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Your soil, or 'dirt' as it is referred to in America, and its condition is the starting point when it comes to creating a garden as it determines the type of plants that you can grow. This sounds like an ominous statement and may send you rushing for an analysis kit, but it's not as bad as it sounds. Most plant books give the soil conditions preferred by various plants, but these are ideal and few gardens can supply them all. Usually trial and error determine the range of plants that we grow. After all you can only work with the soil you've got.
There are only a few plants which have strict requirements for growth and the rest will perform with varying degrees of success in differing conditions. Most plants are very generous and will grow almost anywhere, with weather conditions and size being the determining factors when choosing. This is why the expected height and spread of a plant usually varies from the quoted figures, and the shade or colour of flowers may differ. Occasionally you will be caught out by one which takes over because it likes the conditions or by another which fails to thrive despite much tender love and care. So choose the plant by its shape and colour first, then consider the growing conditions, unless it is very expensive and the risk of failure is great. Then you could grow in it a container or raised bed containing the ideal medium for the plant.
Good soil has a balance of solid material, air, moisture, and millions of microorganisms, some of which help to release the minerals that are essential for healthy plant life, from the particles. The larger soil creatures such as earthworms improve the aeration, move the particles around and help to release the nutrients by breaking down and distributing the organic matter. If there is no air due to compaction or waterlogging the soil becomes stagnant and anerobic microorganisms will become dominant causing the soil to develop a foul smell and it may take on a blue-grey colour.
Between the more visible creatures and the microorganisms in size, are the mesofauna varying from 0.1mm and 2mm. These include oribatid mites, smaller springtail species, nematodes, insect larvae, tardigrades and many more. They feed on plant debris breaking it down to create the humus which coats the soil particles giving it its dark colour and making the nutrients available for the plants. Little white springtails carry the spores of mycorrhizal fungi between plant roots that are so helpful to healthy growth. Woodland litter contains about four times the numbers of mesofauna than normal soil, so adding this to poor soil can greatly improve it. A good indication of healthy soil containing lots of these organisms is the presence of Ground Beetles and Centipedes which feed on them.
Forming soil is a slow process and it takes about a thousand years to produce an inch of it. To quote Bob Dylan "... how many years can a mountain exist before it's washed to the sea?" Below is a brief explanation of the formation of soil and how it influences the plants we like to grow.
Formation of soil
Soil is rock in its final state of decay. After millions of years of weathering it has broken down to fine mineral particles, the composition of the original rock and the processes which have acted on it, have determined its present form. Water, wind, movement, chemical action and varying temperatures act on the rock dividing it into smaller and smaller particles. In most of the British Isles the soil is unlikely to be sedentary, ie. formed directly above the parent rock with a gradient of particles becoming fissured rock as you dig down. The soil here in Northern Ireland is transported soil which was moved great distances during the Ice Ages and has a definite boundary between soil and the bedrock on which it was deposited.
Igneous rocks, eg. basalt, were the first to form when the molten lava cooled, then the erosion began. The process is sometimes reversed producing sedimentary and metamorphic rocks by compression, chemical action or extreme temperature. Sandstone is formed by chemical action and compression, and further pressure changes it to quartzite. Further compression of limestone produces marble. Shale and slate are compressed silt. Fossils are found in these sedimentary rocks, when they were laid down in a short time trapping the original creature or plant, eg. during flooding.
Particle size and distribution
Most cultivated soil is predominately mineral particles 2mm or less with "fines" of silt and clay. The proportion of the particle sizes determines if it is described as a clay or sandy soil.
Sand particles are between 0.06mm and 2mm
Silt particles are between 0.002mm and 0.06mm
Clay particles are less than 0.002mm - derived by chemical weathering and mostly have a negative surface charge.This surface charge is important in the exchange of nutrients, so although clay is full of nutrients, they tend to be bound to the particles and are not available to plant roots. The addition of lime and organic matter causes the opening up of the particles, and nutrients become available. The calcium ions ( Ca++ ) in lime have a positive charge and the negative clay particles "flucculate" around them forming minute crumbs, so opening spaces. Organic matter (humus) forms a coating on the particles holding them in loose crumbs and giving the darker colour characteristic of topsoil (sometimes called vegetable soil). Both these actions allow a better flow of air and water, essential to supporting life in the soil. With a higher proportion of sand, water flows quickly washing out nutrients so sandy soil tends to be poorer. The water content is a factor in soil temperature so clay soils tend to warm up more slowly in the spring, delaying sowing and planting.
A typical cultivated soil will have 50 to 60% mineral particles, 1 to 5% organic matter, and 40% pore spaces between the particles which will have varying amounts of air and water in them. Rubbing a small sample between finger and thumb will give a rough guide to the texture of soil.
sands have little cohesion and don't bind;The amount of organic matter and calcium in the soil can change the feel, chalk can give a silky or gritty feel and organic matter makes it more sticky. Other descriptions of soil are "heavy" or "light", these refer to clay soil and sandy soil respectively.
sandy loam has a gritty feel;
loam can be formed into a ball and does not have a dominant feel of grittiness, silkiness or stickiness;
loamy sand can be rolled into a "worm";
silty loam has a silky feel;
clay loam binds together strongly, does not readily deform and looks shiny if the surface is rubbed;
clay readily binds and and looks shiny if the surface is rubbed.
The distribution of the particles determines the structure of the soil and how porous it is, it is important to maintain a good structure. Compaction reduces the porosity, the addition of grit and organic matter increases it. Wetting and drying, freezing and thawing, root growth, soil organisms, cultivation and tramping are all actions which change the structure. Sand or silt particles do not aggregate well and tend to fall apart when wet, clay particles adhere better so their presence increases the stability of soil structure. The addition of humus, chalk and iron oxides bind the particles together, forming small clumps or crumbs but clay particles are the main stabilizers in a good loam.
The structure is maintained better when plants are growing in the soil as their roots keep it open, so barren areas kept clear with weedkillers will deteriorate and become compacted. With sandy soil, in dry periods valuable topsoil may blow away. Covering the soil with a mulch of organic matter is better or growing a green manure will provide the root structure and it is dug in later to rot down, which returns nutrients taken up by the plant.
Sandy soils warm up quicker in the spring so planting can be carried out a little earlier. Conversely a clay soil is wetter so is slower to warm up. The wetter winters now being experienced due to climate changemean that this can be exacerbated. Covering the soil with black plastic sheeting for a few weeks prior to planting can help to warm it. Nowadays we would use a soil thermometer to check the temperature, but it is said that in earlier times gardeners would do this by baring their buttocks and sitting on it just a mother would dip an elbow in a baby's bath water. The wetter soil for prolonged periods is also a threat to some plants which require well drained conditions.
Around buildings the presence of clay subsoils can cause damage when they dry out or become saturated with water. Known as shrinkable clay, when it is below built structures such as garden walls, gate piers or buildings severe cracking, subsidence or heave can occour due to changes in the weather or by large trees. The latter extract water so during dry weather the clay will shrink causing subsidence. Alternatively when a large tree is removed the clay can expand as the water is no longer being taken up causing heave.
This has to be taken into account when deciding what species of tree to plant and the distance from walls and buildings or how much pruning can safely be carried out on trees close to built structures.
The top 50mm of soil should have a good 'tilth' with stable crumbs of 0.5mm to 5mm. Wetting and drying can cause a breakdown of the tilth to a fine dust which dries to a cap or pan, subsequent watering fails to penetrate and seeds cannot break through. Sandy and silty soils are more prone to this due to their poorer stability. Over-cultivation or cultivation at the wrong time can break down the structure of poorer soils. This occurred in the Central Plains of the USA during the 1930's when the topsoil blew away during storms creating what became known as the Dust Bowl and even to-day in other parts of the world topsoil is being lost where deforestation allows greater volumes of water to flow downhill, carrying the soil with it.
A good time to cultivate in the garden is in the autumn, leaving the soil in rough clods to be acted on by the winter weather. If cultivating in the spring check for wetness by squeezing into a ball, if ready it should break apart easily. Deep pans can be created by smearing of the subsoil with cultivator blades or when developers spread out site debris and cover it with a sprinkle of topsoil and call it a garden. The tracks of their heavy machinery create pans and subsequent plantings have difficulty establishing on them. You should avoid walking on cultivated soil when it is very wet, as the 'puddling' action breaks down the structure.
Digging, ploughing or rotavating (tillage) all improve the structure of the soil by incorporating residues of previous planting and relieving compaction. During cultivation only the top 20 to 30cm should be involved, the subsoil should never be brought to the surface. If the layer of topsoil is thin, the subsoil can have organic matter forked into it using the double-digging method.
There is a method of minimum or zero tillage where organic matter is spread on the surface to be incorporated by worms and during planting, this preserves the natural structure, but an initial digging to remove weeds and stones would probably be necessary. The stones are useful for making paths and drains. Harrowing or raking produce the surface tilth.
Biodynamic gardeners use lots of compost and some special Preparations to care for their soil to maintain its vitality.
Acidity and alkalinity
Acidity or alkalinity of the soil is determined by the mineral content. It is described scientifically as the pH value, this is a measure of hydrogen (H+) ions available, an acidic soil has a low pH, neutral is pH 7 and alkaline is greater than pH 7.
Most plants grow best at a pH of 6.5 as most plant nutrients are available for uptake by the roots at this pH level - the pH range of most soils is between 5.5 and 7.5.
Water molecules (H2O) dissociate to positive H+ and negative OH ¯ ions and these are in equal amounts at pH 7, the presence of other ions effect this balance creating more or less free hydrogen ions and consequently the pH value rises or falls. Distilled water has only H+ and OH ¯ ions in equal amounts so has a pH of 7.
The presence of calcium ions (Ca++) is usually what determines the pH of soil, as they displace hydrogen ions in solution. A soil particle with a full amount of H+ ions is weakly acid, but the presence of calcium ions makes it neutral or alkaline. Calcium is leached away so soils have a tendency to become acidic and this occurs faster in sandy soils. The humus coating on soil particles and the adherent properties of clay particles both hang on to calcium and reduce the leaching.
It is fairly easy to make your soil more alkaline by the addition of lime; to raise the pH by one point requires about 4.5 kg of lime to 9 square metres. Making it more acidic, and maintaining it that way is more difficult. You could try substituting sulphur for lime at the above rate. If your soil is derived from chalk then there will be a constant supply of calcium which will keep it alkaline. The addition of plenty of organic matter will improve the situation slightly. Applying Ammonium Sulphate will have an short-lived acidifying effect and is used to produce the bright blue Hyderangea flowers.
Trying to change the pH chemically, eg. adding sulphur or iron, could introduce a whole new set of interactions which could be toxic to the plants. It is usually best to grow acid-loving plants in specially prepared raised beds or containers rather than trying to change the native soil. Acid-loving plants, eg. rhododendrons, usually demonstrate their dislike of alkaline soil by yellowing of their leaves.
This happens because the calcium present displaces free iron (Fe++) which is essential for making chlorophyll, the green matter in leaves, involved in photosynthesis - known as iron deficient chlorosis. It can be counteracted with sequestered iron which is applied to the foliage, thus bypassing the roots.
Rhododendron leaves showing signs of chlorosis or yellowing between the veins
What type of soil have you got?
To find out the pH and structure of your soil take about fifteen to twenty spoonful-sized samples from all over the area at about 150mm depths. Mix them all together and send away for analysis; or small DIY kits can be purchased at garden centres. Gardening from Which?, part of the Consumers Association, provide a service for their readers.
For a rough idea check out the neighbourhood to see if rhododendrons are thriving, in acidic soil the hydrangea blooms should be blue (not always accurate if an acidifier has been used to produce this effect) - in alkaline soil they will be pink. A normally acidic or neutral soil can be made alkaline if it contains concrete rubble, or the run-off water from a concrete surface or wall will contain varying amounts of calcium depending on age. Also on new-build developments most of the soil is removed and sold off at the start of the process, then usually different soil is brought in at the end when the building is finished. Therefore this usually poor quality soil can have varying properties to the surrounding area and from garden to garden.
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