Getting to know your soil is key for a healthy, vibrant garden, and it is relatively easy to determine on your own with a few simple tests below. Some soils are fertile and ready for planting, but other soil types may need a little assist. Knowing the quality of your soil will help to determine which fertilizers and other amendments you may need to add before planting your garden.

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Soils in urban areas may have unique concerns. Contaminants like lead and other hazardous substances may be present, so it is wise to test soil it if you plan to grow food.



Clay is an essential component of any soil. Clay helps soil hold in nutrients as well as moisture. If there is too much clay in your soil; however, it will prevent water from draining. If the water does not drain the soil itself can become very cold. A sudden rise in temperature can then make the clay-rich soil crack as it does in the desert.


Sand is the opposite of clay. Soil with too much sand will allow water to drain very quickly. Also, sandy soils warm up quickly and retain warmth longer. Therefore in warmer climates, sandy soil can dry out and not retain nutrients as well as clay balanced soils.


Silt is neither too absorptive like clay or too quickly drained like sand. Silt holds water, but not too much water. It warms up at a more steady rate than sand or clay, as well as cools at a more constant rate. Silt is good at holding nutrients but does not hold them as effectively as clay.

Most soils are a combination of these three main components, but the soil component that dominates classifies your soil type.

The ideal soil is 40 percent sand, 40 percent silt, and 20 percent clay. You’ll percentage mixture is called loam. Loam has good water drainage and allows air to infiltrate the soil like sand, but it also holds moisture well and is fertile like silt and clay.

If your soil is not loam, you can amend the soil through the addition of organic matter. Also, some plant types prefer a more sandy soil or a more clay-like soil. For instance, cacti prefer a more sandy soil structure.


These two simple tests can help you understand your soil better. Try one or both to determine your soil type.

Squeeze Test

Gather damp soil that is not too wet. Grab a handful of the soil in your hand and squeeze it. Next, rub the soil between your fingers. If the soil feels gritty, ’it’s probably a sandy soil. If the soil feels slimy or slick, it is perhaps a clay soil.

Ribbon Test

Gather damp soil that is not too wet. Take a handful of the soil and roll the soil between your hands back and forth. If the rolled soil forms a ribbon that ’doesn’t break, your soil has a significant amount of clay. If you can make a ribbon, but it breaks, you probably have somewhere between 25 and 50 percent clay in your soil. If rubbing your hands does not form a ribbon, your soil is probably more than half composed of sand or silt.

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