Preparing for Your First Organic Garden: Soil Considerations

Preparing for Your First Organic Garden: Soil Considerations
So you've decided to try your hand at organic gardening. While it will be hard work and time consuming, the rewards far exceed the cost. It pays however to enter into the art and practice of organic gardening with an open and informed mind.

One of the first things to consider when starting your organic garden is the characteristics of your soil. This will help determine which plants will thrive in your garden, how you need to care for them, and what you need to do to alter the environment to create the best garden you can. Thankfully, most everything you need to know can be described in four characteristics: drainage, existing vegetation, color and texture. This article will give you an introduction to these characteristics, and what they can mean for you and your garden.


A soil's drainage is it's ability to move water through the soil, and away from the plants in question. Most plants require a well drained soil. While there are some exceptions, most plants do not do well in a situation where their roots are constantly inundated or flooded with water. Therefore it's important to determine the drainage rate of the soil in your proposed garden. The most effective way to do this requires a shovel, a watch, and three buckets of water. Start by digging a hole in your garden, approximately 1 foot deep. Take the first bucket of water and fill the whole, and record how long it takes for the water to completely drain from the hole. Wait five minutes and fill the pit again with the second and third buckets, recording the time it takes for complete drainage in both the second and third case. Then average the results.

The faster the drainage rate, the more well drained your soil is. If the rate is between 0 and 4 minutes, the soil is considered to be excessively well drained and plants may require more frequent watering. If it takes between 5 and 15 minutes to drain, it's still considered to be well drained, and most plants will thrive in this environment. Soils that take between 16 and 30 minutes to drain are considered moderately well drained, and still may be considered good choice for a number of different vegetation. If the soil takes longer than 30 minutes to drain it is most likely bordering on a poorly drained soil, and some alterations may be needed to encourage proper drainage.

Existing Vegetation

It is important to remember that your garden is a complex system of interactions between the plants, animals, soil, water and air. Look at the area that you want to use for your garden now. What is thriving there? Is it primarily grass? Or does it have a robust selection of weeds? Also, you'll need to dig down and look at the first six inches of soil. What kinds of bugs and worms do you find there? Are the roots strong and pliable? These are both signs of a healthy and vibrant soil.

Soil Color

Another great indicator of the quality of your soil is its color. In fact, the color can indicate how well its drained, its organic content, and even it's overall chemistry. If your soil is black, dark brown or a dark red, that indicates that the soil is well drained and has a relatively high organic content. If the soil is blue green or gray that is usually a sign that the soil is poorly drained and may have an anaerobic chemistry. Finally if the soil color is primarily yellow, the soil is probably very poorly drained. Also be a look out for mottling and streaking in the soil-- that may be an indication of seasonal drainage problems.

Soil Texture

Finally take a look at the texture of the soil. The texture of the soil can give you an indication of the soil type, it's overall drainage. For the most part, soil texture can be defined by three different extremes - sandy silty and clayey. What's more, the soil texture can be easily determined simply by picking up a handful of soil.

Start by running your soil between your fingers. Does it feel gritty to the touch? Then it's primary composition will be sand. A smooth feeling is indicative of silt, and clay has a slightly sticky texture. Next is the ball squeeze test. Take a small amount of soil, moisten it, and roll it into a small ball. Apply some pressure. If it breaks apart with a slight pressure it has a loamy or sandy texture. If it stays together but changes its shape easily than it has more silt than anything else. Finally if the soil holds it's shape with even moderate pressure it probably has more clay in it than anything else.

While it's not the only thing to consider when putting together your organic garden, understanding the characteristics of your soil is probably the first step in bringing out the best in your new organic garden.