Anyone who gardens in Ohio knows that soil textures can be different from one backyard to another.
Because of our numerous lakes and streams, soil textures where we live can range anywhere from coarse sand to heavy clay. Gardening is enough of a challenge in itself, but improving our soil contributes to healthy plants and healthy plants are more able to combat the effects of weather, weeds and insects.
Soil texture refers to the size of the particles that make up our little patch of earth. There are three common types of soil particles; sand, silt and clay. Sandy soil has the largest particles and are irregularly shaped. It doesn't compact easily and as a result, water quickly flows through it and away from plants. Individual particles can be seen with the naked eye.
Silt has the next smallest particles. They also are irregularly shaped but individual particles can't be seen without the aid of a microscope. Silt is smooth and silky to touch and is often compared to the texture of talcum powder. Silt washes away easily from heavy rains.
Clay soil has the smallest of all particles. The particles stick together tightly preventing water and air from penetrating easily.
The ideal soil texture is a combination of all three of these basic types. The amounts of these three textures is defined as soil structure.
Soil structure refers to the way the different particles all clump together. If you want an idea of your own soil structure, grab a handful of damp soil and squeeze it into a ball. Open your hand and watch what happens. If it easily falls apart, your soil texture is likely mostly sand. If it takes a bit of pressure to get the clump to fall apart, your soil is probably mostly silt and as you can probably figure out by now, if the clump holds together even with your prodding, it is made up mostly of clay.
There is another way to determine your soil type that is not only easy, but fun for kids as well. First you will need a wide-mouth jar with a lid. Any type of jar will do, either from the grocery store or a canning jar is fine. Fill the jar half full with soil from your garden and add enough water to make it the consistency of mud. Wait a few minutes for the soil and water to separate. The soil, which is heavier than the water, will settle to the bottom and the water will rise above it.
Once the separation has occurred, mark on the outside of the jar the level of the soil. Add a teaspoon of salt or dishwashing liquid to the mixture and then fill the jar the rest of the way with water. This ''surfactant'' will help the soil particles separate. Give it a good shake. Soils heavy with clay might need a bit more shaking to help break up the particles. Finally, set the jar on the counter and wait.
In a few minutes, the sand will sink to the bottom of the jar. In about three to four hours, the silt will sit on top of the sand, but it takes longer, perhaps a day or two, for the clay to settle on top of the silt. Be careful not to shake the jar once the soils have begun separating. After a couple days, measure the different layers of soil textures and divide that number by the measurement from the mark you made on the first day. Each layer's measurement will give you the percentage of each soil texture you have.
Of course, most people don't go to all this trouble to determine their soil types. The rest of us simply add as much organic matter as possible in the form of composted material, peat and manure. By mixing organic matter into the soil, it helps break up the heavy clay particles while mixing with the sand and silt making it easier for nutrients, water and oxygen to get to the plants' roots where they are needed the most.
The most ideal garden soil is called sandy loam. It is a mixture of all three soil textures, but it isn't an easy balance to acquire. We can't just add bags of sand to what we have because mixing sand with clay will give us a soil structure that is similar to cement and we certainly don't want that.
If you are concerned about your soil texture, the most accurate method of determining what you need is to take a soil test. Soil test bags are available for purchase at the Trumbull County Extension office on West Main Street in Cortland. They generally run between $12 and $15 and all you have to do is fill the bag you get with the test with some of your garden soil (instructions are included), and send it off to the lab listed on the packaging. In return, you will get a full report of your soil types as well as the nutrient levels along with recommendations for improving your soil. Separate tests should be taken for growing vegetables and flowers as their requirements are different.
In addition to your report, a copy is also sent to the Extension office. If you have any questions, you can simply give them a call and they will be glad to interpret the test results for you. It's as easy as sand, silt and clay.
Evanoff is a Master Gardener with The Ohio State University Extension of Trumbull County. She can be reached at email@example.com.