Find out your soil type

Your soil type determines which plants you can grow, and knowing your soil type enables to you to choose the plants best suited to your garden. Soil type is identified the presence of clay, sand and silt. The ideal soil (loam) has equal amounts of all three, which make a fertile, free-draining soil that's easy to dig.

There are six main types of soil: chalky, clay, loamy, peaty, sandy and silty. To test your soil, take a look at it and feel it. Add water and try rolling it between your hands. Observe how your soil looks and feels, and whether it's sticky, gritty, friable, or slimy.

Heavy soil – such as clay soil – is made up of small particles, which bind together easily, making the soil prone to waterlogging. Light soil – such as sandy soil – is made up of large particles, so is free draining and prone to leaching nutrients. You can improve soil by incorporating organic matter, such as manure or home-grown compost. It helps bind large particles together, helping retain moisture, but also increases the size of smaller particles, aiding drainage. Grit or sharp sand will also aid drainage of heavy soils.

Depending on the size of your plot, test the soil from different areas, as it can vary enormously. If possible, create main planting areas where the soil is good, saving poorer conditions for hard landscaping, where soil quality is less important.


Chalky soil

Chalky soil is alkaline, stony and free draining, as it often overlays a chalk or limestone bedrock. Minerals such as iron and manganese will quickly leach out of the soil, but this can be remedied to an extent by regularly adding fertiliser. Chalky or lime-rich soil may be light or heavy.

Clay soil

Clay soil warms up slowly in spring and goes hard and cracks when dry. It also drains poorly. Although it's hard to dig, it's very high in nutrients. It feels lumpy, slimy and sticky when wet. It rolls into a ball easily and stays in shape. Find out more about flowers, shrubs and trees for clay soil.

Loamy soil

Loam is the perfect soil type, as it's easy to work, is not too free draining or prone to waterlogging, and is packed with nutrients. It also warms up quickly in spring. Loam is made up of a mixture of clay, sand and silt, which each have differently sized soil particles. This means the soil has an open structure, allowing air to circulate between the particles, keeping it healthy. If squeezed, loam holds together but doesn't stick together like the fine particles of clay. It rolls into a ball easily, but won't keep its shape as well as clay soil.

Peaty soil

Soils containing lots of peat are acidic and high in organic matter, but low in nutrients. A peaty soil holds plenty of moisture and can get waterlogged, but it's ideal for growing acid lovers such as rhododendrons and azaleas. Peaty soil is dark in colour and feels spongy if squeezed. It's rarely found in gardens.

Sandy soil

Sandy soil is free draining, easy to work and warms up quickly in spring. However it dries out rapidly and leaches nutrients when it rains, so it needs plenty of organic matter adding to help retain moisture and feed the plants. It's gritty to touch as it's made up of larger particles than silty or clay soil. A rolled ball of sandy soil will crumble away easily.

Silty soil

Silty soil is made from quite fine particles, so is free draining but also retains moisture. It's also higher in nutrients than sandy soil. It can get compacted easily. Silty soil is smooth to the touch. It rolls into a ball easily, but won't keep its shape as well as clay soil.


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