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Designing Your Outdoor Space Part 3 - More On Soils

What soil is made up of and why it even matters.

Itching to get your soil tested after last week’s ? Well, after this rain filled week, I’m sure that more than one of you reading this right now have been inundated by ponding water on their lawn, or in their soon - to - be garden areas. The forces of heavy rains, warmer temperatures and quickly melting snow have combined to demonstrate beautifully, and in some cases quite inconveniently, one of the most notable features of soil structure - its drainage characteristics.

Different types of soils drain differently, ans all have varying levels of nutrients  and organic matter in them. The three different categories that each type of soil will fall into are: sandy, loamy or clayey.  

  • Sandy soil tends to have lower levels of nutrients due to water being able to pass too quickly through the large soil pores. These soils have great drainage characteristics, but are not well suited as a growing medium for most urban landscape plant selections without amendments.
  • Loamy soils are usually considered the best soil type to plant in due to the varying sizes of the pores present. These soils hold moisture for extended periods of time and allow nutrients in the soil to be more readily available.
  • Clayey soils on the other hand, are so tightly packed together that though they hold an immense amount of water, most of it is unavailable for use by the plant. These soils are also easily compacted and make very poor choices for planting without amending the soil first.

Understanding the type of soil you have in your yard is going to help you understand how to better manage the landscape that you are attempting to create, because the success of your plan lies in the quality of your soil in every way.

Not only does the type of soil present affect the growth rate of plants, but it also effects decisions that need to be made on the construction end of the landscape project. For instance, the number one concern of mine during every patio or walkway installation, is to remove all organic matter during excavation. After all of the organic matter is removed, I then compact the subsoil and install the base material. I do this because if the decaying material is left there, it will absorb water and go through multiple freeze and thaw cycles, leading to expansion and contraction, and will most likely settle in the spring.

If the base underneath a “dead” walkway space is so important, why wouldn’t you treat the rest of your “living” landscape the same way? Well you just might already be doing this, but you may not realize it.  

Have you ever aerated your lawn before? Aeration is the process of creating holes throughout the topsoil in your lawn, allowing air, water and other nutrients easier access to the roots. By aerating the topsoil, you are temporarily changing the soils structure by reducing the effects of compaction to the plants' root system.

If you’ve ever added compost or manure to your vegetable garden, you are amending the soil with nutrient rich material that is capable of holding water and nutrients that the native soil may not have in such quantities, therefore creating a healthier growing environment for the plant and at the same time, changing the structure of the soil. Peat moss is another popular choice to increase the water holding capacity of the soil.

Nearly every soil can benefit from the addition of organic material or compost. In nature the leaves that fall decompose on the ground replenishing nutrients around the clock. In today's manicured landscape, this process is no longer allowed to take place naturally, so we must amend the soil to reproduce the conditions that are most beneficial to the plant.

 Questions or Comments regarding today’s column?  E-mail me at: jrocharz@welldonelandscapes.com.

 John Rocharz is owner of Well Done Landscapes of Lakeville, and has over nine years of experience in the landscaping field, specializing in stone masonry and design. He is also an ICPI certified paver installer and a member of the organization of Massachusetts Landscape Professionals.

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