Soil Question

kelkoJuly 22, 2014

I know I need to have a soil test done, but I'm wondering if someone could tell me what they think is not right with my soil. It reminds me of baby powder; you know when you pour water on it, it just runs off. When I water my garden, it looks like it's soaked, but when I dig down maybe a half inch or so, it is still dry. Right now I seem to have a gopher making some mounds. When the dirt is pushed up, it is very loose but, again, water just runs off of it and doesn't soak in. It's a wonder any of my plants are still growing. I'm trying to add compost, but it takes a while until it's ready to use. Last weekend I bought some bagged compost/mulch and spread it over a large area to see if that will help. Any thoughts/suggestions? Thanks.

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tropical_thought(San Francisco)

That compacted fine sand, I have the same kind of soil. You need to really dig compost in very deeply and it takes a really long time to get that fixed up. You could buy a lot of bagged stuff and mix it in. I would suggesting working on one area at a time. It is too much to fix the whole yard at once. I have not even fixed all of my compacted sand yet. I only fixed in the planting areas and beds, the rest of it is still compacted sand. I like to add compost and bagged wood, I mix them to make the compost go farther and I do it now usually only when I am replanting or planting new plants. I add it on top to existing plants. But, I end up changing plants around often.

    Bookmark   July 23, 2014 at 12:50AM
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toxcrusadr(Zone 6a - MO)

Mulches will help too. They act as a sponge to hold the water while it soaks in, rather than let it run off. Also they hold moisture in the soil, so it will not get dry as fast. Your soil gets hydrophobic when dry, so if you don't let it dry out as fast, it will take in water better. It's OK to use half-done compost as a mulch, or even compostable materials like leaves and grass. They will decompose in place and feed the soil.

We've had a lot of posters here lately with this problem. I suspect it's very dry in some parts of the country.

    Bookmark   July 23, 2014 at 10:47AM
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Thanks to both of you for responding. I kind of thought it might be sand because I looked at a handful of the soil and it looked like there was a lot of sand in it. Since I'm on the coast, not far from the ocean, it certainly makes sense. I will keep adding the compost and mulch. Thanks again--I appreciate the information.

    Bookmark   July 23, 2014 at 12:27PM
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Which coast? Which ocean? New Jersey or California? Florida or Washington? Very important information to help answer your questions.

That soil does need organic matter so in addition to adding that as compost or other vegetative waste (your location could help with that too) and a soil test from a good reliable soil testing lab, these simple soil tests may be of some help.
1) Soil test for organic matter. From that soil sample put enough of the rest to make a 4 inch level in a clear 1 quart jar, with a tight fitting lid. Fill that jar with water and replace the lid, tightly. Shake the jar vigorously and then let it stand for 24 hours. Your soil will settle out according to soil particle size and weight. For example, a good loam will have about 1-3/4 inch (about 45%) of sand on the bottom. about 1 inch (about 25%) of silt next, about 1 inch (25%) of clay above that, and about 1/4 inch (about 5%) of organic matter on the top.

2) Drainage. Dig a hole 1 foot square and 1 foot deep and fill that with water. After that water drains away refill the hole with more water and time how long it takes that to drain away. Anything less than 2 hours and your soil drainsâ too quickly and needs more organic matter to slow that drainage down. Anything over 6 hours and the soil drains too slowly and needs lots of organic matter to speed it up.

3) Tilth. Take a handful of your slightly damp soil and squeeze it tightly. When the pressure is released the soil should hold together in that clump, but when poked with a finger that clump should fall apart.

4) Smell. What does your soil smell like? A pleasant, rich earthy odor? Putrid, offensive, repugnant odor? The more organic matter in your soil the more active the soil bacteria will be and the nicer your soil will smell.

5) Life. How many earthworms per shovel full were there? 5 or more indicates a pretty healthy soil. Fewer than 5, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, indicates a soil that is not healthy.

    Bookmark   July 24, 2014 at 6:31AM
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" It reminds me of baby powder; you know when you pour water on it, it just runs off. When I water my garden, it looks like it's soaked, but when I dig down maybe a half inch or so, it is still dry. "

Fine silt/sand mixture ... it's basically water repellent because of surface tension.

Mulch thickly (with whatever you can get) and water with a drip system or soaker hose under the mulch. Water for longer periods, but less often. Don't let it get to the baby powder stage.

It's better to add organic matter liberally to a small area than spread it skimpily over a large one. Pick a spot and do it, then go one to the next one.

And start a compost heap ... more organic material will help, and it will take several years.

Plant deep-rooted things like okra and squash, and cut them off at ground level when they die back. Leave roots intact as organic material whenever you can.

    Bookmark   July 24, 2014 at 11:07AM
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Thanks again for the helpful information. I'm on the California coast.

Kimmsr...I tried the organic soil test you mentioned above. I used the dirt that was pushed up by the gopher. I looked at it this morning and the stuff on the bottom (sand?) was about 4 inches. Then there was maybe a one-inch layer of something above that, but it's so murky that I can't really see the top layers.

lazygardens...I did spread mulch/compost over it but I didn't dig it in, which is probably what I should have done. Another thing I noticed about it is that very few weeds have grown in it. I kept wondering why I would only get an occasional dandelion. I do have a drip hose laid out, I just haven't gotten around to poking the holes in it yet. Guess that's what I'll be doing this weekend.

Thanks again, everyone. I had no idea what was wrong with my soil.

    Bookmark   July 24, 2014 at 3:24PM
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What about kitty litter that is made from clay?
Someone mentioned that on here a while back.
Does it help to mix it with the compacted sand?

    Bookmark   July 24, 2014 at 8:36PM
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What about kitty litter that is made from clay?
Someone mentioned that on here a while back.
Does it help to mix it with the compacted sand?

No, it just makes a more compact mess.

    Bookmark   July 24, 2014 at 10:33PM
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Adding clay to sandy soils may sound like a good idea but it is not, anymore then adding sand to clay. To make enough difference one would need to add a fairly significant amount of clay, not simply a bag or two of cat litter, which could be prohibitively expensive.
To make enough difference adding sand to clay you would need 45 to 50 percent sand, according to the
University of California researchers, and to make enough difference amending sand with clay you would need about 25 percent clay.
Change the information on your member page because we may not remember that you are in California.

    Bookmark   July 25, 2014 at 6:35AM
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