Grow burr gherkins for your own tiny pickles!
Burr gherkins (Cucumis anguria) are an African cousin to the common cucumber (C. sativus).
Burr gherkin description
Smaller than cucumbers, burr gherkins go by several other names: cackrey, West Indian gherkin, and West Indian gourd. Whatever you call them, these heat-loving plants produce vines that can reach 9’ in length. The fruits are oblong and usually less than 2” long. They get the name burr because fruits are covered with tiny spines or warts.
While the vines and flowers of burr gherkins look a lot like cucamelons (Melothria scabra), the two are only distantly related and the fruits are very different.
These are also not the longer French gherkins, which are pickled in vinegar and tarragon and called cornichons.
How to grow burr gherkins
As a cucurbit, burr gherkins prefer warm temperatures, loose soil, and something to climb. Burr gherkins can also be allowed to sprawl across the ground, though a bed of straw will help reduce pest and disease damage. Six to eight seeds are planted in 12” hills with 18-24” spaces between hills. Once seedlings emerge, snip off all but the best three in each hill at soil level. Water as needed, allowing the soil to dry out between waterings.
Burr gherkin pests and diseases
Burr gherkins are particularly susceptible to aphids and cucumber beetles. Fungal diseases, such as damping-off, downy mildews, powdery mildew and verticillium wilt are also possible, as are viral diseases, such as mosaics and various yellows. Row covers can be used to protect against some insects, just make sure you don’t trap any pests under the cloth.
Preserving burr gherkins
These are very productive plants, but you will want to harvest fruits while they are young. This keeps the plant producing fruit, plus mature fruits are tough. Fruits should start appearing 60-65 days after planting. While burr gherkins can certainly be eaten raw or cooked like zucchini, they are most commonly brined or pickled.
Because of their unusual fruit, burr gherkins are a great addition to children’s gardens. And, just so you know, most of the pickles sold in markets today as “gherkins” are actually just baby cucumbers, not gherkins.
Now you know.
Edaphology is the science of how soil impacts living things. It also looks at the ways we use soil and how that use alters a soil’s ability to support life.
There’s no denying that a lot is going on under our feet. Within the soil, one might find worms, spiders, tiny beetle eggs, or a colony of ground-dwelling bees or ants. You might also find billions of bacteria and trillions of fungi and other microorganisms. But it is the condition of the soil that makes life possible for all those living things.
Edaphology is the study of how soil is used in agriculture (agrology) and how soil impacts the local environment (environmental soil science). As gardeners, we are all amateur edaphologists, to one degree or another.
By studying soil biology, physics, and chemistry, edaphologists have learned a lot about how soil can be used and improved for growing food and other plants. Soil chemistry refers to the mineral nutrients found in the soil that are used by plants as food. Levels of these nutrients, and their availability, often dictate which plants can be grown and how they will perform, as well as what needs to be added or reduced. It also refers to the presence of toxins, such as lead. Only a lab-based soil test can give you that information.
Drainage and irrigation
Agricultural edaphology also looks at irrigation and drainage. Different soils hold and release different amounts of water at different rates. While sand holds very little water, drainage is excellent. Clay holds tightly to a significant amount of water, but drainage tends to be poor. For plants to really thrive, a middle ground is ideal.
Edaphology studies ways to reduce erosion and soil degradation. Bare earth is vulnerable to erosion. Ask anyone who lived through the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Wind, water, animals, tools and equipment can all degrade or erode soil, one way or another. Soil degradation also refers to the depletion of water-soluble nutrients used by plants. Climate and vegetation play major roles in soil degradation. As temperatures rise (or fall), different sets of plants, microorganisms, and other life forms thrive or suffer, impacting your soil.
Edaphology has found ways to improve soil fertility and structure, along with its cation exchange capacity and its water holding capacity by adding soil amendments. Soil amendments include fertilizers and soil conditioners. Soil conditioners are used to improve or rebuild damaged soil. Bone meal, blood meal, coffee grounds, compost, manure, and vermiculite are just a few of the soil amendments used to improve soil quality. These materials help reduce soil compaction and improve nutrient levels and accessibility. Adding organic materials, such as aged compost, can significantly improve water retention and drainage.
Edaphologists have researched the various properties of soil in relation to plant production. Their research has taught us better soil husbandry methods. Soil husbandry is the art and science of caring for soil so that it can continue to be used to grow the plants we want. Soil husbandry includes protecting soil from erosion and degradation with mulch and cover crops, improving soil with soil amendments, and employing green manures and crop rotation to keep soil healthy. Whatever is growing on top of a soil has a profound impact on the health, structure, and fertility of that soil.
The bottom line for gardeners is that edaphology teaches us how healthy soil creates healthy plants and healthy plants help maintain healthy soil.
Now we know.
Those deliciously crisp snow peas in your stir fry can be grown at home.
The story behind pea evolution is fascinating. Even more intriguing is why more people don’t grow their own snow peas at home.
Snow pea plants
Snow peas are flat-podded peas that are eaten whole while unripe. Like sugar peas, snow peas are indehiscent, which means the ripe pods do not open on their own. Shelling peas, which are grown to be dried and used in cooking, have a much tougher pod that is dehiscent.
All pea plants are legumes, which means they play host to beneficial rhizobia bacteria in their roots. These bacteria help plants fix atmospheric nitrogen into a form plants can use.
How to grow snow peas
Like fat-podded sugar peas and shelling peas, snow peas are a cool season crop. In fact, that’s how snow peas got their name, being grown in winter. Seeds should be planted 1-2” deep and 5” apart in loose, nutrient-rich soil. Snow peas use tendrils to climb supports, such as stock panels and trellising.
Harvest pods as they form to make the vines keep producing. Once plants sense that they have completed their reproductive cycle, pod production stops.
Snow peas are so easy to grow.!You can add them to your stir fry garden, salad garden, or just grow them! Did you know that the immature leaves and stems are also edible?
Now you know!
There is a reason why Belgian endive [on-DEEV] is so expensive in the stores. But odds are pretty good that you can grow your own.
Blanching is a method of growing in which seedlings are covered with soil or other materials to block photosynthesis.. Belgian endive is grown commercially in dark rooms. The lack of chlorophyll in the leaves makes them white. It also gives them a more delicate flavor and tender texture. Blanching is also used on asparagus and celery. To grow your own Belgian endive, you need to learn a few tricks.
How to grow Belgian endive
Belgian endive is one of the few crops that is grown twice. First you grow the root and then you grow the head. If you simply put a Belgian endive seed in the ground and water it, you will get what looks like several other green chicory plants. In the case of Belgian endive, a seed is planted and allowed to grow normally. Then the top portion is removed, the root is refrigerated [vernalized] and then replanted, and grown in the dark. This “forces” the plant to believe it has gone through a winter and the head it produces is very tightly wrapped, pale, and tender.
Three to four weeks later, you will have your very own Belgian endive crop. Simply snap the head off and there you have it!
Problems associated with growing Belgian endive
If you plant seeds too early, bolting may occur. While that’s a great way to get seeds for next year, you won’t have any harvestable heads. And if too much nitrogen is present, your plants will focus on leafy growth rather than root development. And you need healthy roots to get harvestable heads.
Each root only produces one head, so the old root can be fed to your chickens or added to the compost pile.
Sugarloaf chicory is a surprising leafy green perennial.
In most parts of the country, sugarloaf chicories are planted in late spring and early summer for autumn and early winter harvests. Here in California, sugarloaf chicory is an excellent winter crop, as long as the soil does not stay soggy. Sugarloaf chicories are very drought tolerant plants. They grow best in loose soil with good drainage, making them an excellent choice for raised beds. Plants mature in 80 days, on average.
Sugarloaf chicory can be harvested on a leaf-by-leaf, as needed basis, or the head can be allowed to mature and then cut the whole thing off just above the soil. The plant will, in most cases, regrow. Sugarloaf chicory can also be forced and blanched the same way Belgian endive is managed.
Sugarloaf chicory pests and diseases
Aphids, darkling beetles, flea beetles, leaf miners, loopers, and thrips are the most common pests, along with slugs and snails. Fungal diseases, such as anthracnose, bottom rot, downy mildews, fusarium wilt, septoria blight, and white mold can often be avoided by ensuring proper drainage and good spacing between plants. Damping-off disease and bacterial soft rot may also occur.
How deep do roots go? Rooting depth is dependent on a lot of different conditions. After reading this post, you may never look at your garden plants the same way again. I know I don't!
Thrive or survive?
We’ve all seen examples of tenacious, wind-battered trees growing impossibly out of rocks, but we want life for our garden plants to be better than that, don't we? We don’t want our plants to simply survive, we want them to thrive! This is where rooting depth becomes so important. Plants will make do with whatever they have available to them. By providing enough loose, healthy soil, our plants will be more productive and less likely to get sick.
How deep plant roots go depends on several variables: species, soil structure, soil health, soil moisture levels, and probably a thousand other things. Roots will go where they need to to find water and nutrients. Imagine carefully digging up specimens of your garden plants to see what their root systems really look like. Ends up, it’s already been done. Back in 1927, a couple of researchers, Weaver and Bruner, dug up a bunch of vegetable plants to examine rooting depth and structure. We can use what they learned to make sure we put our plants where they will grow best.
And that lawn, its root system is pitiful compared to native plants.
In my case, I have to assume that plants installed directly in the ground are going to have a tougher time moving around in the soil, for at least another year or two. Because of this, I try to remember to install shallow-rooted plants in those places. I generally use my 12” deep raised beds for plants with moderately deep roots and my 24” deep bed for the plants with deeper roots, though not always. Because my raised beds are open to the native soil at the bottom, rooting will get progressively deeper as the preexisting soil improves.
Strawberries are classified as shallow-rooted, but my deep bed has newly built netted panels that keep birds away, so that’s where my strawberries live. [As you read this post, you will learn that strawberries are not nearly as shallow-rooted as many, myself included, once believed.]
Listed below are categories of minimum rooting depths, under ideal conditions, for many common home gardening plants. Remember, these numbers are bare minimums, assuming nutrient-rich, loose soil. Your results may vary.
Shallow rooted plants
These plants are your best choices for containers, towers, and compacted soil. Basil, chives, cilantro, endive, escarole, ginger, lettuce, oregano, parsley, radish, scallions, spinach, summer savory, tarragon, and thyme can all be grown in less than 12” of soil. Of course, more is generally better. In one study, biologists found that “doubling plant pot size makes plants grow over 40 percent larger.” And look what happens to a lettuce plant, given its freedom to grow! [By the way, the squares in all of these illustrations are one foot by one foot.]
Slightly deeper growing plants, arugula, bok choy, celery, fennel, garlic, Jerusalem artichokes, mint, onions, rosemary, shallots, strawberries, and Swiss chard need at least 12” of soil but perform better in 18” or more soil.
Moderately deep rooted plants
Your cabbage, carrots, chiles, okra, peas, beans, beets, blueberries, broccoli, collards, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cucumbers, eggplant, horseradish, kale, leeks, kohlrabi, mustard greens, Napa cabbage, peppers, potatoes, rutabagas, sweet potatoes, and turnips need at least 18" of soil to grow properly.
Artichokes, cantaloupe, cardoon, cereal grains, citrus, figs, lima beans, melons, parsnips, peaches, pumpkins, sage, squash, tomatoes, and watermelon need 24" of loose, nutrient-rich soil.
Deep rooted plants
Your asparagus, cherries, fava beans, hops, olives, pears, prunes, rhubarb, and spring wheat will ultimately go down 3 feet or more. Alfalfa, almonds, apricot, and corn may have roots that are 4 feet long, while walnut trees and winter wheat may reach 5 feet. The roots under your grape vines may be 20 feet long.
Remember what I said earlier about strawberries? Well, if you are like me, strawberry pots have never seemed to work out. Believe me, I’ve tried! Experts all say strawberry plants have a minimum rooting depth of 12”. What they don’t tell you is that mature plant roots might go down 3 feet! And what about that containerized horseradish? A 10-year old horseradish plant may have roots as deep as 14 feet!
Rooting depth depends on species, soil, and several other variables. Knowing more about rooting depth can help you select plants suited to your soil, container size, or planting beds.
I have been asked several times what I would plant in a survival garden, so here it is.
Assuming you are talking about a total social breakdown situation and not a Robinson Crusoe deserted island situation, a survival garden (like any other garden) has to be designed around your soil, microclimate, and personal tastes. On a deserted island, you would probably have to focus on fish and coconuts. In a social breakdown survival situation, you would probably want to focus on high nutrient foods that are easy to store. And you would need access to water or none of this will matter.
High nutrient, easy to store foods include legumes, such as beans, peas, peanuts, and lentils. These plants have the advantage of being able to fix atmospheric nitrogen into a form plants can use and they can be dried for long term storage. Other good choices for a survival garden include members of the squash family, especially winter squashes, such as easy to store butternut squash and pumpkins.
Beets, carrots, fennel, onions, parsnips, potatoes, sweet potatoes and other root vegetables are also good choices for a survival garden.
Perennials, such as fruit and nut trees, grapes, and raspberry and blackberry canes, take longer to become productive, but they can be game changers in the long run. Other perennials to consider include asparagus and rhubarb. Cereals, such as millet, wheat, rye, and oats, might have a place in your survival garden, as well.
You can also grow many common annual (or grown as annual) edible plants, such as tomatoes, peppers, lettuces, chard, garlic, spinach, sunflowers, and kale. As you harvest these crops, always leave some behind, to go to seed naturally. This allows seeds to fall where they will. Very often, these seeds will grow where they are best suited without any effort on your part.
Herbs and teas
Your food will taste better with the addition of these perennial and/or self-seeding herbs and other flavorings: chives, cilantro/coriander, dill, ginger, horseradish, lemongrass, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage, summer savory, tarragon, thyme, and turmeric. Some of these aromatic plants also help keep away common garden pests. Even tender basil can be grown and allowed to go to seed.
Teas will be the hot beverage of choice in a survival situation, so you will want to add chamomile, licorice, and mint to the mix. You could also use leaves from your raspberry and blackberry plants. Since medicine is beyond my skill set, you would have to talk with someone else about medicinal plants.
Making a survival plan
Living in earthquake country, my family has a collection of supplies, just in case. A survival garden takes that possibility to an entirely different level. If you believe that a survival situation is possible, it is a good idea to get started right away, to give everything time to get established. Before you can plant any seeds, however, you need to take your soil, local climate, and sun exposure into consideration.
Your soil should be tested by a reputable lab first. Many universities offer this inexpensive and valuable service. A soil test will tell you what nutrients are present in your soil, what is needed, and what is in excess. It will also tell you the pH of your soil. Armed with this valuable information, you can amend your soil in ways that will help, rather than hinder your plants. Note: too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.
Your location will dictate which plants you can grow. Identify your Hardiness Zone. You will also need to determine how much sun each area of your garden gets. Most fruits and vegetables need a full day of sun. Anything less than that and you will have to choose plants based on the available sunlight. Finally, if you decide to plant fruit and nut trees, you will need to determine the number of chilling hours your property gets each winter to ensure you select varieties that will actually produce food. Depending on where you live, almond, apple, citrus, fig, and walnut trees can produce a lot of food that is easy to store. Again, you have to select plants that will grow well where you are.
Other considerations for a survival situation include chickens and bees. Horses, sheep, goats, and pigs might also come into play. You should also put some thought into how you will protect these important assets in difficult times.
Let’s hope it never comes to this. Unless it does, let’s just call all this farming.
If you have a peaked roof, roof gardens may not be not for you. But what about garden plants on your shed, chicken coop, or other flat-topped structure?
We are not going to get into the details of how to install a roof garden here because that would mean talking about moisture barriers, structural integrity, and a bunch of other topics beyond my skill set or interest level. You can check out this article for more of that information.
Instead of learning all the technical stuff needed to safely build a large-scale roof garden, we are simply going to explore roof gardens and learn a little about what they have to offer. Before we get started, we need to clarify the difference between green roofs and roof gardens. Roof gardens incorporate container plantings, seating areas, and outdoor living space, while green roofs are living blankets of plants installed primarily to improve insulation. Sod roofs are a type of green roof.
Roof gardens and rainwater
In cities around the world, rain falls on buildings and concrete, collecting car exhaust, trash, dust, grime, and who knows what else. This polluted water is then carried to our lakes, steams, oceans, and aquifers. Not good. Roof gardens reduce that run-off by absorbing the water and using it to provide for plants.
Roof gardens as habitat
Let’s face it - city dwellers rarely have access to enough natural surroundings. Roof gardens can offset that lack. Wildlife benefits in similar ways. Roof gardens provide habitat for a wide variety of native birds, animals, and beneficial insects. A series of roof gardens can also create a corridor for migratory birds and insects
Basic roof garden design
If you are sold on the roof garden idea and want to move forward, here are things you need to consider:
Rooftop garden plant selection
Rooting depth is particularly important when gardening on a roof. Check this list of plants and their minimum rooting depths to help you select the right plants for your roof garden:
Plants that can withstand a lot of wind and sun are also good choices. Succulents and most herbs certainly qualify. Remember, installing a roof garden can reduce summer energy costs by 25% to 80%.
Plus you get fresh herbs and vegetables!
Put aside images of a serene, manicured Japanese tea garden and imagine, instead, growing your own tea.
There’s nothing like a hot cup of tea to put your mind at ease or boost your spirits and there’s no reason why you can’t grow some of your own.
Tea is second only to water as the world’s most popular beverage. Unfortunately, commercially produced teas can contain pesticides, fungicides, and even heavy metals, such as mercury and arsenic.
For me, that’s reason enough to start growing my own.
Traditionally, tea is made by pouring boiling water over the cured leaves of tea plants (Camellia sinensis). Tea plants can be grown outdoors in Zones 8 - 12, or indoors year round. Tea plants are evergreen shrubs native to East Asia. Tea plants can reach 6 feet in height and they have a deep taproot. Tea plants use a lot of water. Their native regions get 50” of water a year.
Tea leaves and terminal buds, known as flushes, are typically harvested while young. This is generally done by hand twice a year, up to every week or two, depending on the local climate. High quality teas are picked by hand. Leaves are then allowed to wilt before they are “disrupted” or “macerated”. This process bruises or tears the leaves to allow enzymes to start the oxidation process. Leaves may be rolled between between a person’s hands, or crushed by machinery. Finally, the leaves are heated to halt oxidation. There’s more to it than that, but you get the idea.
If you love tea, you know that you can also enjoy herbal teas. Herbal teas generally do not contain the caffeine found in regular tea. Many herbal tea plants are lovely to look at and they tend to be pretty resilient. Much of that resiliency is from the essential oils that gives these plants their flavor. Apparently, bugs and pathogens don’t enjoy them the way we do!
There are several traditional plants to choose from for your tea garden: bergamot, German chamomile, lavender, lemon balm, and mint. But you might also want to consider blackcurrants, borage, coriander, dill, elderberries, giant hyssop, ginger, hibiscus, jasmine, lemongrass, lemon thyme, licorice, oregano, raspberry and blackberry leaves, rose hips, or rosemary. Most edible flowers and even dandelions can be used to make tea. [And homegrown tea makes lovely gifts!]
Tea garden design
You can certainly intersperse your tea plants throughout your garden, grow them in containers on your patio or balcony, or you can create a lovely display dedicated to tea. You can build an elegant parterre, an artistic knot garden, a rustic cottage garden style, or something else entirely. Honestly, that’s one of the things I love most about gardening. You can try just about anything. It won’t always work, but you’re bound to learn something in the process. And you just might discover something amazing about your plants or yourself. Back to the tea.
Harvesting and storing tea
Fresh tea leaves or herbs should be cleaned of dust and bugs and then hung or laid out to dry, out of the sun. Placing leaves in an old pillowcase laid flat works well. Once they are completely dry, your tea leaves need to be kept away from light, moisture, air, and heat. Air-tight tins and storage jars kept in cabinets work well for storing tea and you can find a great selection at yard sales and thrift stores.
How to make a proper pot of tea
Being raised in an age of microwaves, take-out, and instant everything, few of us have actually learned how to make a proper pot of tea. Different varieties of tea need to be handled differently, but they all start with a kettle of boiling water. You want to use the water as soon as it starts to boil. Let it go too long and the water will taste flat.
While you wait for your kettle to boil, prepare the tea leaves. Generally speaking, one heaping teaspoon per cup is recommended. You can put the leaves into a tea sock, an infuser, or use a tea ball. The trick is to make sure the tea leaves can expand. You can also put the leaves directly into your teapot, but you will want to warm your teapot with some of the boiling water first. This will help keep your tea warm.
Some people prefer their tea strong and dark, while others, like my mother, simply wave a teabag at the hot water. Both are fine. The idea is to soak, or steep, the leaves in the hot water long enough to extract the flavor you prefer. Traditionally, steeping times vary by tea type:
Once the preferred taste has been attained, remove the leaves. If the leaves stay in the water for too long, your tea can taste bitter. Wrap your teapot in a cozy to keep it warm and enjoy!
Which plants would you like to include in your tea garden?
Stop getting rid of soil mites!
There are certainly plenty of bad mites: dryberry mites, Eriophyid mites, plum bud gall mites, and two-spotted spider mites are just a few. But not all mites are bad. Like their predatory cousins, European red mites, soil mites are your helpers.
Soil mites are extremely beneficial when it comes to releasing nutrients into the soil and controlling pest populations.
Conduct an online search for ‘soil mites’ and you’ll see dozens [millions] of sites telling you how to get rid of these pencil-point size arachnids. But getting rid of them is the last thing you should do. So, what’s so great about soil mites? Let’s find out!
What are soil mites?
Mites are arthropods. This means they have an external skeleton, a segmented body, and jointed legs. They are also arachnids, like ticks and spiders, but very tiny. If you were to take a sample of soil that weighed about the same as a bar of soap, 100 g give or take, you might have 500 mites from 100 different genera in that sample. These buggers are really tiny. With the naked eye, they might look like nothing more than little brown or white dots. But these little guys are important.
While there are over 20,000 known soil mite species, with an estimated 80,000 total, it is easier to categorize soil mites by what they eat. They can be herbivores or carnivores.
Plant-eating soil mites
To something as small as a ballpoint pen tip, fungi make a great meal. So do bacteria and lichen. These scavengers are abundant in most soils and they help plants gain access to nutrients. As these soil mites graze on the fungi and bacteria that grow on root surfaces, they poop out those meals in the form of plant food. They also shred decaying plant material as they feed on the bacteria and fungi clinging to those plant surfaces. Fungal feeding mites (Oribatei) look like little orbs. Also known as turtle mites, moss mites, and beetle mites, these soil mites are very tiny. Let’s call them moss mites. Moss mites range in size from 0.2 to 1.4 mm long. This means you could fit 10-90 of them across a dime, end-to-end, depending on the species.
Insect-eating soil mites
Other soil mites are predators. Predatory soil mites feed on microscopic garden pests, such as nematodes, fungus gnat and thrips pupae, springtails, other mites, and the eggs and larvae of other insects. Most predatory soil mites are 0.5 mm long, brown, and found in the top 1/2” of the soil. [Unfortunately, I could not find any freely available photos of predatory soil mites.]
While not all mites are good, soil mites are your friends in the garden.
Let them be, and be glad they’re around!
Growing leafy greens and other edibles in toxic soil can make you very sick. In some cases, it can kill you. Toxic soil contains heavy metals and other poisons. Often found under landfills, junkyards, and factories, toxic soil is increasingly found in urban areas.
What makes soil toxic?
Healthy soil contains a balance of organic matter, air, water, and minerals that plants use as food. Some of those helpful minerals, such as boron or molybdenum, can reach toxic levels in the soil. Heavy metals can also make soil toxic. So can organic pollutants, such as creosote, excessive fertilizer, herbicides, industrial solvents, pesticides, explosives, and petroleum products. In some cases, radioactive materials, such as radon and certain forms of plutonium, can be in your soil. It ends up that fill dirt used to be brought in from questionable locations when building homes. [Hopefully, that doesn’t happen any more.] The problem is, without soil testing, you don’t know what you have.
Soil is the earth’s filtering system. Like our kidneys, it can only handle so much. Heavy metals and other toxins in the soil often leach into groundwater. They can also become part of the dust that you inhale and the foods you eat. Toxins can be absorbed through your skin and may even coat produce you grow or buy at the store. [Always rinse off your leafy greens and root vegetables, and wash your hands frequently, just in case.]
Is your soil toxic?
The first step to learning whether or not you have toxic soil is a soil test. Not those cheap plastic things. A real, lab-based soil test. They are inexpensive and extremely valuable. Especially if your soil is toxic.
If your soil test results indicate heavy metals, such as lead contamination, or other toxins, there are steps you can take to remove those dangerous materials. Traditionally, that meant simply digging up the toxic soil and burying it somewhere else. Today, many researchers are looking to plants for a solution.
Put plants to work!
As plants absorb water and nutrients, they also take up nonessential elements, such as cadmium, lead, and mercury, which can contaminate soil. Using plants to remove toxins from soil is called phytoremediation. Phytoremediation uses plants to contain, remove, or render toxic contaminants harmless.
Phytoremediation plants can be classified as accumulators or hyperaccumulators. Accumulators (A) are plants that pull toxins out of the soil and up into their aboveground tissues. Beets, for example, will absorb and accumulate radioactive particles found in the soil. Hyperaccumulators (H) collect toxins particularly well, absorbing up to 100 times the toxins of accumulator plants. Sorghum is a hyperaccumulator of arsenic.
How does phytoremediation work?
Accumulators and hyperaccumulators can reduce toxins in the soil through several different processes:
There are advantages to using plants to clean toxins from soil: it’s inexpensive; it doesn’t harm the environment; and it preserves valuable topsoil. The disadvantage is that this is a slow process. It can take years.
Several studies have demonstrated that specific varieties of certain plants are very good at dealing with toxic soil. While I understand that Latin plant names can feel tedious at times, different cultivars behave differently, so getting the proper plant makes a big difference. For example, not all willow species are useful at cleaning soil. Studies have shown that Salix matsudana and S. x reichardtii are far more effective than other willow species.
Many trees, including American sweet gum, larch, red maple, spruce, Ponderosa pine, and tulip trees are able to accumulate radioactive particles (radionuclides), such as radon and plutonium.
Which plants remove which toxins?
I created the chart below from information provided by several studies on toxic soil and phytoremediation.
You can email me if you would like a larger version of this chart,
Keep in mind that, just because a plant will absorb toxins, does not mean it is something suited to your garden or your region. Some nasty invasives have become firmly established that way.
Did you know that some companies extract these toxic and sometimes valuable minerals from plants? This is called phytomining.
Now you know.
Healthy soil is teeming with microscopic life. Most soil organisms are beneficial, but some of them carry disease. The more you know about soil borne diseases, the better you can protect your plants.
The biggest problem with soil borne diseases is knowing they are there. You can’t see the pathogens. Damage can be done before you know anything is wrong. Also, symptoms of soil borne diseases can look a lot like nutrient imbalances, chemical overspray, and poor environmental conditions. This is why it is so important to monitor your plants regularly.
Fungi and nematodes are behind most soil borne diseases, but there are other players and some of them are relatively new discoveries.
Nematodes are microscopic, unsegmented worms. Some of them are beneficial and some carry disease. Beneficial nematodes kill cutworms and corn earworm moths. Disease-carrying nematodes include needle nematodes, root-knot nematodes, and stubby root nematodes. The real problem with nematodes is that there are so many of them. It is estimated that, for every person on earth, there are 60 billion nematodes. [Thank goodness they aren’t all bad!]
There is another class of soil borne disease carriers called Phytomyxea [FI-toe-muh-kia]. Scientists used to think they were a type of slime mold, but genetic testing and electron microscopes have taught us that they are their own group. Phytomyxea are plant parasites that can cause clubroot in cruciferous vegetables and powdery scab in potatoes.
Bacterial diseases are less likely to be soil borne because bacteria have a hard time surviving in the soil. Also, they need a wound or natural opening to get inside your plants. That being said, the following soil borne diseases can occur in your garden:
Soil borne viral diseases are rare. In most cases, they are transmitted by nematodes and certain fungi. Soil borne viral diseases include lettuce necrotic stunt and wheat mosaic, which causes stunting and mosaics in wheat, barley, and rye.
How to prevent soil borne disease
In nature, plant diseases rarely get out of hand. Soil pathogens are usually kept in check by other organisms and plants’ defense mechanisms. However, as we select plants, spray chemicals, and stir up the soil, we interrupt those protections. The main cause of soil borne diseases taking hold is an imbalance in soil populations. Reduced biodiversity gives pathogens the upper hand.
One way to reintroduce that biodiversity is by top dressing with aged compost. Research has shown that top dressing with aged compost is very effective at suppressing soil borne diseases in greenhouses, though less so in the field. In both situations, the more compost was added, the more effective it was. Interestingly enough, if the compost was sterilized beforehand, it was less effective. I think we can assume the effect is at least partially biological.
As with most diseases, three factors must be present for a problem to occur: the host plant, the pathogen, and the right environmental conditions. This is called the disease triangle. Remove any one of the three and the disease is prevented or controlled. Crop rotation is an excellent way to break this disease triangle. Your rotation schedule will vary depending on the disease.
While you can, in some cases, apply treatments directed toward specific pathogens, they don’t always work. Most of these treatments consist of other microorganisms that prey on the pathogens. These only work if your soil already has everything the introduced microorganisms need. Funny thing is, if all those things were already there, so would most of the predators. Biodiversity is your friend. In fact, mycorrhizal fungi (good guys) often create protective mats which contain antibiotics and pathogenic toxins around plant roots, all while helping your plants absorb nutrients.
Use these tips to prevent soil borne diseases in your garden:
Finally, as tempting as they may be, chemical treatments are rarely a good choice for backyard gardeners. Pathogens are developing resistance to these treatments which means stronger chemicals must be used. Whenever possible, use some other method of controlling soil borne diseases.
For every acre of garden, there is the equivalent of two mature cows, by weight, of soil bacteria living there. Ponder that a moment.
Your average cow weighs about one ton. Two cows weigh about the same as a car. That’s a lot of soil bacteria! For a different view, you could fit 15 trillion bacteria into a single tablespoon, if nothing else was there.
What are all those one-celled creatures doing in your soil?
Truth be told, much of your garden soil is made up of dead bacteria. Affectionately known as ‘bio bags of fertilizer’, soil bacteria are important players in nutrient cycling and decomposition. While still alive, their excretions improve soil structure by binding particles together into aggregates. This improved soil structure results in better water infiltration rates and it increases your soil’s water holding capacity. As bacteria breath, they release carbon dioxide into the soil. Plants love carbon dioxide.
Soil bacteria are most commonly found in the film of water that coats soil particles. Bacteria can’t move very far on their own. They generally move with water, though they sometimes hitchhike on passing worms, spiders, and insects. This is called phoresy.
Under ideal conditions, a single bacteria can produce 16 million copies of itself every 24 hours, doubling its population every 15-30 minutes. Conditions are rarely ideal, so bacteria reproduce as much as they can, whenever they can.
There are four basic groups of soil bacteria: decomposers, mutualists, lithotrophs, and pathogens. Most soil bacteria are beneficial. Pathogens are the troublemakers.
The majority of soil bacteria are decomposers that break down plant and animal debris into simple compounds which plants and other living things then use as food. This makes soil bacteria an important part the soil food web. Some decomposers can break down pesticides and pollutants. Decomposers also store a lot of nutrients in their bodies. When they die, those nutrients become available to your tomato plants. [Soil bacteria are 10-30% nitrogen.]
Mutualists have working arrangements with plants that benefit both sides of the equation. The most commonly known mutualists are the rhizobia bacteria which convert atmospheric nitrogen into a form useable by plants. Very often, these mutualists live on or in the roots of legumes, such as peas and beans. Other mutualistic soil bacteria are able to convert atmospheric nitrogen without the help of plants, but the plants still benefit.
You don’t hear much about lithotrophs, but this group is unique in that they don’t eat carbon compounds, the way other bacteria do. Instead, they manufacture their own carbohydrates, without photosynthesis, and feed on chemicals, such as hydrogen, iron, nitrogen, and sulfur. This group is also known as chemoautotrophs. These soil bacteria help break down pollutants and are an important part of nutrient cycling.
These are the disease-causing bacteria. They can cause fireblight, bacterial wilts, cankers, galls, and soft rot. The beneficial soil bacteria are always at war with these germs, competing for food, space, air, and moisture.
Killing bacteria is difficult. Most often, if conditions become difficult, a bacteria will simply enter a dormant stage. This is why many Quick Fix treatments don’t work. They don’t kill the bacteria, they just send it on a temporary hiatus. There are some soil bacteria (Streptomycetes) that actively protect plants from bad bacteria.
Why do soil bacteria matter to gardeners?
Most soil bacteria are valuable members of your team. They provide a huge benefit to your soil and plants. And you need to know what the bad bacteria look like when they start to set up housekeeping. The earlier you break those disease triangles, the faster your can return to harvesting your delicious crops.
Most bacteria are aerobic, which means they need oxygen. This is why turning your compost pile makes everything decompose faster. You are providing the decomposer bacteria with the air they need. If you don’t, the anaerobic, non-air breathing bacteria take over. Those are the ones associated with rot and purification. [Ew!]
Did you know that soil bacteria will consume more water than they can hold, causing their bodies to burst? Yet another argument against over-watering...
Sand slips through your fingers. Clay clods defy your shovel. And somewhere in-between is the sweet spot with bits and pieces of soil just the right size for plant roots. Whatever the size, these chunks are called soil aggregates.
To learn about soil aggregates, you will need a scoop of dry soil from your garden. Put the soil in a bowl. Are there a lot of different sized pieces or are they mostly the same? If you look closely at the photo below, you can see a clear line between the old clay layer and all the decomposing mulch and compost that I have been putting on top. Over time, those organic materials work their way down, into the clay, reducing compaction and improving drainage. These improvements will occur because of soil aggregates.
Take another look at your soil. Stir it around a bit. Pick some of it up and roll it around in your hand. Rub it with your fingers. Does it feel gritty? Or powdery? Do the clumps mostly hold together? Do they crumble completely or do they feel like rocks? Soil aggregates, also known as ‘peds’, are the clumps that tend to stay together when you work the soil.
Why do soil aggregates matter?
Healthy soil has a variety of aggregate sizes, with plenty of large spaces (macropores) between the aggregates and tiny spaces (micropores) inside the aggregates. These spaces are used by roots and gases to move through the soil. These spaces are also what allow water to soak in, increasing your soil’s water holding capacity. And plant nutrients stick to these clumps.
In some cases, aggregates are not as important. Sand, for example, has no aggregates, but there are so many spaces between grains of sand that plant roots, water, and gases have no trouble moving around. [Hanging on to water and nutrients is something else altogether!] Soils with low bulk density are another case where aggregates don’t matter as much. For the rest of us, the soil aggregates in our gardens have a huge impact on plant health, especially tender seedlings. If your soil’s aggregates are unstable, seedlings can suffocate.
Aggregates are described according to their stability. If your soil crumbles into dust, you probably have a lot of clay or silt and that can mean your soil has low aggregate stability. Low aggregate stability increases problems with erosion, gas exchanges, root development, and permeability. More immediately, as rain, irrigation, or sprinkler water strikes the soil surface, flimsy aggregates can be broken. Those tiny broken bits clog the spaces in the soil, making life difficult for plant roots, worms, and soil microorganisms. It also causes crusting which can kill seedlings before they get a chance to grow.
How do soil aggregates form?
Healthy soil aggregates are held together by clay, organic matter, and glomalin. Glomalin is a protective fungal excretion that helps the fungi feed your plants and binds soil aggregates together. Bacteria have similar excretions which are not as effective.
Organic materials in the soil usually mean decomposition is taking place. Decomposition means fungi, worms, bacteria, and microorganisms are present. Those life forms excrete coatings and other materials that help soil aggregates form and stabilize. Finally, as clay particles become moist, they act as a cement, holding molecules and particles together into aggregates.
Test your soil for aggregates
Returning to your soil sample, select a few particularly large clods and gently set them aside to dry completely. Once they are really dry, dip them into a glass of water. If they break up quickly it means your soil has low aggregate stability. If the clods retain their shape for 30 minutes or more, your soil’s stability is high. Because my soil contains so much clay, it pretty much dissolves immediately. As more organic material is incorporated, my soil will breath better, hold its shape better, and provide plenty of pores for roots, water, and microorganisms.
How can you improve the aggregates in your soil?
Start by taking a look at your soil test. If your soil contains a lot of calcium or iron, it probably already has good aggregates. If your soil holds too much salt, aggregates are harder to come by. The biggest indicator of good soil aggregates is the amount of organic matter found in the soil. By mulching and top dressing your soil with manure and aged compost, you are encouraging all the life forms that help soil build healthy aggregates. This is why no-dig gardening has become so important. We learned that excessive digging, plowing, and rototilling disrupt the soil dwelling populations that create and maintain good soil aggregates.
If your soil aggregates are unsatisfactory, use these tips to encourage better soil structure in your garden and landscape:
How did your dip test turn out? Let us know in the Comments!
Why is beach sand mostly white and tan while rich farmland is practically black? What does soil color tell you about your soil?
Soil occurs in many different colors. Iron-rich soil tends to be reddish orange or green, while peat can be practically purple!
Go outside and collect a handful of your soil and put it in a clear container. Shake it around a little bit. Is it wet or dry? What color is it? Brown? Maybe. But I’ll bet it’s not that simple.
What does soil color tell us?
Each layer of your garden soil has a unique color. The deeper you dig, the lighter those colors tend to get. Soil color tells us which minerals are present and the level of decaying organic material. It can also tell you how old a soil is, which processes are occurring, and about local water behavior.
We are not going to explore soil age or the chemical processes that take place in soil, but you can use soil color to make better decisions about irrigating and fertilizing your garden.
Soil moisture levels
We all know that soil looks darker when it is wet. But soil color can tell you how long the soil stays wet. Soil that does not drain well and stays wet for much of the year tends to be a dull yellow or grey. Wet soil contains less oxygen than dry soil. Oxygen causes some minerals to oxidize, or rust. Iron-rich soil that contains a lot of moisture most of the time will turn grey or greenish, while drier soils expose iron to more oxygen, turning the soil red or yellow.
Soils that stay wet often have more complex color patterns, while arid soils are more uniform. If your soil colors are uniform, you know that the water table is lower and you will probably have to irrigate more often. If your soil is reddish, you will probably never need to amend with iron. Remember, the minerals found in soil are plant food.
Minerals make a difference
Other minerals in your soil can also affect its color. Knowing what these colors mean can help you select the best soil amendments and irrigation schedules.
What color is your soil?
Take a closer look at your soil sample. What do you see? Is it yellowish-brown or dark brown? Or something else entirely? When we first moved to our San Jose, California house, the soil was a pale, tan color and as hard as concrete.
For many of us, identifying a specific color can be tricky. Brown is brown, right? But soil can be all sorts of shades of brown, along with a bunch of other colors. To help you get really specific information about the color of your soil, you may want to go to the library and check out their copy of the Munsell soil color book.
Munsell’s color book
Soil color is so important that a system of soil color classification has been developed. This classification method is called the Munsell soil color system. A Munsell book is the gardener’s equivalent of a paint chip book, containing 199 color chips. Its pages are heavy card stock and they are organized by color. Underneath each color chip is a hole in the card stock that lets you hold a soil sample underneath for comparison. On the opposite page tells you the universally accepted name for that color. This is a coding system used around the world by soil scientists, farmers, and gardeners like you!
You artists out there know a lot more about this than I do, but let me give it a shot. According to my Munsell book, colors are described using hue, value, and chroma. Hue is the wavelength we see as color. Munsell’s book gives codes for red (R), yellow (Y), green (G), blue (B), and purple (P). Those wavelengths are measured in graduations of purity, ranging from 2.5, 5. 7.5 and 10. A pure hue is rated at 5. Numbers above 5 indicate the presence of other hues. Value indicates lightness or darkness. A value of zero indicates pure black, while 10 is white. Finally, chroma refers to a color’s strength or intensity, ranging from greyed out (/0) to full intensity (/14).
A Munsell soil color rating is written with the hue letter first, followed by a space and then the number value, a forward slash (or virgule), and then the chroma number. Decimals can be used to provide greater clarity.
Looking at a photo of my soil when we bought our place in 2012, I see that the color most closely matches 5YR 7/1. According to Munsell, that soil would be called 'light grey'. As noted earlier, this indicates high calcium carbonate, gypsum, magnesium, sand, and/or salt levels. It can also indicate too much moisture. Funny thing, the previous owner loved to apply fertilizer and overwater the property. According to my 2015 soil test, soil organic matter was at 3.5% and all the nutrients, except iron, were through the roof! Iron was extremely low.
Seven and a half years later, after adding lots of mulch and compost, a little nitrogen, appropriate watering and nothing else, my soil has been transformed to 2.5YR 3/0, with 7.6% organic matter and nutrient levels (slowly) dropping to where they should be. [These changes never happen overnight. When they do, beware! Something is very wrong.]
The new color is 'very dark grey' which goes along with all the chicken bedding, wood chips, and other organic materials I've been adding. And my iron levels are still way too low, which is why the chroma numbers have stayed low.
So, take another look at your soil sample. Does it tell you more than it did? If you live nearby, feel free to bring a soil sample by so we can take a look in my Munsell book together. If not, head to the library.
Did you know that carpet manufacturers use the Munsell soil color system to match local soil colors with carpet dyes so that their carpets will look cleaner longer?
Now you know.
When your house was built, the soil was significantly altered. Construction soil can be severely compacted and rocky. This problem persists for many years, long after the bulldozers have moved on.
What can you do to transform construction soil into friable garden soil?
What is construction soil?
When a house is built, no one wants it to fall down. Around 500 B.C., a man named Pythagoras figured out the correct angle for walls to be built to reduce the likelihood of collapse. Well, the soil under those walls is equally important for building stability.
Building sites are scraped flat, removing much of the nutrient-rich topsoil, and then mechanically compacted. This is great for your house and terrible for the soil. And if the local soil isn’t stable enough for building, nutrient-poor fill dirt is brought in, mixed in and compacted, until builders have the surface they need. After construction is complete, sod is installed, a few trees and shrubs popped into place, and a cosmetic planting of annual flowers makes everything look lovely. But it’s a lie.
The soil under new construction is reeling in shock. Heavy equipment, trucks, materials, and foot traffic have been crushing the soil, plant roots, microorganisms, insects, and worms for weeks or months of building. Simply adding an attractive top dressing of plants does not correct the problems.
What can you do about construction soil?
Of course, over time, most plants and lawns manage to push roots into the soil and grow. But they could be far healthier and easier to care for if the construction soil they are trying to grow in was transformed into something loose, nutrient-rich, and populated with helpful microorganisms.
You can make that happen with these tips:
If you do not currently compost kitchen and yard waste, you can easily start a compost pile wherever your least healthy soil is. Simply drop equal parts brown and green materials into a pile, water it and flip it every few days, and within a few weeks (depending on the season) you will have a nice batch of aged compost and that spot will be super-charged with nutrients, microorganisms, worms, and other soil beneficials. If you have a few chickens, adding their bedding and manure to the pile makes it even better!
Finally, get your soil tested by a local lab. Over-the-counter kits are not accurate enough to be useful. Inexpensive lab-based soil tests tell you which nutrients are needed, which are present in excess, and if you have lead-contaminated soil.
Even if you have lived in your home for decades, the effects of construction soil may still be present. Creating healthy soil means that your plants will be better able to defend themselves against pests and disease, along with frost and drought damage. In other words, healthy soil gives you more time to relax!
The government might know more about your soil than you do. Did you know you can access the USDA’s soil map of your property? You can and I am going to show you how.
What are soil maps?
Soil maps, also known as soil surveys, are used by architects and engineers to determine a soil’s ability to support roads or structures. Farmers use soil surveys to help them decide the best use for their land and you can, too. Your soil map can help you with plant selection, irrigation, and other gardening decisions.
Soil maps are the combined information collected by various government agencies on different types of soil. Soil surveys used to be printed in book form by every county. We don’t do that anymore. [Thank goodness!] Now, all the information is found online.
How to access a soil survey
All of the information the U.S. government has about your soil is available at the USDA’s Web Soil Survey page. Because this page isn’t exactly intuitive to use, we will work through it together. Once you open the webpage, click on the green Start WSS button to begin.
Once you are in, you will see five tabs. Those tabs are:
You will automatically be on the Area of Interest page. This is where we will begin.
Area of Interest
Before you can access any useful information, you have to set an area of interest (AOI). To do that, follow these steps:
*If your AOI is too small, you will get a warning. If this happens, make sure you are on the AOI tab, under Area of Interest and AOI Properties, and click the Clear AOI button and start again at step #7, using a larger area.
Your map will have orange lines and reddish-orange numbers and letters marking various soil series, which will be listed on the left. You can click on the soil type links for a surprising amount of information, including:
If you need help, as I did, with some of the terminology, try the USDA Soil Glossary. Now we get into the nitty gritty information. Click on the Soil Data Explorer tab.
Soil Date Explorer
This tab has sub-tabs you can investigate. Under Intro to Soils, you can get the equivalent of a college education on soil, free for the reading. The next sub-tab, Suitabilities and Limitations for Use, returns you to your map with a ton of informational categories on the left. While you probably don’t care about Building Site Development, you still might find it interesting reading. If you are short on time, go straight to the Land Management heading and click on the double arrows to expand that category. [Be sure to check out some of the other headings, as well.]
A list of several sub-categories will open up and you can expand any of them. For each of these sub-categories, you can click on View Description or View Rating. In many cases, you may see “Not rated”. I have to assume that means it is either not relevant, or that it has not been considered worth the investment.
Speaking of investments, were you surprised to learn that our tax dollars are spent on this sort of information collection?
Download Soils Data
The next tab is labelled Download Soils Data. While you can certainly try using it, I had no luck. Apparently, I do not have the proper software to open the downloadable files.
Shopping Cart (Free)
This tab allows you to download a 30-page or so document with all the general information about your soil, if you want it. Personally, I find just playing around on the website gives me more of the information I can use in my garden than the report. If you want your report, click on the Check Out button and then decide if you want it now or later, and click OK.
Since most of this information is collected for farmers, builders, emergency response, and military use, it can be far more than you need in the home garden. But it sure makes for some interesting reading!
Your garden can be a bright, cheery, busy place, or it can provide the tranquility, rest, and refuge you need after a stressful day.
Just as color schemes, lighting, furniture placement, and window treatments all play significant roles in creating an interior refuge, the view outside those windows has a double impact. Whether you are looking at your garden through a window or as you walk through it, a chaotic garden can be anything but tranquil.
These tips will help you transform your garden into a tranquil refuge, with minimal effort.
1. Keep it simple
Clutter in the garden only adds to your already busy schedule by reminding you of jobs that need doing. Clearing away yard debris is more conducive to rest and relaxation. If you have plants that are not thriving, or that do not add joy to the space, get rid of them. The same is true of outdoor furniture. If it is junk, throw it away. If it is still useable, donate it to charity or hold a yard sale. Use decorations that are simple and pleasant. Leave fences and lawns clean and empty of distractions.
2. Live in the color of calm
Reds and yellows are great colors, but they will not help you to relax. Far more calming are blues and earth tones. Design your landscape around blue flowers and various shades of greens and browns, for a beautifully relaxing view.
3. Just add water
The sound of running water has a profound effect on mood. Fountains, waterfalls, even the sound of a bird bathing in a birdbath are sounds that bring us back to nature in the way a campfire does, but without the mess or risks. Water features like these also provide for equally stressed birds, reptiles, and amphibians. Taking the time to watch these creatures in your garden or landscape is sure to improve your mood.
7. Gentle sounds
The sounds of traffic, machinery, and neighbors can destroy the tranquility of your refuge in a matter of moments. You can reduce the impact of these intrusions by planting trees and shrubs around your property line to block the noise. Good fencing can also block sound while adding privacy and security.
8. Create an herb garden
Edible herbs require only minimal care and most of them are perennial plants that come back every year. Besides adding flavor to your meals, fresh herbs such as thyme, oregano, and rosemary, add color and fragrance to your garden, while helping deter many common pests.
9. Delightful lighting
The way you illuminate your yard can impact the way you feel. Garish lamps and brilliant spotlights will not help you relax. Instead, design for relaxation in the garden by using gentle, soft-colored solar lights along paths, around garden beds, and in seating areas.
10. Make the time to enjoy it
One of the biggest problems faced today is our unwillingness to simply make time to relax. Busy schedules, television and social media, obligations to family and friends whittle away at our spare moments until there aren’t any. Schedule some time for yourself to enjoy your garden, without chores and to-do lists.
Simply stop and smell those roses. You’ve earned it.
Silt refers to minerals larger than clay and smaller than sand. Silt is commonly moved by water and deposited as sediment. Silt is what makes the alluvial soil surrounding rivers so fertile. Silt is also fine enough to be carried surprisingly long distances on the wind as dust.
How silt is formed
As rocks and regolith are eroded by weather, frost, and other processes, larger particles are ground down into smaller, rounded bits. Those smaller pieces become silt. Silt typically measures 0.05-0.002 mm and is usually composed of quartz and feldspar. Because silt moves so easily in water, construction and clear-cutting often result in silt levels that pollute waterways. This type of pollution is called siltation. In home gardens, over-watering can cause similar leaching problems and urban-drool. But silt is good for your plants.
Silt in garden soil
Sandy garden soil loses water and nutrients too quickly, while clay soil holds on too tightly. Loamy soil, in the middle, is ideal for garden plants. Loam consists of 40% sand, 20% clay, and 40% silt.
Silt particles tend to be round, so they can retain a lot of water. This high water holding capacity is made even better because silt particles cannot hold on to the water very tightly. The same is true for mineral nutrients. Roots and microorganisms have an easy time pulling water and food from silty soil. Silt can be beige to black, depending on how much organic material it contains.
Silt is prone to compaction, but not nearly as much as clay. If your soil feels slippery when it is wet, it contains a lot of silt.
Loam is the best type of soil for your garden or landscape. It feels loose and crumbly in your hand and its dark color tells you that it is filled with nutrients for your plants.
On average, loam consists of 40% sand, 40% silt, and 20% clay. Those numbers can vary, but you get the general idea. This mix of different sized materials provides plenty of spaces for roots, water, air, and garden tools to move through. Loam is easy to till and it contains more accessible nutrients, water, and organic material than sand or clay. Loam is just porous enough, providing excellent drainage and water infiltration rates. Loam is the stuff of gardeners’ dreams. And you can make it happen in your garden.
Start where you are
You can’t get somewhere else if you don’t know where you are. Start improving your soil by learning more about what it contains now. This is done with a lab-based soil test and a DIY ribbon test. I wish I could say that those colorful plastic over-the-counter soil tests worked, but they don’t. Not well enough, anyway. Send a sample to a local lab. It’s one of the best things you can do for your garden.
Next, you can conduct a ribbon test to see how much loam is already present. This is a simple test that costs nothing.
It is a good idea to use several different samples to get a more accurate feel for your soil. [Sorry, I couldn’t resist!] If you cannot form a ribbon, your soil is predominantly sand. If your ribbon is longer than 1.5”, you have clay. If your ribbon is less than 1.5” long, you have loam.
In the soil textural triangle, you will see several different types of loam. Each type is described according to the presence of more sand, silt, or clay. Those types are called clay loam, sandy clay loam, sandy loam, silty clay loam, silty loam, and simply loam.
How to build loam
Your soil is the result of ancient bedrock beneath your feet, weather conditions, and hundreds of other variables you have no control over. Changing soil texture does not happen overnight, but there are several steps you can take to improve your soil’s texture. And there is one thing you should never do: if you have clay soil, do not add sand. You will simply create a bigger problem that looks and feels a lot like concrete. Instead, use these tips to improve your soil:
Each of these actions increase the amount of organic material in your soil. Organic material (living things and dead things) are what makes your soil nutrient rich and friable. These steps need to be done on a regular basis. The wood chips, compost, and other materials will eventually break down and become nutrients that are attached to soil particles and absorbed by your plants.
Every 3 to 5 years, send out soil samples for testing, to see just how well your soil is improving!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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