The Online Gardener's Handbook
Chapter 3: A Word about Soil
The Nature of Soil
Table of Contents
- Minerals and Soil Texture
- Soil Structure
- Organic Matter
- Clay Colloids
- Soil Fertility
- Soil pH
- Soluble Salts
- Learn More
Minerals and Soil Texture
The mineral component of a soil is made up of clay, silt and sand,
often referred to as fine, medium and coarse size particles respectively.
The percentage of each of these determines the texture of a soil.
- Clay soils contain a larger percentage of clay (fine) particles.
- Loam soils contain a balanced proportion of sand, silt and clay
- Sandy soils contain mostly sand (coarse) particles.
Soil texture is difficult to change. It is a basic soil property.
However, if yours is a heavy clay garden soil, you can slowly alter
its texture by adding sand and organic matter such as compost, manure
or peat moss over successive seasons.
Soil structure refers to the way soil particles cling to each other
in clumps or aggregates. A well-structured soil contains small aggregates
and is easy to work. Each aggregate holds water and nutrients, and
the air between the aggregates allows excess water to drain away.
Poor soil structure reduces root growth of seedlings, making them
more susceptible to drought. It also results in soil compaction
after rain or when walked on, and this leads to poor water penetration
and a lack of oxygen. Plants that grow in such soil are smaller,
less vigorous, more prone to drought and lower yielding than those
grown in healthier soil.
Good soil crumbles when forked or spaded. If a soil breaks into
blocky clods with flat surfaces and sharp corners, soil structure
is poor. You can improve your soil's structure by adding organic
material such as peat moss, manure or compost. It is also a good
idea to seed a garden with grass if it has been under cultivation
for several years and the soil breaks into clods. Grass has an extensive
root system that grows throughout the top 15 cm layer of soil and
breaks up the clods. The roots also release substances that promote
the bonding of smaller aggregates. In addition, grass roots, shoots
and clippings provide plenty of organic matter to improve soil structure.
To achieve the best results, a garden should remain seeded for two
to three years.
Matter in soil is mainly decayed plant material. In most soils,
it accounts for up to 10% of the mixture. Soils with 17% or more
of their weight as organic matter are called organic soils. Generally,
the darker the soil, the higher the organic matter content.
Organic matter plays an important role in soil structure. It acts
as a cementing agent to bind soil particles together. It is also
the most chemically active component of soil and is a source of
The surface of organic matter contains exchange sites that attract
and hold plant nutrients. As nutrients are removed from the soil
by plant roots, they are replenished by nutrients from these exchange
sites. When fertilizer is applied, the exchange sites are saturated,
creating a reservoir of nutrients for future use.
A garden that is cultivated year after year without the regular
addition of compost or manure soon begins to lose organic matter.
Over time, the soil becomes tight and compacts very easily. The
quality of plant growth is reduced.
Like organic matter, clay colloids act as reservoirs of plant nutrients.
The glue like minerals (colloid means glue) hold onto nutrients
and release them into the soil as plant roots take up nutrients
and water. A productive soil, therefore, should contain a balance
of organic matter and clay.
Soil fertility is an important part of good lawn and
garden management. Good fertility promotes plant growth, reduces
the susceptibility of plants to insect and disease damage, improves
drought tolerance and reduces weed populations in lawns. Usually,
fertility problems are easily corrected. However to ensure successful
gardening, it is also important to:
- select the most suitable plant varieties;
- control insects, diseases and weeds; and
3. provide adequate water and light
Soil pH is a measure of the acidity or alkalinity of a soil. A
pH of 7.0 is neutral. A pH below 7.0 is acidic and above 7.0 is
alkaline. Soil pH has an important effect on the availability of
many nutrients. As the soil becomes more basic (high pH), the availability
of nutrients such as iron and manganese is reduced. Most plants
grow well in soils with pH values of 6.0 to 7.5. However, some plants
such as Rhododendron, Azalea, heathers, blueberries, and pin oak
require acid soils and only grow well below pH 5.5. In most of Southern
Ontario, soils are neutral to alkaline, though there are areas where
soils are too acidic for optimum growth of most plants. Many soils
on the Canadian Shield are low in pH.
You can get a general idea of your soil's pH by using pH strip
papers that change colour to reflect pH levels. A low pH condition
can be corrected by adding agricultural dolomitic limestone to the
soil. Because of the chemical nature of high alkaline soils, however,
it is very difficult to do the opposite and lower a high pH condition.
Success can be achieved on medium and course textured soils with
the addition of sulphur. If your soil has a high pH, and you wish
to grow ericaceous plants and blueberries, it is best to build raised
beds or to excavate the existing soil and replace it with a mixture
of peat moss, composted bark or oak leaves and sandy topsoil. Sulphur
should be incorporated into the soil mix and added yearly to keep
the pH low.
Soluble salts are dissolved mineral ions in the soil. Some occur
naturally, some come from fertilizers and some are the result of
the decomposition of manure, mushroom compost or similar organic
matter. Ontario soils are naturally low in soluble salts. Where
the level of soluble salts is high, there have usually been excessive
applications of fertilizers, manure or mushroom compost.
High concentrations of soluble salts can affect seed germination
and plant growth. When soluble salts increase, water absorption
by plant roots decreases, because the water is held in the soil
with greater force. When salt levels are high, plants suffer abiotic
Wilting of plants during the brightest and warmest times of day
even though the soil may be moist is usually the first symptom of
a high salt content. Plant growth will also be reduced, and leaves
often appear small and dark green. As salt levels continue to increase,
the tips and edges of leaves burn, and the root system is damaged.
Plant growth is affected most under higher temperatures and low
moisture periods. Damage from soluble salts does not include roadside
salt spray damage to trees and shrubs.
Some plants such as begonias, impatiens, cucumbers and lettuce,
are more sensitive to soluble salts than others. Seedlings are more
sensitive than older plants, and will die if soluble salts are excessive.
Soluble salts can be measured in the laboratory by measuring the
electrical conductivity of a soil-water slurry. Table 7 provides
an interpretation of soil conductivity readings in a 2:1 water:soil
paste, the procedure recommended by the OMAFRA accredited soil testing
Table 7. Soil Conductivity (soluble salts)
| Conductivity mS/cm
|| Plant Response
||Suitable for most plants if recommended fertilizers
||Same as above
||May reduce emergence and cause slight
to severe damage to salt sensitive plants
||May prevent emergence and cause slight
to severe damage to most plants