Gardening tip: Getting down and dirty with soil

Next to weather and climate, the biggest influence on your plants is the soil they are planted in.  How your plant lives and thrives is pretty much determined by the soil.

Does it hold enough water?

Does it hold too much?

Is it the right PH for the plant?

Will hit hold it up right?

Are there enough nutrients in it?

These questions are really easy to answer and will help boost your plants potential.

When it comes to moisture control and the ability to hold the plant, a single test can determine both for you.

It’s called the ribbon test.

All you do is take a handful of soil from the area you want to put the plant and get it wet.  Not sloshy wet, but moist wet. You want that handful of soil to be like cookie dough or play dough.

Roll it up into your palm like you would with clay, so that it’s tubular, reminding you of a large Tootsie roll.

Then hold it in your hand and use your thumb to squeeze it against the middle of your first finger.

If the soil falls apart immediately upon squeezing, you have sandy or silty soil.  This soil will not retain water well and is less able to hold the plant correctly.  You want to add clay to it.

If it makes a ribbon about three inches long or longer, then you have clay soil.  This soil will hold water very well, but won’t let enough oxygen in, nor will it let roots grow.  Also, when dry, it will actually wick away moisture from the plant and act like a mini oven in the heat.  You’ll want to mix in some sand.

If the ribbon reaches an inch or two, then the soil is a good mix and considered a loam.  It will hold moisture well, hold the plant up right, and provide enough room for roots and oxygen.

What about PH?  What is PH?

PH is the acid or alkaline amount in the soil.

Why is it important?

Remember those Secret deodorant commercials?  “Strong enough for a man, PH balanced for a woman”?

Your plants are the same way.  They all want the strength of the soil to hold them against the wind, but they also want the PH to be personally adjusted for them.

So how do find this mysterious ingredient in your soil?

Well, you could go dig up soil from different areas and drive down to an agricultural extension agent and have them test it.


You can buy a test kit at your local garden/hardware/home improvement store.

After you buy the test, just follow the instructions and it will tell you the PH of your soil by color spectrum or number.

PH of 1 through 7 is acidic, 7 through 14 is alkaline.   6.5 to 7.5 are considered neutral.

“Great!”  You say, “I now know the PH of my soil, but it won’t work for the plant I want.  Now what?”

That’s easy.  Change it.

If the soil is too acidic, add lime.  If it’s too alkaline, add sulfur.  The instructions on the bag will tell you how much to use and the plant itself will tell you if it needs a little more and when.

These basic tests will help you know your soil and give your plants the best chance for a good start and great life.  Given the amount of money and time you’ll spend on plants alone, this little bit will  help make sure it’s spent well.