How many of us actually know much about soil - the key ingredient necessary to make our gardens flourish?

According to new research1 from WRAP’s (the Waste & Resources Action Programme) Know Your Compost Campaign, it seems that most of us know very little about our garden’s most important resource:

  • only 31% know what type of soil they have in their garden;
  • only half of those with a garden are aware of the difference between subsoil and topsoil;
  • 32% wouldn’t have a clue how to find out what kind of soil they have in their garden; and
  • only one in four (23%) know how to tell if their soil is healthy.
Spring is an important time for gardeners, and with Easter fast approaching many of us might be thinking of making the most of the Bank Holiday and spending some serious time in our gardens. The Know Your Compost Campaign is urging householders to get a timely grip on their gardens and make sure their most valuable garden asset is kept healthy and full of vitality, by treating their soil with peat-free soil conditioners containing recycled materials.

Maggie Newton, Head of the Know Your Compost Campaign at WRAP, commented: 

“One in five (19%) people with gardens have noticed certain types of plants won’t grow there, but aren’t sure why that is – if they knew their soil type, and how they could improve its structure with the use of organic matter such as compost, they may well be able to rectify that.

“A perfect way to do this is by using soil conditioners which contain recycled garden material – such as grass cuttings, prunings and leaves – a rich source of natural organic matter.  As an alternative, people can also make their own effective soil conditioners by home composting their kitchen and garden waste.”

How healthy is your soil?
There are some simple things to look out for that can help show how healthy your soil is:

·        How well do your plants grow? Four major nutrients are needed for healthy soil (Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium and Magnesium) and any deficiencies might show themselves with symptoms such as leaves turning yellow, stunted growth or reduced flowering.

·        If soil is left bare, it can suffer from wind and water erosion, damaging soil structure and removing valuable topsoil, leaving it looking dry and lacklustre. Compost can be incorporated to improve the structure, allowing plant roots to penetrate the soil more easily to find water and nutrients. Adding a soil conditioner also helps water to be retained longer after rainfall without waterlogging.

·        A sign of healthy soil is the presence of worms - in fact soil without any worm activity is likely to be quite poor quality. Worms create good texture and drainage and also help to incorporate organic matter into the soil.

Getting to know your soil
Soil contains organic matter, air and water, and three other components – clay, silt and sand – in varying quantities. The texture of the soil is dictated by the mixture and proportion of these components.

Your topsoil, which is the one to two feet nearest the surface, is likely to fall into one of five texture categories: loam (the best); chalk; silt; clay; and sand.

You can send your soil away for analysis, but there are some simple tests you can do yourself that can help identify it. Further information on these is available at in the ‘how healthy is your soil’ section.

Know Your Compost
No matter what your soil type, every garden can benefit from the digging in of organic matter, which can be found in good quality recycled compost. Few soils will naturally have sufficient organic matter, but only 39% of people with gardens currently use soil conditioners.

“Organic matter is vital to all soils for a variety of reasons,” explains Maggie Newton. “Firstly, it allows essential nutrients to be released. Secondly, it improves the soil structure, allowing the roots to penetrate and ensuring that water and air filter through effectively. It also aids water retention, meaning less watering for you! Where possible, choose a soil conditioner that contains recycled garden material. This helps cut down the amount of waste sent to landfill and gets really good results too.”

“It’s impossible to over condition your soil – the natural processes which take place mean soil conditioner is rapidly incorporated. So there’s no excuse for not doing it regularly throughout the year to make sure your plants are kept healthy and happy!”

Many garden centres now stock a good choice of reduced peat and peat-free products, including soil conditioners that contain recycled garden waste.  It’s also worth checking out your local council’s recycling centre, as increasing numbers of these sell good quality soil conditioners as a result of recycling local garden waste.


This is the most common type of soil, and if it’s managed correctly, by adding plenty of organic matter such as compost, can be one of the best. Clay soil has a very small particle size and may appear shiny and feel a bit lumpy when wet, whilst it’s rock hard when dry. It retains water well (a little too well at times), and holds a lot of nutrients. The addition of compost can help maintain the water retaining ability of the soil, whilst allowing better drainage and air circulation.
Slimy and stays in a solid clump even when released
Clay soils will leave a murky water and take quite a while to settle in a thin layer
Hardy shrubs and perennials like Aster, Laburnum, Malus, Potentilla
Sandy soil can feel gritty to the touch as it has a large particle size. It warms quickly in Spring, but because it drains water a little too well, it can get very dry. This can also wash away key nutrients, which should be put back by using a good quality compost, incorporating recycled green waste. It can also be vulnerable to erosion, so compost can also help improve the soil structure.
Gritty and crumbly
Sandy soil will quickly sink to the bottom and leave a clear water
Wisteria, Genista, shrubs, such as Hibiscus or Broom and tulips
This type of soil can often contain lots of stones, and can lack some of the key minerals – which may show with poor plant growth or yellow leaves. Additional minerals should therefore be added by using compost or fertilisers. It can also be very alkaline, leaving gardeners unable to grow some of the more acidic-loving plants such as magnolias.
Tend to be quite stony
Chalk will turn the water a grey colour and will leave a layer of white, gritty particles on the bottom
Dianthus, Clematis, Hypericum, Lilys and Lilac Trees
This is the ideal type of soil, retaining water well, full of nutrients and perfect for planting! If you find a house with this type of soil – get moving!
Will feel quite smooth and may leave an impression of a fingerprint
Loam will form a layered sedimentation on the bottom of the jar, with a fairly clear water above
Just about anything!
Silt has a small particle size, making it smooth to the touch, with good drainage and nutrients. It can have a poor structure, leading to it becoming easily compacted, and losing nutrients, so introducing compost to improve these is a good idea.
Will feel quite smooth and may leave an impression of a fingerprint
will leave murky water and take quite a while to settle in a thin layer
Climbers, such as the oriental vine, Abelia, Virburnum, Pyrus

*The Wet Touch Test – simply grab a handful of damp soil from your garden.
**The Water Test – stir a handful of soil into a large vase of water. Leave for two hours and then observe.


Sculptures | Garden Design in Suffolk | All Part of My Website Ltd.