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Working With Different Soil Types

Published on October 2nd 2018

by ellie.white. All rights reserved

Understanding the soil type in your garden is key to making the most of your garden. Here's a quick guide to identifying your soil and making the most of it.


Clay soil often has a reddish colour to it and will clump together sticking to your shoes and shovel. It is slow to absorb water (often getting waterlogged) and slow to dry, however once dried you will usually find that it has large cracks on the surface.
Many people dread clay soil and many gardeners often curse it, but it can be a wonderful thing when worked with correctly!
  • Holds onto water, meaning less watering.
  • Rich in nutrients, meaning less fertilising.
  • When organic matter is added, it becomes an excellent growing medium.
  • Heavy when wet, making it hard to dig.
  • When it dries out, it becomes solid and is tough to break up.
  • The soil can also crack when dry.
  • Pour drainage.
Tips on working with clay soil
  • Clay soil should be worked on during the autumn or early winter when the ground is damp but not overly wet. Once winter rains start, the soil will become extremely difficult to work with and will become compact when walked on.
  • The best plants to use on clay soil are trees, shrubs, climbers and bulbs as they do not require frequent watering (Should also be planted in autumn if possible).
  • If you are want to lay a lawn on clay soil, it is a good idea to put a 7-15cm layer of sharp sand beforehand to stop waterlogging under the turf.
Improving the soil
  • Add plenty of organic matter! This can be manure, composted bark or leaf mulch which will not only give more nutrients to the soil but will help to make the soil more workable.
  • With trees and shrubs, you should add organic mulches which will help to prevent summer cracking and keep in more moisture.
  • Incorporate grit, sand or gravel to make the soil more workable.
  • Building raised beds can help to improve the drainage by encouraging water runoff. You should ideally make the beds so that you can reach the middles without having to stand on them, as this will cause you to compact the soil.


Sandy soil although not as dreaded as clay soil, is still not a favourite and can be another challenge to work. It's made of larger particles, so remarkably free draining meaning it is harder to keep it damp.
  • Warms up quickly in the spring and stays warm longer
  • When organic matter is added, it becomes a great medium to work with
  • Dries out quickly
  • Nutrients drain out quickly
  • When iron, humus and clay are washed down through the soil by rain and settle below the surface, they cause a hard waterproof layer called a soil pan.
  • Plant further apart, so there is more root space and soil for plants to feed on.
  • Mulch around plants to hold as much moisture in as you can.
  • It's best to dig in spring.
Improving the soil
  • To improve your sandy soil, you will need to add mulch or compost.
  • If you are looking for a more permanent solution then "Biochar" may be a good idea for you. Biochar is charcoal that is used to improve the soil properties. It can increase water retention and creates habitats for beneficial microbes.


There are a few types of chalk soils, from gravelly to clay. To find out if you have chalky soil, use a pH test, chalk soil is alkaline (pH 7.1-8.0). You can also test it by adding a lump of soil to some vinegar and seeing if it froths, if so then you have calcium carbonate (chalk). You can also identify by eye, as chalky soils will have lumps of white stones or sometimes flint.
  • Less likely to flood or become waterlogged.
  • They warm up quickly in the spring and stay warm longer.
  • When manure or fertilisers are added the soil becomes a great medium for growing all sorts of plants.
  • Can be hard to work with as lots of large stones can be found in the soil.
  • Dries out quickly in the summer.
  • Poor nutrient content.
  • Mulching around plants will help to keep in moisture.
  • Avoid acid loving plants as they are less likely to survive.
Improving the soil
  • Make sure to dig in lots of organic matter to improve both the quality of the soil and the nutritional content.
  • Mulching around plants will help to keep in moisture and slowly adjust the soil to be a better growing medium over time.


Loam is by far the best type of soil that you can have in a garden. It is made up of loam, clay and sand giving it all the main factors that you look for in a quality soil. The texture is porous, yet drains enough not to become waterlogged. It will crumble in your hand rather than stick, which allows the soil to stay aerated and high in nutrients.
  • Well-draining
  • Water retentive
  • Rich in nutrients
  • Loose enough for roots to grow through easily
  • It takes time and work to get a loam soil, meaning you have to put in the hours and effort!
Making your soil into loam
Clay soil - Add in some organic matter and dig it over, this will help to break the clay lumps apart and make the soil warmer.
Sandy and Chalk - Again, add in some organic matter to the soil to help it retain more water. Fertilisers are recommended to be used to give your plants an extra boost at first.
With loam soil, it is essential that you add organic matter regularly to keep it happy and healthy! Lucky you if you have it!!
Good luck and happy digging!

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