You can always go to your local nursery or home improvement store and try to pick the best vegetables for your climate, but sometimes, even if you live in the right weather conditions, your soil may need an extra boost to turn out the kind of crops you want. So how do you know what it needs?
First, let’s talk about what makes ideal growing conditions — most importantly, having loam, a relatively simple yet uncommon word used to describe soil that has balanced proportions of its main three components: clay, silt, and sand. As explained on the Purdue University Horticulture website: "Sand particles are the largest and tend to hold little water but allow good aeration. Clay particles are very small in size and tend to pack down so that water does not drain well and little or no air can penetrate. Silt particles are medium sized and have properties in between those of sand and clay." Therefore, a balance of these three is ideal.
So how do you know what kind of soil you have and what you can do to make it better?
All you need is a Mason jar and some know-how.
First, fill half the jar with soil from your garden. Then, fill the rest of the jar with water, leaving a little room at the top so that you can shake the mixture effectively. Close and seal the jar (make sure it’s on tight otherwise finding out what kind of soil you have is going to take a backseat to cleaning up a muddy mess). Then, shake the jar vigorously for several minutes to get all the particles in the jar to dislodge from their spots and get moving in the water.
Once you've shaken the jar sufficiently, let the jar sit for several hours. You'll see the soil begin to separate into three distinct levels — sand will settle on the bottom within minutes, then silt, and clay on top. If you don't see the layers, wait a full 24 hours before checking again. Clay may even take a couple days to fully settle in the jar.
Now, once the layers have formed, you can read the results. If you've got twice as much clay as sand and silt, then your ratio is 50/25/25. You’ll need to consider soil amendments (mixtures added to soil to improve its quality) to get the ideal ratio.
If you've got clayey soil, for instance, you’ll need to improve your soil's drainage and aeration. This can be achieved by adding composted wood chips and straw.
It should also be noted that during this test, you can see how much organic matter your soil has. A lighter colored soil means less organic matter. Darker colored soil means more. If your soil is particularly light, you can consider adding organic matter (such as compost) to your soil before planting to improve the soil's quality.
And if you've finished reading this article and it just makes you feel guilty for not having a garden at all, well then check out Robin Shreeves’s recent post about why gardening isn't for her and get rid of that guilt real fast. Happy gardening (or not)!