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Plant a Border - your soil.

Updated: May 4, 2023

Everyone knows what soil is. It’s the stuff that’s beneath us. It’s what we dig over before we slide into a nice warm bath at the end of a back breaking day. It’s where the worms live. It’s what we grow our plants in.

And that’s all, right? Well yes, that’s partly right but there’s so much more to it, and understanding a bit more about your soil can help you enormously in the garden.

Bucket of soil in Frome Somerset

There are several soil types. What defines the type you have (and what you can successfully grow in it) is the size of the particles that make it up:

- Clay particles are less than 0.002mm in size

- Silt is between 0.002-0.05mm and

- Sand is between 0.05-2mm in size

Now there’s no easy way we can measure the size of the particles so to understand the type of soil we have we look at its characteristics. To do that we need to get our hands dirty and touch it and roll it about.

  • If it feels sticky – particularly when it’s wet - and if it can be rolled into a long thin sausage with a smooth shiny finish – it’s a clay soil.

  • If it feels soapy and slippery, and doesn’t hold together that well it’s likely to be a silt soil.

  • If it feels gritty and you can feel sand in it then – unsurprisingly – it’s a sandy soil.

So what does that actually mean?

Well the reason that's important is it's one of the things that can influence what we can grow. Whether your plants will thrive and flourish or whether they'll simply wither away. And that's because knowing the type of soil you have tells us about it's characteristics.

Clay soils are often referred to as heavy soils, these are potentially fertile as they hold nutrients that are bound to the clay minerals in the soil. They tend to have a high proportion of water due to there being tiny spaces between the particles.

They drain slowly and take longer to warm up in springs. They are easily compacted when trodden on while wet and they can become very hard in summer. However they can be improved if the soil can be broken up – doing so makes the water and nutrients held within the soil more easily available to plant roots. Breaking the soil up also makes the soil warmer, more easily workable and less prone to compaction.

Silt soil is made up of fine particles that can be easily compacted by walking on it. It is prone to being washed away and wind erosion if left unplanted. It tends to contain more nutrients than sandy soils and hold more water. As such it tends to be quite fertile.

Sandy soil has more sand than clay and is known as a light soil. It is usually low in nutrients, and due to the size of the individual particles, tends to be free draining and loses water very quickly. However the soil can be improved to help boost its water and nutrient holding capacity. It warms up quickly in the spring and is easy to cultivate.

And for our purposes that's about it. And it's important as it influences what will thrive and flourish in your border.

Think about a Mediterranean garden and the type of soil that you'd typically expect to see in say Italy or Spain. It's highly unlikely that it'll be a clay based soil!

That's important. If you have soil that's mainly clay based and you want to successfully grow some rosemary, salvias and lavender then we'd need to do something to improve the drainage and make it more like what you might find in a Mediterranean country. That's not difficult to do - but the danger of not doing is is that your plants won't like their roots sitting in damp soil and might eventually start to rot.

So one of the important things that you need to do is get your hands dirty and let us know if you can roll your soil into a sausage!

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