Knowing which soil textures are outside your own back door helps you choose the right plants for your garden or, if necessary, plan for the best amendments. Analysing your soil texture doesn't need to be done in a laboratory, however. A handful of wet dirt and a little how-to knowledge reveals your soil's components -- sand, silt, clay or a combination of all three.
The most basic test is also the most hands-on. Wet a small area of average soil and remove any large rocks or twigs. Scoop up a sample in your hand, rubbing the damp earth between your fingers. Silt-based soil, due to the small, even texture, has a smooth but not sticky feel. Sandy soil, with its larger particles, feels rough or gritty, while clay-based soil clings and sticks to your fingers.
Similar to the feet test, the ribbon test also starts with wet soil. Gather a generous amount of mud in your hand and make a fist, squeezing a ribbon of soil up past your thumb. A short, 1-inch long ribbon of soil with a gritty texture indicates a sandy soil, while a short but smooth-textured ribbon is silt-based. Longer, 2 to 3-inch-long ribbons indicate sticky, clay-based soil. Be aware, however, that a little clay goes a long way; even less than 25 per cent clay gives soil a sticky texture.
Again, start with damp, but not muddy, soil. Squeeze a handful of soil in your hand to make a ball, and poke or move it with your other hand. The larger particles of sandy soils fall apart quickly, while medium-textured, silt-based or loamy soil gives under pressure but generally holds together. Clay-based soil won't easily fall apart.
The jar test is the most time-consuming method but also the most accurate. Laboratories and your county extension use similar methods to test soil, but you can do the test in your kitchen. Take 1 to 2 cups of dry soil and break it up as much as possible, removing debris. Put 1 cup of the soil in a quart jar and add roughly 2 cups of water, until the jar is 3/4 full. Add 1 teaspoon of dishwasher detergent, fit the jar with a tight lid and shake it for 3 to 10 minutes or until the soil is completely mixed with the water. Set the jar down and, after 60 seconds, measure the first sediment layer -- this is the sand. After two hours, measure the next layer, the silt. Measure the third layer, clay, only after the water clears -- this may take 24 hours to a week or more. This gives you your soil's ratio of sand, silt and clay.
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