Anyone hoping to set themselves up a garden needs to know a little about the soil they're going to be working with—but soil testing kits can look complex at first glance, and novice gardeners often aren't sure what to do with the information the kits provide. If you're just starting out and you'd like to learn more about the soil in your garden, here are the three main things you should be looking at.
#1: Clay, Sand or Loam?
The most basic test is also one of the most important—what composition does your garden's soil have? You can find this out quickly and easily by taking a handful of it, squeezing it and watching how it behaves. Clay soil will hold its shape and feel thick and sticky; this soil type has plenty of excellent nutrition for the plants that grow in it, but becomes waterlogged quite easily and can be slow to drain. Sandy soil will fall apart instantly when squeezed and has almost the opposite qualities of clay: it drains well, but as a result leeches nutrients and is difficult to keep well-watered. The sweet spot between the two is found in loam soil, which is more crumbly than sand while still being more pliable than clay. This soil type is widely regarded as the best for gardening, as it both drains reasonably well and holds moisture and nutrients adequately.
#2: Do you have worms?
Earthworms might not be pleasant to look at, but they're essential for the health of any garden. Worms move soil around as they go, which means they keep it clean, filled with tasty nutrients and constantly refilled with good, healthy bacteria and microbes essential for plant health. They're also a good indicator of the overall state of your soil; worms and plants have many of the same environmental and microbial requirements. To find out more about your garden's worm population, dig out a one-foot hole and search through it to count the worms before putting them all back where they belong. Ten or more worms indicates thriving underground life; any less than that and you might have a problem. The good news is that if you keep working your garden over a period of years, it will eventually return to peak health—and bring more earthworms with it.
#3: What's your soil's acidity level?
Testing pH isn't the be all and end all of understanding your soil—but it's still important information, if you know how to use it. You can buy the kits in any garden store or home centre, and the instructions are generally easy to follow and understand. Most plants grow best in a fairly neutral environment, so it's important to find out how your soil measures up. If the score is between six and seven, you have a winner. If it's lower than that, your soil is a bit more acidic than ideal; try mixing in some sulphur or aluminium sulphate to calm it down. You can buy bags in garden centres for just this purpose. If the score is higher than that, and you want to make it less alkaline—buy yourself a bag of lime and mix it in to even things out.