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How to Nourish Your Plants By Tending Your Garden Soil

How to Nourish Your Plants By Tending Your Garden Soil

By Wayside Gardens
Photograph courtesy of Wayside Gardens

The single most important thing you will ever do for your perennials is to prepare good soil before you plant. This is the key to their success now and in the future.

For growing perennials, your soil goals are to: 

  • Dig deeply enough to accommodate their root growth comfortably.
  • Add some organic matter, which improves soil structure.
  • Provide good drainage. The vast majority of perennials do best in well-drained soil (too much water or standing water leads to rot and growing in overly dry soil is stressful for many plants). The way to improve drainage is to add soil amendments that help—which ones and how much depends on the kind of soil you are starting with.

Tip: Before starting a garden project of any size, check your soil for structure, moisture, nutrients, and pH.

Learn more about native perennials for your garden.

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Signs of Healthy Soil

Soil types are measured or identified by their composition: their ratios of various-sized soil particles (sand, clay, and silt), which is called the structure of the soil. The three basic soil types are clay soil, sandy soil, and loam. In addition to soil particles, most soils contain about one-quarter water and one-quarter air (which plants roots also need to thrive).

Soil Structure

Not every garden or region is blessed with ideal growing conditions and perfect soil. While you can alter whatever soil you have to make it more hospitable to various perennials, in some instances you can get a good display without much fuss. Also, be attuned to perennials that naturally prefer your growing conditions.

Clay Soil 

Clay particles of 30% or more make a soil that is dense and poorly drained. To improve it, dig in humus. 

Characteristics: Poor drainage, soggy, slippery, fertile (nutrients may be unavailable due to density), slow to dry out, slow to warm up. 

Plants that tolerate heavy clay soil include butterfly weed, coneflower, and sunflowers. 

Sandy Soil 

Genuinely sandy soil may contain upward of 35% sand or more. Sand is a large soil particle. 

Characteristics: Light and porous, water passes through quickly (sometimes too quickly) and carries away nutrients, notoriously infertile. 

Drought-tolerant plants can grow in sand. Yarrow, black-eyed Susan, and penstemon are a few perennials to choose from. 

Loamy Soil

Loam is the ideal soil for many plants having equal parts sand, clay, and silt (a combination of rock and mineral particles). To maintain it, add organic matter annually. 

Characteristics: Balanced, well aerated, retains nutrients in the root zone. 

Soil Moisture

An easy test for checking the drainage capacity of your soil is to dig a hole and fill it with water. If the water drains through fairly quickly (less than thirty minutes) the drainage is adequate. If several hours later the water still hasn’t drained, your soil has poor drainage. 

Soil Nutrients and Soil Testing

Soil pH

The soil in your yard may be typical of soils in your area, and have its own set of gardening challenges. But before you try to alter or remedy your soil, confirm your hunch with a professional soil test that includes an analysis of soil pH. If you don’t want to send a soil sample to a lab for testing, you can order a home kit for checking your soil’s pH. 

Soil pH tests confirm the levels of acidity and alkalinity. 

You can break ground on a new garden in fall or spring. Soil in the fall is perfectly workable and may be less wet than spring ground. If you’re preparing your new bed in spring, work the area as early as is practical. 

FAQs About Soil

What is the difference between topsoil and garden soil?

Garden soil is topsoil that has been enriched to make it better suited for plant growth. Improving soil is called amending. Some organic amendments you can add to topsoil include: compost, peat moss, leaves, sawdust, hay or straw, grass clippings, and rotted manure. 

Is garden soil the same as potting soil?

Garden soil is an amendment that is mixed with native soil (topsoil), while potting soil is used alone, most often for container gardens.

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