Wyrdwood Acres

Follow one families adventure as they build a new life of self-reliance and sustainable living, embrace permaculture and undertake a mammoth task of self-building a straw-bale forever home in the sun.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

5 Ways To Test Your Soil Without A Kit


So many people go about their garden with a sort of haphazard, hope for the best approach without observing what type of soil they are working with or having any idea what sort of problems they may come up against.


Since it's almost time for people to get stuck in to their gardening this year I thought it might be useful to share with you some different ways to test your soil so you have a rough idea of what you're working with, which will allow you to figure out maybe what amendments you may need to apply and help you get the most from your Garden this year. Most of these methods were covered in my Permaculture Design Course and are easy to do at home without forking out on complicated professional soil testing kits or specialist equipment.

You can collect soil for different parts of your land and mix it to give you an overall picture or you can target specific parts of the garden to get an more intimate knowledge of your soil.


1 - Glass Jar Soil Test


Take a clear glass jar and fill half way with soil. Fill the rest of the jar with water leaving a 1" air gap at the top to allow you to shake the mixture. Attach the lid and shake vigorously for a minute to break up any clods in the soil and allow all particles to become suspended in the water. Put the jar in an out of the way place to allow the particles to settle undisturbed

Glass Jar Soil Test
The next day your sample should have settled in to something vaguely resembling the photo above. If you look closely you should be able to see the separate layers that make up your soil. Sand are the largest particles and make up the bottom layer, Silt forms the middle layer and Clay is the smallest mineral component and falls on top. By looking at the ratio of each you can build a rough picture of what type of soil you have, in my photo example the soil is from the part of our land where the kitchen garden will go and you can see that I have almost equal parts Clay, Silt and Sand which classes my soil type as Loam - one of the best soils to garden with.

The perfect combination for garden soil is 20% clay, 40% silt, and 40% sand.
If the combination is 30% clay, 60% silt, 10% sand = It is a Silty Clay Loam soil.
If the combination is 15% clay, 20% silt, 65% sand = It is a Sandy Loam soil.
If the combination is 15% clay, 65% silt, 20% sand = It is a Silty Loam soil.

To confirm your results if you are unsure you can couple them with the next technique:

2 - Hand Soil Test


Hand Soil Test - Form A Bolus

The following test when used in conjunction with the jar test can help form a picture of what type of soil you really have, it's time to get our hands dirty!

Use the following infographic to find out your soil type using your hands (click to see full size)

Hand Soil Texture Test
Hand Soil Test - Forming A Ribbon

Knowing your soil makeup can help to foresee what you might expect to come up against. If your garden is predominantly Clay then you will find it may be prone to waterlogging in the winter, backbreaking to dig in the summer and difficult to grow things like carrots, although brassicas will thrive on the high nutrient content that it provides. If you have mostly Sandy soil it will be fast draining and may not hold enough water for thirsty plants like tomatoes but will suit long rooted plants like tomatoes/parsnips perfectly. 

Once you know the texture it is a good idea to find out if you have acid or alkaline earth with the next soil tests

3 - Alkaline Soil Test


Collect 1 cup of soil from your garden and put 2 spoonfuls into separate containers. Add 1/2 cup of vinegar to the soil. If it fizzes, you have alkaline soil, with a pH probably between 7 and 8.

4 - Acid Soil Test


If it doesn’t fizz after doing the vinegar test, then add distilled water to the other container until 2 teaspoons of soil are muddy. Add 1/2 cup baking soda. If it fizzes you have acidic soil, most likely with a pH between 5 and 6.
If  your soil doesn’t react at all it is neutral with a pH of 7 and you are very lucky!

5 - Worm Test


The worm test requires a bit more energy and enthusiasm! Worms are a good indicator of your overall soil health, and it's easy to test your soil at home with a worm test. Wait until soil is warm and moist, mark out a 12 inch x 12 inch square then dig out a 12 inch cube of soil and place the earth on a tarp etc, Sift through the soil and count the earthworms. If you have at least 10 worms (the more worms the better) then your soil is healthy and passes the test. If your soil is low on worms it could be an indicator of underlying soil problems, it could be down to lack of organic matter, contamination of chemical pollutants or high salts and worms will also die if your soil is consistently too wet, too dry, too hot, too cold, too acidic, or too alkaline.
Since these wriggly subterranean helpers do so much to improve the soil in your garden it is well worth giving them a favourable environment; Earthworms adore damp organic matter like compost and love to chill out beneath mulch and no till gardens in general. 

Whatever your soil type do not despair, there is no type of soil that cannot provide an abundance if given the right TLC. I have yet to find any soil that does not benefit from good quality compost and organic matter, after all you can garden on top of solid rock/concrete with raised beds of good compost!


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