New gardeners often complain about their soil. They say it dries out quickly, or that it is waterlogged, that it is sticky and heavy on the spade, or that it is so stony that they can’t get a spade into it.
Well, soils do vary, and perhaps the new gardeners do have legitimate complaints at times. But there is one important point for them to remember, and that is that all soils are capable of improvement, and if their grumbles continue on into the second and third years of cultivation, they are placing themselves in the same street as the housewife who complained to the tailor that she had sewn on the buttons on her husband’s coat half a dozen times, and there must be something wrong with them, because they just wouldn’t stay on!
However, before the gardener can attack the soil problem in the best manner, he must find out just what variety of soil he has to deal with in the new garden. At the same time he might study the drainage conditions. To do this the best way is to go out on the plot, and with a spade, if possible, or with a large digging fork, dig a hole about a foot square; preferably dig several holes in different parts of the garden.
If the garden is fairly level, it is not likely that the soil will vary greatly from one corner to another, but in a large garden or one on a steep slope, there might be two distinct types of soil. Such a condition would be rather a stroke of luck for the gardener, as soils of opposite characteristics mixed together give the ideal condition spoken of by professional gardeners as “medium loam.”
However, roughly speaking, most gardens will have soil that falls into one of two categories, i.e., light or heavy, or if you prefer, sandy or clayey. Light soil is soil of the kind that does not readily stick in lumps on the spade, and does not hold much water, so that its weight is light (not its colour, which has nothing to do with this matter). Heavy soil clings together in sticky lumps, or sets into concrete in dry weather and then cracks. As it holds moisture, it weighs heavily on the spade. Generally, it is impossible to dig this type of soil with a spade until it has been first broken with a digging fork.
WHAT ARE CLAY AND SAND?
The actual difference between these two types is not so much a matter of chemical content as of the size of the particles which make up the soil. The soil that you will find in a garden consists of weathered rock, which has gradually been broken down through the centuries into small grains or particles, varying from about 0.002 mm. In diameter to 2 mm., the smaller particles being those of clay soils and the larger particles those of coarse sand. In addition to these there are, of course, larger stones, such as those that are found in gravel, and the large flints found in chalk, etc.
There is also, in many soils, a good proportion of lime, and humus. Humus is the decaying animal or vegetable matter in the soil. Water and various gases are present, too, and the mineral content of the soil is considerable and somewhat varied according to the type of rock from which the soil has been produced by weather action.