Growing Gardeners: Get to Know Your Soil

May 10, 2021 Updated: May 10, 2021

If you have been following along in our Growing Gardeners series, your seedlings should be healthy, with strong stems and multiple leaves. But before we can transplant them outside, we have to prepare their new home.

You know how important it is to have strong, healthy seedlings reaching for the sun. Too often, though, gardeners don’t recognize the link between the health of their plants and the health of their soil—and their own health, too. To produce nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables, your soil must be full of micronutrients that the plants can easily absorb in large amounts.

Talking about soil vitality isn’t the most exciting part of gardening, but it is really the most important part. You will need to create an environment in which your plants will thrive. To do this, you will need to manage your soil and what lives in it.

Soil Textures and Types

The building blocks of soil are sand, silt, and clay. You and your budding gardener can spend a little time feeling the soil in your garden and identifying the soil type.

Sandy soils have large particles that feel gritty to the touch. Water moves quickly through sandy soils, and along with the water, important nutrients quickly flow through and are lost.

Silts have finer particles than sandy soils. They pack together tightly, and can be really slick when wet and almost like powder when dry. You have seen silts being kicked into the air by kids as they shuffle their feet in the dirt.

Clay soil feels hard and rough when dry and slick or sticky when wet. Clay soils hold large reserves of moisture and drain slowly. When you are walking and see soil that has deep cracks in it during dry times, you are looking at clay soil.

Loam is the ideal soil for growing plants. It has an equal balance of the other three soil types, but is also rich in decomposed organic matter, humus. Loam soil looks like chocolate cake when you dig up a shovelful. It’s dark and rich in color, with plenty of air pockets and structure to hold water but also drains well enough to keep your plants from drowning.

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Taking the time to help your budding gardener learn about and process the types of soils, and mentally moving from the concept of dirt to soil, can have a lasting effect. (Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock)

Amending Your Soil

If you will be planting a container garden or a small raised bed, you can buy garden soil or raised bed soil at your home improvement store. Miracle-Gro makes a good product.

If you are planting an in-ground garden, note that your native soil will already have some mix of sand, silt, and clay. If it doesn’t have a lot of humus, you can improve it with soil amendments, such as compost or aged manure, from your home and garden store. Amending your soil should be done each year, to best provide your plants and the soil with the nutrients they need. Remember that we want loamy soil that looks like chocolate cake.

You don’t have to worry about trying to amend all the soil in your garden at once. It can also be done slowly over time, by amending only the areas you plan to plant, and then moving the placement of your plants each year.

Start by marking where you will be planting your seedlings, remembering that they will need adequate spacing. We love to use little kid measuring devices in the garden, like the length of a hand, foot, or arm. It’s not uncommon to see one of my children crouched down with face near the soil, measuring a distance from elbow to fingertip between holes. Refer to your seed packets for spacing recommendations, determine a good corresponding “measuring device,” and have fun with it.

In each spot, dig a hole about 8 inches in diameter and 8 inches deep. Fill that hole about half full of compost and half full of the soil that came out of the hole. Use your shovel to mix the compost and original soil together, breaking up any hard clumps of clay soil as you mix. When you transplant your seedlings into the garden, you will want to put them in the middle of these amended areas.

After we move our seedlings, we will talk about using a mulch layer to further increase the organic matter that you want to decay in your soil. This thick layer of leaves, grass clippings, wood chips, or even old newspapers will serve to protect the ecosystem that is your garden. It will help hold in moisture and insulate it from the sun’s heat. Additionally, mulch helps to deter weeds from growing in your garden—and who likes to pull weeds, anyway?

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You and your budding gardener need only take a walk through a wooded area to see how Mother Nature amends and protects the soil herself. (Shutterstock)

Keeping It Natural

If you do an adequate job of amending your soil with compost or aged manure, you shouldn’t have to add synthetic fertilizer. While liquid fertilizers or time-release granules might give your plants an initial boost, they can make your soil worse over the long run by killing beneficial organisms that live there. Those bugs, earthworms, fungi, and microorganisms all like the same growing conditions as your plants: soil that is moist (not wet or dry), well-aerated, and protected from the heat of the sun.

You and your budding gardener need only take a walk through a wooded area to see how Mother Nature amends and protects the soil herself. The forest floor is covered in decaying leaves and sticks that keep the soil moist and cool. With minimal digging, you can probably find small bugs or earthworms under the leaf litter or in the soil.

Taking the time to help your budding gardener learn about and process the types of soils, and mentally moving from the concept of dirt to soil, can have a lasting impact. For little ones, it might be useful for them to start by thinking about how they wash non-living dirt off their hands. Taking a minute to contrast that with soil that’s alive and is its own self-sustaining ecosystem can open up a world of discussion.

Matt Fowler, MBA, Ph.D., enjoys writing about his experiences at The Abundant Farm, an intentional farming operation in southeastern Illinois on the Crawfish Creek. The farm challenges the family in the building of a homestead by producing food, products, and character while teaching health and bounty to others.