Welcome to Part 1 of our Soil Health Series! Today I’m going to introduce you to the stuff beneath our feet here at Fluster Farm. Dirt, soil, earth – whatever you want to call it – it’s an integral part of the garden, and soil health is a critical factor to gardening success. Great soil has a proper balance of sand, silt, and clay, is full of organic matter, and rich in minerals. I used a couple of quick ways to assess soil health when we first started clearing our garden area.
First, I simply dug out small areas around the garden after a brief rain and ran the soil through my fingers. It’s important to do this throughout any planting space, as soil composition and health can vary throughout the garden. Our soil feels gritty and sticky when wet, which means we probably have a high sand and clay content. It dries out quickly, and is difficult to break up when dry. It’s pale, has a reddish hue, and the surface forms cracks during drier periods. It looks lifeless and barren.
Healthy soil is alive, yet worms, evidence of fungi, and other soil life are notably absent in our garden soil.
My initial assessment told me that our soil is terrible, but I wanted to do some further testing. My next step was to conduct a mason jar soil test to assess the basic composition. This is an easy-peasy activity that is great to do with the kiddos, and will tell you roughly how much sand, silt, and clay is in your soil.
I took a mason jar, filled it halfway with soil, and filled to the top with water. I also added a teaspoon of salt to act as a dispersing agent. I closed the top tightly and shook the jar for two minutes, to ensure all soil clumps were broken up. Once I set the jar down, the mixture immediately started to settle at the bottom. After two minutes, I marked the first layer, which is sand. I then removed the lid (just in case the mixture started fermenting) and allowed the jar to sit overnight.
The next morning, I took a peek at the jar. As you can see, our sand concentration is quite high! Using a ruler, I determined that my overall soil sample was 2.75 inches high in the jar. Sand took up a whopping 1.5 inches of this measurement. Silt comprises 0.75 inches and clay, 0.5 inches.
Ideally, the perfect garden soil is comprised of 40% sand, 40% silt, and 20% clay and is known as loam. Our garden soil, however, is 55% sand, 27% silt, and 20% clay and is more of a sandy loam. As there’s no way to remove the excess sand, the only thing we can do to mitigate the situation is add lots of organic matter every year.
Of course, determining soil composition is only one step of soil testing. Check back with us next week for the second installment of our Soil Health Series – learning how to use an at-home soil testing kit!