Knowing your soil type is very important, as it determines which plants will thrive and to choose the plants best suited to your garden.
There are six main types of soil: chalky, clay, loamy, peaty, sandy and silty. To test your soil, you need to 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. Watch our video guide to testing your soil texture.
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.
Most soils benefit from some improvement. You can improve soil by incorporating organic matter, such as manure or home-grown compost.
In addition to knowing your soil type, you’ll also need to check its pH. Find out how to check your soil pH.
Here’s how to identify the main soil types.
Stony, chalky soil in open palms
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. Find out more about plants for alkaline soils.
A ball of wet 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 flowering plants for clay soil.
Loamy soil held in cupped hands
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. It rolls into a ball easily, but won’t keep its shape as well as clay soil.
Trickling peaty soil between fingertips
Soils containing lots of peat are acidic and high in organic matter, but low in nutrients. 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.
Rubbing sandy soil between thumb and fingers
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 added organic matter to retain moisture and feed the plants. It’s gritty to touch. A rolled ball of sandy soil will crumble away easily. Discover plants for light and stony 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.