I am currently taking a Soil Science class and also a corresponding Soil Science lab...
We have done some pretty fun things that may be good for you to try in determining what to do with your soil for this spring/ summer planting. Many of the experiments require hazardous chemicals, sweet lab goggles and machinery that few to none have at home... so I will just tell you about one of the more simple experiments.. maybe something to be done with your kids or family.
Soil texture is defined by the proportionate quantity of sand, silt and clay in the soil. These three components make up soil, and determining their percentages will tell you what kind of soil you are working with. Sand particles are the largest of the 3 ranging from 2.0- .05 mm. Silt particles span from .05- .002 mm and finally clay particles are anything smaller than .002 mm. But none of us have a microscope to measure such sizes... so I will show you how to do what is called "Soil Ribbons".
1. Go into your yard and find a sample of soil that doesn't have any pebbles, rocks, roots, mulching, etc.
You will want about a handful to give yourself enough to work with.
2. Moisten and knead an amount of soil about the size of a golf ball into a moldable condition.
3. Feed the soil between your thumb and forefinger to form a ribbon. Allow the ribbon to be suspended over the forefinger until it breaks off.
4. Measure the length of the broken ribbon pieces.
5. Repeat to confirm results.
The length of the ribbon depends on the clay content of the soil.
Using the soil texture diagram you can find different combinations of the three factors (sand, silt, clay).
-A loam soil will produce ribbons less than 1 inch.
-A clay loam will make ribbons between 1 and 2 inches.
-Clay soils will produce ribbons longer than 2 inches.
Another more simple experiment to do is to find the texture by feel.
1. Again you will want to get a small amount of soil in your hand and some water in a cup.
2. Moisten the soil until it is easily movable and quite wet.
3. With the wet soil in your palm, use your finger from your other hand and stir it up gently.
4. Pay attention to how the soil feels. You are looking for one of 3 feelings.
A. Gritty feel- sandy soil
B. Smooth feel- Silty soil
C. Sticky feel- Clayey soil
Now what do I do?
Once you have discovered what kind of soil you have, you need to determine whether to leave it, or how to enhance it. Many different diagnosis can be done, if you live near a university or a large soil lab (and you are very serious about your yard), you can get a soil analysis done which will give you results of many different categories, followed by specific recommendations.
We often laugh in class because we always know the right answer... to be honest... almost every answer when it comes to "how can i improve my soil?" is "ADD ORGANIC MATTER". As simple as it may sound, organic matter brings life to your soil and is a cure-all-remedy.
Organic matter will improve:
-soil texture- giving you more pore space for leaching of harmful elements, also allowing more air filled space to bring oxygen to your roots. Better drainage will result as well, keeping your plants from having root rot.
-soil pH will balance to a healthy and stable level
-available nutrients- organic matter is full of them
How do I get organic matter?
Dead and decaying life- Compost is a great way to get nutrients into your soil. Keep fruit/ vegetable scraps in a container and periodically empty it into your soil and be sure to stir it in very well mixing it with the existing soil. The more surface area you can get to touch your addition, the faster it will decompose. Also be sure that the soil will receive sunlight or some form of heat, this speeds up the process as well.
-Living organisms- Bring in the worms. If you have little boys, they might love this project if you are scared of them. Worms are a great way to get your soil to improve. They move aroundand keep the soil aerated, they bring life to your soil and help slow erosion.
-Other additions- Is your husband/ are you a woodworker? Sawdust is an excellent way to add organic matter. Run to a local hardware store and see if you can round up their collected sawdust. Sprinkle it over your soil and mix it in. Being so finely ground, this is a great addition that decomposes very rapidly. You all know the color of potting soil for potted plants.... that rich dark brown/ black color is what you are searching for. If your budget is large, you can always load wheelbarrows full of rich soil and spread it throughout.
-Ask someone locally- Soils vary throughout the world extensively. Alkaline, acidic, sandy, clayey, etc. A local professional will be able to diagnose your soil just from some basic information provided through the experiments above.