also run water over loam soil. You’ll notice that while it drains the excess water easily, it still retains its trademark moisture.
Loam is the best soil for gardening, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do to improve it. After all, while a soil may have all the best properties of sand, silt, and clay, it needs to provide more than that. Your garden soil also needs to have the right nutrients at the right amounts to keep garden plants in tip-top shape.
To find the right supplements for your soil, you need to determine the nutrients your loam soil contains and how much of each.
A gardener needs to turn their attention to three things to answer the questions above:
Fortunately, while plants need many nutrients to survive and thrive, you don’t have to keep tabs on all of them and focus only on the major plant nutrients – nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium or NPK for short.
Chemical fertilisers are available to give your loam soil a nutrient boost, usually labeled with 3 numbers, each representing the percentage of NPK they contain. But keep in mind that chemical fertilisers don’t provide more than NPK.
True, they are less expensive than natural fertilisers for short-term results since chemical fertilisers dissolve easily, giving your garden the quick boost it needs. The downside, however, is that these fertilisers also drain out of the soil easily.
Natural fertilisers, on the other hand, have more to offer as far as plant nutrition is concerned, containing NPK along with several trace elements and micro nutrients that plants also need – although in smaller amounts.
The issue with natural fertilisers though is that it’s impossible to get NPK in precise values, which varies from one source to another. If you plan to use natural fertilisers for enriching your loam soil, you may want to consult a gardening book that lists various NPK sources along with their average values.
Fertilisers from natural sources also prove to be more cost efficient in the long run than their chemical-based counterparts.
Natural fertilisers are made of organic material, broken down to release nutrients overtime. While it doesn’t give plants a quick boost, the natural process ensures that nutrients are not wasted and washed off the soil.
All this talk about NPK shouldn’t worry you if you add compost at least twice a year, keeping the humus level in your garden healthy.
However, if you want to further build up your soil’s fertility, giving your plants and garden an NPK boost every now and then is in order. You want to apply fertiliser to your loam soil when the plants develop leaves, next when they begin to bloom flowers, and finally when the plants start bearing fruits.
Loam is the most popular soil for gardening and agriculture, and for good reasons. Its balanced mixture of sand, silt, and clay makes the soil well-aeriated and drained while retaining enough moisture and nutrients for plants to feed on. Good loam soil also allows for ideal root penetration as the sand particles keep the ground from being too tightly packed and dense.
The pores between soil particles are responsible for water retention – and soils with finer particles have more spaces and greater water retention. When the ground is watered, most of the water moves downward, continuously and almost immediately after irrigation due to gravity.
However, water is also logged in the pores between soil particles – almost filling the entire space… keeping the soil moist long after watering. Since loam soil has fine silt and clay particles, it can hold water better than sandy soil.
Good drainage is one of loam soil’s positive trademarks. Without good drainage, soil can easily become waterlogged – suffocating the roots of plants because of insufficient aeriation and causing root rot. Loam soil, however, has only 50% of its soil pore space occupied with water – ideal according to experts.
When gardeners are working with other soil types, amending – the process enhancing soil quality by adding organic and inorganic materials – is a must, and gardeners usually steer clear from heavier, unamendable soils. Loam soil, however, is easily cultivated and generally rich in nutrients. Keep in mind though that there are variations of loam soil, those that have higher amounts of clay or sand, may need amending depending on the concentration.
The right combination of the 3 main soil particles give loam an excellent structure, making it easier to work with than other types of soil. That said, loam soil not without disadvantages.
Erosion is one of the main issues with loam soil. While it retains water easily, moisture doesn’t penetrate the soil well enough to increase its density and bulk. Loam soil particles are prone to detaching especially when disturbed by rain, strong winds, and even day-to-day activities – washing or blowing away silt and clay particles and leaving behind sand particles notoriously known for being very light.
As far as plant variety is concerned, loam soil can accommodate almost every plant…almost. If you plan to grow plants or shrubs that prefer sandy, free-draining soils (like cactus and other desert plants), loam soil may be too fine, heavy, and drains too slowly for the plant roots.
This woody perennial has over 100 species and boasts thousands of cultivars. Roses can turn into erect shrubs – growing climbing stems that have sharp prickles. However, what made roses world-famous are its beautiful flowers. While the flowers vary in shape and size, they’re often large, spectacular, and boast a wide range of colours.
Many think that tomato is a vegetable, but botanically speaking, it’s a fruit. One can’t deny, however, the near-endless culinary uses of its red, juicy berry. Not to mention tomato is rich in lycopene whose list of health benefits is also impressive. Tomatoes thrive with moist, soft, loamy soil as their roots tend to go deep.
Its flowers are mainstays of flower shops, commonly used as filling for corsages. The plant can grow up to 1.2 meters tall with its branching stems teeming with tiny white, pink, or purple flowers hence the name. It’s an excellent plant for decorating borders, rock formations, and other points of interest in your garden.
It’s not just one of the most cultivated vegetables in the world, cabbage is one of the healthiest foods too! The leafy vegetable belongs to the same family as kale and broccoli, and it grows best in heavier loam soils with higher silt or clay percentage. It’s an excellent source of essential vitamins and low in calories too.
This vegetable has been extremely underappreciated especially on the internet, with many memes making fun of it. However, broccoli, which thrives in heavier soils like its relative above, is a powerhouse of health benefits. It’s rich in protein, can help lower bad cholesterol, and has positive effects in the body’s detoxification process.
Contrary to broccoli and cabbage, carrots require loamy soils with higher sand percentage. Growing carrots require patience but a good harvest will prove worth it: this member of the parsley family has numerous culinary uses and is a rich source of potassium, carotene, vitamin A, and nutrients.
Peaty soil is almost the exact opposite of chalky soil: the soil has an acidic nature and it has a much higher proportion of organic matter as a result. However, this also means that the soil has fewer nutrients than other types of soil. Keep it regularly fed with fertiliser though and it could transform to a fantastic medium for growing plants.
Peaty soils are good at retaining water like clay-rich soil and may require drainage to prevent waterlogging and drowning your garden plants. On the plus side however, it dries easily during spring unlike clay – good news if you plan to start earlier with your planting.
Peat is a soil material that’s composed primarily of decomposed organic materials. Peaty soils are common in swamps, marshes, and bogs found in various temperate regions. This type of soil started forming millenniums ago, aided by the rapid melting of glaciers. The glacier meltdown drowned and killed many plants, and underwater, the decay takes a very slow process. This led to organic matter adding up in concentrated spots.
Formed in wet climates, peaty soils are formed by the slow decomposition of layers upon layers of aquatic and semi-aquatic plants.
Precisely the reason why peaty soils have much more organic content than other types of soil.
Matter of fact, peat moss – one of the principle types of peat – is used as poultry litters, mulch, and soil conditioner in agriculture. Growers use it and the acidic water it contains to balance the soil’s pH and keep certain plant diseases at bay.
The decomposition of organic materials in peaty soils is blocked, slowed down by the soil’s high acidity.
This is both good and bad for gardening: Good because it helps ensure that the soil is rich in organic matter, but it’s bad for gardening too as the acidity also means peaty soils aren’t as nutrient-rich as other types of soil.
It’s also important to note that peaty soils are prone to water logging like clay soils – saturating those tiny spaces between soil particles with water. This could suffocate plants and lead to root rot, leading to unhealthy and stifled growth.
But all is not lost. While peat-rich soils are easily saturated with water, they can turn to a good growing medium once drained. And don’t forget to regularly apply fertiliser too, ensuring that your garden’s peaty soil isn’t just rich in organic matter but in nutrients too.
Peaty soils are usually black or dark brown in colour. It’s soft and spongy to the touch, unable to take a solid form even when rolled to a ball. This is due to the soil’s high water content – so high that you can force out water by squeezing a handful of peaty soil.
Its excellent water retention properties are particularly helpful during the dry season when garden plants usually require extra watering. Be careful however as peaty soil can still become very dry during summer and even turn to a fire hazard when left unchecked. Remember, peat is coal’s predecessor and it can be combustible too.
Many agricultural spots across eastern England are very peaty – yet the region has some of the best farmlands in the country. While peaty soil has shortcomings (like other soil types), various garden plants will happily grow in it as they can adjust to the acidic conditions. That said, successfully gardening on peaty soil requires time and effort.
Soils rich in peat heat up easily during spring. That is nice, however, it can also dry out especially during long and extremely hot summers - and it can be quite troublesome to get moist again.
Gardeners are advised to keep a close eye on their soil’s moisture especially during the dry season, ensuring that the ground contains enough water for plants to feed on. Picking plants that thrive on acidic, well-drained soil and don’t mind being under the sun will also go a long way.
The wet season, on the other hand, presents its own set of challenges for gardeners with peaty soil. Such soils contain a lot of organic material (from the dead plants) and this gives it a fibrous structure, which endows the soil with enormous water retention capabilities in turn. This allows peaty soils to remain moist for a very long time – but also prone to waterlogging.
Some gardeners recommend boosting the soil’s drainage by mixing or kneading grit, sand, and other porosity-boosting materials into the ground.
Digging drainage channels in soils with high peat content is also a good idea.
Peaty soils are acidic and contain a lot of organic matter because of this. These soils, however, are usually lacking in the nutrition department. One can improve its nutritional value by adding mineral materials. Reducing the soil’s acidity through soil amendments like glacial rock dust and compost is another way to enhance the soil’s properties.
Mulching is another soil-enriching technique that you should include in your arsenal. This is the process of covering the soil’s surface with permeable material (at least 5cm), preferably of organic nature like bark chippings, manure, etc.
The organic material is slowly absorbed into the soil as it decomposes and eventually converts to humus. Mulching with organic material not only enriches the soil, it also prevents the ground from quickly drying out and compacting with the slightest pressure – both of which are issues with peaty soil gardening.
Soils high in peat content have the potential to be excellent growing mediums with proper care. Peaty soils are naturally rich in organic matter since dead, decomposed aquatic and semi-aquatic plants make up a good portion of the soil. Regular application of liquid or organic fertiliser will further enhance the soil’s nutritional value.
Peaty soils also easily warm and dry during spring – considered a good trait by gardeners and growers who want to start sowing seeds ahead of time. On the other hand, these soils – thanks to their fibrous structure – can retain water and remain moist for a long time.
The same water-retaining properties, however, make peaty soils prone to waterlogging and compaction which can suffocate and stifle the growth of plant roots. Extremely hot and long summers also pose problems for gardeners on peaty soil: the ground dries quickly and rehydrating the soil can prove challenging.
The alpine water fern is a low-growing and compact plant that can grow anywhere from 5cm to 25cm in height. It showcases leaves that feel leathery and dark green in colour while its leaf stalks are red-brown. This variety of fern is fond of moist and well-drained soil as well as sheltered areas; but worry not as the plant is quite a toughie and can survive a variety of conditions.
The common bearberry doesn’t mind growing in poor, not-so-fertile soils – and fertilising it is even advised against! It tolerates light shade but it grows best when grown in full sun and planted in acidic, well-drained, gritty soils. Its branches adopt a reddish brown colour when it matures while the older twigs have a papery and peeling bark. The leaves are dark green in colour but turn to bronze during winter.
Most of the deer fern’s closest relatives – those in the genus Blechnum–thrive in tropical regions. The deer fern, however, has a significantly wider distribution and perhaps this is because of the plant’s toughness. It grows best on acidic soils that are moist, contains a lot of humus, and are well-drained. characterised by short and creeping rhizomes, this fern can grow in part- or full-shade and exhibits good winter hardiness.
The Vilmoriniana is a dwarf and slow-growing conifer that forms a dense, globose bush. This hardy plant thrives in the UK and the rest of Europe – and perhaps part of its popularity is that it doesn’t require any formal pruning to look presentable. It loves moist yet well-drained soil in protected locations.
What is it exactly that makes a soil sandy? Experts identify sandy soils as those that have 18% clay and over 68% sand particles 100 cm into the soil.
Sandy soil has the distinction of being the lightest of all soils – prone to wind and water erosion and characterised by the gritty texture caused by hardly visible bits and pieces of rock that range from 0.05 to 2 mm in diameter. Some may think that sand’s light texture makes it a suitable ‘lightening’ agent for heavier soils. But be careful: Adding a bag or two of sand on to an already heavy soil will result to an even heavier soil!
Soils high in sand particles are notoriously known for poor water retention, poor structure, high permeability, and high sensitivity to even the slightest pressure.
Sandy soil is also called “hungry soil” – referring to the soil’s demanding watering needs and the speed it dries out. It also has the distinction of being the most porous of all soil types – precisely the reason why it’s not suitable for planting unless improved upon so it retains moisture and nutrients better.
On the brighter side, sandy soil warms easily and quickly during spring, giving gardeners the opportunity to start planting earlier than usual. Not to mention it’s easy to work with – digging in and getting it to good shape won’t break your back.
In general, sandy soils are acidic, which plants love, but its lack of and difficulty holding in nutrients make it unfit for gardening.
It’s almost mandatory to enrich the ground with compost, manure, and other organic matter. The organic materials added to the soil will be broken down by the soil’s microorganisms for plants to feed and thrive from.
Planning which plants to grow well ahead of time is also recommended. Doing this and taking note of the plants’ moisture and nutrition requirements will help you determine how much amendment to add to your garden soil.
So is your soil sandy?
Sandy soil – thanks to its clearly defined physical characteristics – is easy to identify. Start by taking a handful of dry soil. Slowly drip a small amount of water onto the dirt. Knead the water through it until it feels like moist putty and squeeze it. If it feels gritty and the bits fall through your fingers, bingo! You have a sandy soil.
Sand-rich soil has 3 main problems as far as gardening is concerned.
For starters, the large and coarse sand particles provide good aeriation and drainage, but it also means water just drains away too quickly for plants to fully benefit from the moisture.
Worse however, it cannot provide good plant nutrition on its own as it usually lacks in clay particles and organic matter for plant food to hold on to – causing stunting, yellowing of leaves, poor fruit production, meager blooms, and other symptoms of nutrient deficiency.
Plants aren’t the only ones that suffer from sand’s lack of moisture and nutrients. Microorganisms too have a hard time thriving in sandy domains as they need the same moist and nutrient-rich environment that plants need to flourish – and this is a problem.
You may not see a lot at first glance but healthy soils are haven for billions of life forms that are invisible to the naked eye. These microorganisms are responsible for cycling nutrients, suppressing diseases in your garden, and more. But with sandy soil lacking the conditions for these healthy organisms to thrive, plants will miss out on the benefits they provide.
But don’t fret! Improving sandy soil is possible.
One method recommends applying about 6 inches of finer soil on top of the coarser and lighter sand particles. This allows the ground to hold more water by slowing down the drainage until the top, finer particles are nearly saturated – remedying the sand-rich ground’s inability to retain water and nutrients.
The same method is employed in making golf greens: a layer of sandy soil is piled on top of a tier of gravel. Doing so prevents incessant draining and keeps the water in the upper layer of the ground to support the growth of short-rooted grass.
So simply dump finer and heavier particles on top of sandy soil, problem solved! Right?
The bad news:
Unless you have the spending power to hire a professional builder or contractor, the method above will spell more troubles for your home garden. You can end up with a waterlogged soil, the exact opposite of what the method tries to achieve.
The good news:
You don’t need to be golf-club-owner rich to fix your garden soil as there’s a very affordable solution. Compost!
It’s characterised by a dark appearance and soil-like texture – permeating your garden with nutrients and increasing the sandy soil’s water and nutrient retention when applied, which healthy microorganisms and plants love.
Creating compost is very straightforward. Dead leaves, leftover food, manure, barks from surrounding trees – anything that’s organic (or categorised as green waste) is a good candidate. At the most basic level, it simply requires a lot of patience – just wait for the organic matter to break down into humus after a few weeks or months and that’s it!
To get started, simply apply 3 to 4 inches of compost on the entire surface of your gardening beds, andplough the compost as deep as possible into the soil to prepare it for planting. If you have a lawn that needs trimming, you can let the grass clippings just fall off the ground rather than dispose of them. Eventually, the grass clippings will decompose, feeding the soil with more organic matter.
You should also consider planting cover crops. These hard-working and hardy plants also known as green manure are very easy to plant and grow – and the returns they deliver will repay your efforts many times over.
Cover crops – like cowpeas, buckwheat, etc. – areplanted to control pests, stop the spreading of plant diseases, suppress pesky weeds, and help you build healthier soil. These plants are mixed deep into the ground just before they start to bloom – boostingtheground’s organic content.
Mulching is another soil-enriching method you should have in your arsenal. It benefits your garden in more ways than one: it increases the soil’s organic matter, complimenting the compost and cover crops.
A layer of mulch also reduces evaporation from the soil’s surface while keeping it cool, allowing microbial life to surface while providing the perfect living conditions for soil microarthropods that are essential to balance the soil’s ecosystem.
There you have it! Now there’s no excuse for not gardening in your sandy soil as you just have learned 3 methods to improve it, namely composting, cover crops, and mulching.
We’ve discussed the physical properties of sandy soil and the ways to improve it, and you may think that this type of soil is inferior compared to others. But that isn’t the case – sand-rich soil has definite advantages, many of which are afforded by the same “weak” physical characteristics it gets flak for.
Waterlogging – a huge problem for gardens in heavier, clay soils especially during winter – isn’t an issue with soils high in sand as it drains well (too well sometimes) and soaks the plants’ roots easily. This means you can grow plants that are extra sensitive to moisture.
Working with sandy soil – digging, hoeing, and weeding through it – is infinitely easier than tending to clay soil thanks to its light texture. There are no heavy lumps to hoist or break, no impenetrable hard patches to claw through, and no rocks to get in the way. This means roots can freely pass through the ground – essential for healthy, unimpeded plant growth.
Spring is the season when sandy soils shine the most. Since it doesn’t hold moisture that well, it dries and warms up easily during spring – allowing gardeners to sow and germinate seeds at an earlier date.
Spring is nice for sandy soil but the summer season that follows require extra care.
Sand particles’ fine, grained silica base combined with the scorching summer heat can make the soil – especially its surface – so hot that plants don’t make it past the seedling stage. This, along with sand’s free-draining properties, makes frequent watering of your plants an absolute necessity.
And as if that’s not enough, sandy soil can also form a barrier on the surface – preventing the ground from absorbing moisture and dehydrating your plants.
Providing plant nutrition – as we’ve emphasised –isn’t the strongest suit of sand. fertilisers, water, and nutrients are drained quickly, and the surface only has a thin layer of organic matter on the surface. Unless you apply mulch at least once a year and till it composts regularly, it’s not going to change.
Also known as Acacia dealbata, these plants are grown outdoors in the milder regions of UK – making for a lovely display. Its pompom, yellow flowers bloom in spring – scented, rich in nectar, and sure to attract bees and insects.
This daisy is popular for several reasons: It’s drought-tolerant, thrives even in suboptimal conditions, and rewards gardeners with blooms of different colours. Take note, however, that it likes basking in the sun, and its flower heads will close especially if the weather is too cold and the skies are too cloudy.
This sandy soil-friendly, evergreen shrub is a nice addition to your herb garden. It can grow even in poor soils and maintaining it is a breeze. Of course, the dark green, great-smelling foliage it produces – along with its numerous culinary uses – is always welcome.
This plant dons a frond-like foliage that goes hand-in-hand with its delicate petals. The flowers can bloom in a variety of colours - red, purple, white, pink, and orange. It can grow anywhere from 1 to 6 feet tall and is able to thrive in a variety of conditions.
Summer is a troublesome season for gardens in sandy soil, but alliums can take the heat! These summer flowers are easy to grow and are especially striking in autumn, with their seed heads putting on a lovely parade. Allium can add height and structure to your gardening space and are ideal as cut flowers.
Roses are always in – for Valentine’s Day, birthdays, weddings, and the list goes on, but they’re a hassle to grow. So here’s an alternative: The rugosa rose – native to eastern Asia – is a variety that flourishes easily and anywhere. Poor soil conditions aren’t a problem for this rose and it can even be found thriving in sand dunes along coasts.
This flower has been associated with the colour purple, and why not? But lavender can also produce white and pink blooms just so you know. Mounding lavenders can grow anywhere from 1 to 4 feet in diameter while also a bit taller than that. These flowers grow best in full sun so the summer season won’t be an issue.
No, the blanket flower isn’t a lazier, more boring version of the wall flower. On the contrary, it’s bright and lively – and the flower’s toughness makes it even more impressive. It takes drought in its strides and can grow even in sandier soils.
It’s sturdy, it’s beautiful, and it does well whether in light shade or under the sun. What’s not to like about the penstemon!? It boasts tall and arching stems, which are decorated with white, yellow, purple, or red flower blossoms that resemble small trumpets.
Silt, one of the 3 basic soils, is composed of rock and mineral particles and it’s commonly found along with clay, sand, gravel, and other sediments. Larger than clay but smaller than sand, silt particles are less than 0.005 cm in diameter – making them very hard for the naked eye to see.
If you think your garden soil is silty, you’ve got some fertile ground to work with.
But know this: working with silty soil requires care and preparation so read on!
It takes the forces of nature – water, wind, and ice – and a very long time to erode rocks and create silt. Flowing water serves as a vehicle for tiny bits and pieces of rock that scrape against the bottom and sides of stream beds, further fragmenting the small pieces of rock.
The rock particles bump and grind against each other, eventually resulting to very small bits that we call silt. Wind, on the other hand, can carry tiny bits of rock across landscapes – grinding against rough surfaces until the particles get smaller and smaller.
One may think that silty soil should feel rocky when wet. After all, the soil came from rocks! But that isn’t the case:
silty ground feels slippery and even soapy when wet, not grainy.
Soils that contain more than 80% silt are not very common in gardens, and a gardener would be worried if his soil’s silt content is off the roof. For starters, silty soil can be easily compacted through constant foot traffic and use of gardening equipment, leading to low air infiltration, stifled root growth, and other problems. Moreover, soils rich in silt content can be easily washed and blown away especially when there are no plants to help weather the elements and keep the ground together.
But don’t get this wrong: silty soil has its share of redeeming qualities you shouldn’t ignore.
The water retention and air circulation in properly maintained silty grounds are way better than those of sandy soils, allowing silty soils to hold more nutrients and making it more fertile than other soil types.
It’s of little surprise that agriculture thrives in areas surrounding river deltas and other bodies of water where silt abounds. Just take Nile River Delta as an example – a great spot for farmers for thousands of years and counting.
Silty soil has its own disadvantages like sandy and clay soils, and properly preparing the soil before planting is a must to successfully garden in it. But before we look at the things we should do, let’s look at the things you should avoid doing at all costs. Here they are:
Compaction: Silt particles are fine. They may not be as fine as clay’s but they’re prone to compaction all the same when not worked on properly.
Foot traffic can cause the soil to get dense and tighten up, preventing air circulation and suffocating plants’ roots. If your garden soil is rich in silt particles, consider using narrow boards as pathways for your beds, which you can stay and walk on as you tend to your plants.
This minimises walking or treading, one of the most common causes of soil compaction. You can also garden on raised beds, ensuring that you don’t step on your soil.
Overwatering: Silty soil’s high water retention is due to the numerous air spaces that can pool or store water. It sounds nice but it’s also the reason why silty soil is prone to waterlogging like clay soil.
You should be careful not to overwater your garden if you are to succeed in gardening with silty soil. Overwatering silty soil can result to clogged air pockets – taking away breathing space and choking the roots. This can result to rotting roots that are brown, black, or grey in colour.
Damaged and rotting, these roots are unable to absorb nutrients that are necessary for survival. If your plants are suffering from wilted foliage and light green leaves, you are watering your plants too much.
Worse, rehabilitating waterlogged silty soils – while doable – can take a very long time!
On the other hand, there’s the flip side of the coin – not watering your plants adequately and that is just as problematic. Watering too lightly results in underdeveloped roots that don’t bury deep enough. The plants then have to compete with grass and weeds whose short roots are built for getting water near the surface soil. Furthermore, plants with shallow roots are weaker against drought.
Fortunately, you can easily tell when to water your ground by taking a pinch of the topsoil. If it’s dry to the touch, watering your garden is in order.
So that’s it: compaction and overwatering are big no-no’s for every soil type but especially for silty soils so always keep that in mind when working on your garden.
Moving forward, let’s now take a look at how to prepare silt-rich soil for planting and gardening – starting with testing the soil.
Running a soil test isn’t a must but it can give you a better start in gardening – giving you valuable information about your soil that you won’t find by simply touching, looking, and smelling at it. While soils can be categorised, their pH readings as well as amount of organic matter and nutrients (nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, etc.) vary from one another.
There are universities and establishments that offer soil tests for a price. It’s highly recommended to pick soil samples from different areas of your garden – especially in those spots you intend to plant on – to achieve best results.
A good soil test will give you very specific information about your soil – chemistry, pH levels, nutrient content, etc. Some soil test providers even provide detailed nutrient recommendations for plants and suggested steps for enhancing the soil.
Recommendations and suggested improvements in the soil test report vary, but adding organic matter is necessary for keeping any soil healthy. For silty soils however, you want to apply organic matter that also helps improve soil aeriation and drainage, minimising the risk of waterlogging.
Organic material like thoroughly decayed sawdust, composted vegetable matter and manure, as well as ground pine bark are good candidates. Start by applying a 2- to 4-inch layer of organic matter on your garden and knead it into the ground at a depth of 8 to 12 inches, the common root zone for garden plants.
You should also consider infusing the soil with organic fertiliser for better plant nutrition. Adding 2 to 3 inches of mulch on top of your soil is also a good idea, preventing erosion, weed invasion, and drought stress.
Silty loam soils are known for being slightly acidic. Now, you may have sworn against applying anything inorganic to your garden. But if you’re fine with adding lime and dolomite, it can help balance the pH of silty soil. Keep in mind, however, that it can have adverse effects when applied recklessly.
Lime and dolomite can add up in the soil – raising the pH beyond the ideal level for plants. Don’t play “hit and miss” with this step. If you want to add inorganic amendments to your garden, it’s wise to stick to the recommended application rate in your soil test report.
Remember: keeping your silty garden soil healthy is always a “work in progress.” Maintaining your soil’s health through regular application of mulch and organic matter, ideally twice a year, helps optimise nutrient cycling and maintain soil temperature. Mulch breaks down eventually but its work doesn’t stop there. Organic mulch will decompose eventually – and that can only benefit your garden soil.
Silty soil is generally more fertile than other types of soil (ex.: sandy soil). Its particles are a tad larger than clay’s but smaller than sand’s. This allow silt-rich soils to hold retain water and nutrients better than sand, but be a little better than clay soil when it comes to draining.
A garden with silty soil can support a wide range of plants. Agriculture thrives in river estuaries and deltas – areas with high silt content that experience annual flooding, replacing soil particles which aids in water retention and aeriation. The fine silt particles are washed and deposited downstream – slowing down the flow of water for plants to absorb.
Moreover, species thrive in silty soil especially when the ground is regularly amended and fed with organic matter (compost, mulch, etc.) These microscopic organisms are essential for a garden’s health as they are responsible for breaking down organic matter. Certain soil bacteria even release antibiotic to combat pathogens in the soil.
While silt-rich soil is more fertile than other soil types, it does have its share of disadvantages.
If you are to grab a handful of silty soil, you may notice that it can form a cohesive ball but it’s not possible to mold it like clay. Nevertheless, waterlogging is one of silty soil’s biggest problems, just like clay soils. Overwatering is a real risk so be sure to check the ground before watering your garden.
Silty soils are also prone to becoming heavier and colder when exposed to constant pressure – becoming poorly drained although not as terrible as clay soils since silt warms up quicker. Still, that’s one issue a gardener should pay attention to.
The yellow iris – those that are grown in wet areas – boast a bouquet of yellow blooms.This flower, scientifically named "Iris pseudacorus," usually flourishes in the wild especially near the shallow regions of ponds and lakes. However, it can also grow in home gardens and more so in soils that are rich in nutrients and moist.
Want to attract monarch butterflies and hummingbirds to your garden? Consider growing swamp milkweed. This showy plant flourishes easily in fine, well-watered silty soil. It produces nectar-rich pink and red blooms during spring and summer that butterflies and hummingbirds love.
It’s an upright shrub that can keep your garden looking great during fall with its foliage and glossy red berries, and in spring too when it teems with white flowers. It easily grows even in not-so-ideal conditions and has a wide range of soil tolerance.
“Clethraalnifolia” is a versatile plant, able to adapt to the environment it’s in and tolerates full sun. However, it grows best under partial shade and in soils that are consistently moist. As long as you keep your soil from drying out, the Summersweetclethra will do just fine and will reward you with clusters of dainty white flowers.
If you love jellies, jams, and wine, you may want to grow American elder as its elderberries have so many culinary uses including those just mentioned. It doesn’t mind growing in average, medium-to-wet, well-drained soils and can handle full sun to part shade. For best results however, keep your soil moist and rich in organic matter / humus.
Wet and hard-to-plant areas might prove problematic for other trees, but not for the weeping willow. This tree can grow in just about any soil, although moist areas like those surrounding a pound are preferable. Whether you’re looking for shade or some strong, pliable material for arts and crafts, the weeping willow’s long limbs will prove useful.
The bald cypress is a deciduous conifer that thrives on saturated, silty loam soils as well as well-drained clay soils. This tree – which can prove to be a fine specimen in a garden with the right soil and care –can adapt to both dry and wet conditions and can survive flooding.
Boasting colourful and strappy leaves, the New Zealand flax adds that tropical, lighthearted feel to your garden. This plant also exhibits flexibility and adaptability. While it will look spectacular when planted directly in your garden soil, you can also plant them in containers if the situation calls for it.