Different soil types have their pros and cons. While your backyard soil may be just fine as is for native plants and vegetables, most soils need a little help from amendments, like organic matter and minerals, to make it suitable for non-indigenous plants.
The first step in making your soil more fertile is figuring out what it’s made of. the most common soil components are sand, silt, clay and organic matter. When these are all present in the perfect proportions, you have loam—the king of garden soil.
You can do a simple, non-scientific test to split your soil into layers so you can identify how much you have of the different parts. This test will not provide you with pH levels or other information, but it provides a good estimate for what you need to do to improve drainage and nutrient content.
Soil Test Procedure:
Dig a 4-inch hole and remove about 1/4 cup of soil. Mix the soil with 2 cups of water and a couple drops of dishwashing liquid in a 1-quart glass jar. Shake the jar vigorously for one minute, then let the contents settle completely (this could take 12 or so hours). The soil will separate into layers as follows:
- Coarse sand on the bottom
- Silt on top of the sand
- Clay rests on silt (and some may be suspended in the liquid)
- Organic matter rises to the top.
To put soils in perspective, good loam contains about 2/5 sand, 2/5 silt and a thin layer of clay.
Once you know what your soil is made of, use compost or other amendments to make it looser, more nutritious or better draining.