Soil makes up half the environment of garden plants. It holds the roots and provides air, water, and nutrients to them. It is the foundation of a garden. However, because we live above the ground—in the atmosphere—it is not as apparent to us as the air we live in.
You can tell a lot about your soil by digging a hole and scooping up a handful. If it feels soft and spongy, and smells sweet, like a forest floor, it is probably pretty good soil. However, if it is gritty and hard, or malleable and sticky, it might still make good garden soil.
You can improve any soil, and you can adapt your gardening practices to any type of soil. The first step is to evaluate the soil you are gardening in. After that, you can improve it by several means, and perhaps solve some of its problems. Then, as you work with it, you will adapt your gardening methods to it by your watering method and frequency, your choice of fertilizers, and the way you carry out many gardening tasks.
Soil can be evaluated in many ways, from feeling it and smelling it to having it analyzed at a soil laboratory.
Some evaluation is almost as simple as holding and smelling the soil. You can evaluate the clay content—something that is vital to know in your handling of the soil—by wetting a sample in your hand and performing several tests with your hand. See Soil Texture for this simple way of evaluating texture. The same section also describes other quick methods for evaluating texture.
You can find out quite a bit about your soil by simply digging a hole. Soil Profile will help you understand what you find.
Drainage can be evaluated by digging a hole and filling it with water. See Evaluating Drainage for instructions.
Soil Evaluating Equipment
Some tools can help you understand your soil. Shovels and trowels are the basic equipment needed for evaluating soil, just as digging a hole is the basic method.
Soil Sampling Tubes helps look at the soil without the difficulty and disruption of digging holes.
Soil thermometers help take your soil’s temperature. See Controlling Soil Temperature for instructions.
There are many tests you can make on your own soil with inexpensive soil test kits, or you can have a more accurate analysis done by a soil testing laboratory.
Soil test kits test for the presence of many chemicals, including acidity and nutrients. See About Testing Soil and for a discussion of these.