The Dirt On Garden Soil Testing for Drainage, Soil Type and PH

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Testing and amending your garden's soil is one of the key components to ensuring success. By understanding the relationship different types of plants have to your soil, you can choose the right plants for your garden.

Garden Soil: The Foundation of Your Garden

Nothing affects the character of your landscape more than the soil on which it grows. Plants are greatly influenced by the soil. Many of them are adaptable to a range of different soil types, while other plants have specific soil preferences.

Sand and clay are the most difficult soil types in which to grow plants. The extremes of drainage and nutrient content demand that plants be specifically adapted to either sand or clay. Plants that like clay will seldom grow well in sand, and sand lovers will almost never survive in clay.

Some plants are very closely associated with specific soil minerals. When you see the spectacular yellow flowered spikes of Stanleya (Prince's Plume) growing in its Western habitat, you can be sure that the soil contains elevated levels of selenium.

Match Plants to Your Garden's Soil Type

It's very important that you know about the soil in your yard to help you find the right plants for your garden. The three most important facts you'll want to know can be learned by answering these three questions:

  1. What type of soil is in your garden?
  2. How well does the soil drain?
  3. Is the pH alkaline or acidic?

The next time you are out looking for new plants, knowing these three key factors will help you narrow your focus to the plants that best match your soil type, soil pH, and its rate of drainage. Your long-term success in the garden will be greatly increased by understanding the relationship different types of plants have to the soil in your yard, and how to amend your soil if necessary.

Trees and large-growing shrubs must be a match for your soil. Because their roots spread out so widely and deeply, it's impossible to amend such a huge volume of soil to make a significant change. So, if you have heavy clay, select clay-loving trees and shrubs. On the other hand, when growing annual and perennial flowers, the soil in a flowerbed can be amended to significantly improve drainage, the soil's pH, and nutrient levels in the soil. First, you will need to know how to test the soil for drainage, soil type, and pH.

Conduct a Perk Test for Soil Drainage

Because drainage (the rate at which water moves via gravity down through the soil) is so critical to the successful cultivation of plants, this is the first thing you should learn about your soil. Here is a good website that demonstrates a very simple method for determining your soil's rate of percolation (perk test).

Knowing your rate of percolation will tell you whether or not you have "well drained soil." If your soil is not well drained, you can improve the rate of percolation in flower beds by amending it or creating raised beds in which to plant.

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If your soil is not well drained, you can improve the rate of percolation in flower beds by amending it, creating raised beds in which to plant, or use the natural landscape to create terraces for better drainage.

What's Your Soil Type?

There are four basic types of soil (sand, loam, silt, or clay) and a seemingly infinite number of combinations. One basic test that the home owner can use to determine soil type is to mix some soil with water in a large glass jar, shake it, let it settle, and measure the layers. But because soil types are often blended, this can make the test difficult for the average non-soil scientist to get a definitive answer, so I recommend having a soil lab run a soil test to determine your soil type and pH level. The lab results should also provide recommendations for how to amend your soil type and pH.

It should be noted that all the plants in the High Country Gardens line-up do well in alkaline soil. Alkalinity is the prevailing soil pH in the Western US, where a large number of HCG's customers are located, and most alkaline-tolerant plants do well in acidic soils. But acid-loving plants will never do well in alkaline soils, which is why we do not propagate any plants that require an acid pH. We also have soil recommendations for all the products in our catalog and on the product pages on our website. For instance, Agastache Desert Solstice is recommended for Low Fertility and Well-Drained Soil (scroll down to the details), whereas Delosperma Red Mountain® Flame is recommended for Sandy Soil, Average Soil, Low Fertility Soil, and Well-Drained Soil.

Below is a guide to help you navigate the recommended soil descriptions in which each plant will do best.

An Explanation of the HCG Soil Recommendations

The HCG catalog and website both have general soil recommendations in the product details. Also, if you are using the website, you can use the filters on the left side bar on the major category pages (Perennials, Flower Bulbs, etc.) and filter by soil type to narrow your search to plants that are appropriate for your soil. You can also use these filters to search by your zone, planting season, bloom time, and a variety of other planting preferences. To help you understand what each of our soil recommendations refers to, we have included a description for each one below.

Low Fertility, Well-Drained Soil

  • Typical western soils that have very low levels of organic content (low fertility) and dry out quickly after a rain.
  • Limestone derived soils which can be found in pockets across most of the US.
  • Sandy and/or rocky soils in wetter climates are also considered to be a low fertility, well drained soil.

Compost Enriched Garden Loam

  • A range of soils from sandy-loam to loamy-clay.
  • Soils that have been enriched over time with compost and other natural amendments to enhance fertility and drainage.

Most Soil Types Including Clay

  • Indicates that the plant is a soil generalist.
  • Plants will also do well in clay or clay blends, as long as it is not planted a low spot that collects water or where the clay stays wet.
  • Plants that are particularly well suited to clay soils are often called out in the descriptive text.

If you have further questions about soil types or the right plants for your soil, feel free to contact us by email, phone, or live chat. We want to help our customers grow successful gardens, and our friendly gardening experts are happy to help.

Text by David Salman.

© All articles are copyrighted by High Country Gardens. Republishing an entire High Country Gardens blog post or article is prohibited without permission. Please feel free to share a short excerpt with a link back to the article on social media websites, such as Facebook and Pinterest.

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