Play in the Dirt and Improve your Soil

Play in the Dirt and Improve your Soil

Healthy soil is a living entity with good structure from decaying organic matter, living microbes, plant roots, and the necessary nutrients. But how do you know if your soil is “good” and healthy?

Your home garden soil can be a variety of different structures consisting of clay, sand, and silt in various amounts.

  • Clay soils – Clay soils are heavy but high in nutrients; sticky when wet and easily clumped.
  • Sandy – Sandy soil is high-draining, light, and low in nutrients. Sandy soil is often on the more acidic side, as well as gritty and does not clump easily.
  • Silt – Silt soil is light, fertile, moisture-retentive, and easily compacted. Silt has a slippery texture and does not clump easily.
  • Loamy – Loam soil, considered ‘the ideal’ soil for growing, is a perfectly balanced mixture of clay, sand, and silt. Loam offers the benefits of the other soil types, with rich nutrients and nutrient retentive properties, while balancing drainage and water retention.

(Photo Credit: NESDIS/NOAA)

To improve your soil, it is best to first know what you’re working with. The easiest way is to move the soil in your hands to feel the texture. It is a great excuse to play in the dirt for a bit. Rub it in between your fingers, is it coarse and gritty? Silky like flour or slick and smooth when wet? Is it slick and sticky or drying in thick clumps? What is the color, or how dry does it feel the day after a heavy rain?

A good soil to plant in will feel crumbly, have some visible clumps, and may even have some leftover roots in it. Once you know what you are working with, we can build and improve the soil health.

The Jar Test

If you want a more exact measure for your soil’s composition, you can use the jar soil test to get an estimate for the percentage of each of these materials in your soil. Knowing your soil type can help you figure out what crops will thrive in your garden and how to make your soil a better place for plants to thrive.

This is an easy field test, though it takes a while to get the most accurate results:

Take a glass jar with a wide rim (a mason jar works well). Fill it up 1/3 with soil, and the rest of the way with water (leave about 1-2 inches at the top for air). You can use a mesh sieve or a colander to filter any rocks or large debris out of the soil before adding to the jar. Seal the jar and shake vigorously. You can then set the jar down and let the material settle for at least 2 hours, or overnight for the most accurate results.

Sand, being the heaviest, will settle at the bottom of the jar. Silt will then form a layer on top of the sand. Clay, being the lightest, will sit at the top layer, and will take the longest to settle. You can use the height of the total soil, and of the individual layers, to make an estimate for the percentage of each material in your soil, and you can use the USDA Soil Texture Triangle to figure out your exact soil type from there.

After the material is fully settled, grab a ruler and find out your soil’s composition.

Measure the total height of the settled material. Then, measure the height of each individual layer. Divide the length of the individual layers by the total height, then multiply this number by 100. This is the percentage of each material that is present in your soil.

USDA Soil Texture Triangle.


For Example:


As you can see here, the soil texture triangle reveals that the soil in our sample is clay loam! Hostas, daylilies, and bee balm are just a few of the varieties that thrive in clay loam soil. You can use this test to learn more about the plants that will thrive in your soil.

Knowing your soil type is important for understanding what plants will thrive best in your garden, but even if your garden doesn’t fall in the perfect soil type for the plants you want to grow, there are things you can do to support healthy growth for any garden.


What Your Soil Needs

No matter what kind of soil you have, organic matter will help to improve the overall texture. While clay, silt, and sand are soil components that come from eroded rocks and minerals, organic matter in your soil is derived from residue and decomposed matter that came from living things. Organic matter is an essential source of carbon and nutrients for plants, and allows plants to easily establish healthy root systems. It also acts as a home and a food source for soil microbiology! Organic matter is the most important component of healthy soil, and is often one of the first things that is destroyed when soil is subject to heavy manufacturing, tillage, and compaction.  

How can you add organic matter to your soil? There are a few solutions you can utilize to build up organic matter in soil, such as growing cover crops and using no-till gardening techniques. But an easy way to incorporate organic matter in your soil is to add compost!

Other Common Amendments for Organic Matter:

  • Shredded leaves
  • Composted matter
  • Peat moss
  • Humus

The best time of year to amend your soil with organic matter is in the fall to allow for the winter to help with decomposition over the winter months. However, compost will bring benefits to your soil, no matter the season. A spring application of compost can protect your lawn from summer heat and dry spells! The added organic matter will absorb water and improve retention, keeping your grass green throughout the season.

 Purple Cow Organics’ Activated Compost offers our classic plant-based compost, rock minerals, sea minerals, and worm castings. That means that rich organic matter is already included, along with necessary nutrients to give your plants a boost.

(Photo Credit: Purple Cow Organics)

For more information on learning about your soil, and how to create a better place to grow for your garden, contact our team of green-thumb experts!