Gardens bring vibrant colors to your yard and fresh vegetables to your table—but it doesn’t happen overnight. Figuring out what type of soil you’re working with is one of the first lessons in gardening 101. But don’t get discouraged—the good news is that most California soils are nutritious and viable for a large variety of plants.
Before you pick out your seeds and start planting, there are a few things to do. We’re going to help you test and figure out your California soil type, then pick out the ideal seeds and plants. So, put on your gloves and get ready to learn everything you need to know about gardening in California, starting with the different kinds of soil.
A Guide to California's Soil Types
From a general perspective, soil is a very broad term—it refers to the loose layer of earth covering the surface of the planet. Subsequently, all different types of soil for gardening can be divided into four main types.
Four types of soil
- Sandy soil: light, dry, warm, low in nutrients, and often acidic
- Silty soil: fertile, easily compacted, and light but moisture-retentive
- Clay soil: heavy, high in nutrients, wet and cold in winter, and baked dry in the summer
- Loamy soil: a combination of sand, clay, and silt
Other compound kinds of soil can also be classified based on color, percentage of particles, size of particles, and other features. Depending on what you’re planning to grow, different kinds of soil can be mixed together to provide optimal conditions. For example, silty clay can work wonders for irises, and a little peaty soil can go a long way when growing blueberries.
Alkaline soil is the most common type of soil in California. It’s drier, less rich, and has a higher pH level. This isn’t necessarily the case in the Bay Area though, especially in the mountainous areas to the north and east. The soil types here are actually more acidic.
What type of California state soil do you have in your garden?
Knowing your soil type helps you choose the right plants for your garden and maintain them properly. There are two ways to go about determining the type of California soil in your garden. The first is to send a sample of the soil to a laboratory and wait for results. The second method allows you to do it yourself using a soil-testing kit.
If you’ve been gardening for long enough, you can identify the soil by touching and rolling it in your hands. Sandy soil has a gritty element that falls through your fingers. Clay soil, on the other hand, has a smearing quality and can be sticky when wet. But pure silt soil usually feels more soapy and slippery to the touch.
If your soil froths when you place it in a jar of vinegar, then you’re dealing with calcareous soil. This soil type is limestone-rich and not very fertile.
The best types of soil for gardening
All different types of California soils have distinctive characteristics. Familiarize yourself with the soil in your garden before determining what to grow. This is a great way to identify its benefits and disadvantages in order to plant accordingly.
Sandy soil is light, grainy, and rough. These soils dry out quickly, are often acidic, and are low in nutrients. Water and fertilizer have a tendency to leach out of the soil, escaping before the plant can utilize them. A tip to grow a healthy garden with this type of soil is to boost the holding capacity. This is easily done by adding organic matter, which bands the loose particles together.
Advantages: Warms up quickly during spring
Disadvantages: Dries up quickly during summer
What to plant: Lavender, Russian sage, tulips, hibiscus, lettuce, strawberries, zucchini, tomatoes
Silty soil contains more nutrients and holds more water than sandy soil. Though very fertile, this soil type is more prone to wind erosion and being washed away if left exposed without plant cover.
Advantages: Great holding capacity and easy to work with
Disadvantages: Poor water filtration and prone to hardening
What to plant: Willow, birch, cypress, dogwood, yellow iris, Japanese iris
Clay soil is a common Southern California soil type, but it's poor at draining and has few air pockets. If the drainage for this type of soil is enhanced, it becomes relatively workable and less prone to compaction. Educating yourself on drought-tolerant landscaping in California can help you deal with clay soil and take advantage of its fertile properties.
Advantages: Warms up easily during spring
Disadvantages: Poor drainage and high maintenance
What to plant: Bergamot, aster, fruit trees, shrubs, ornamental trees
Loamy soil is often referred to as a gardener’s best friend. This California soil is a combination of sand, silt, and clay, and is highly fertile. The clay and silt particles in the soil improve moisture retention. The sand, on the other hand, minimizes compaction and improves drainage. This results in a high-quality type of soil that doesn’t dry out in the summer and doesn’t get clogged in the winter.
Advantages: Fertile, drought-resistant, good infiltration, and easily warmed up
Disadvantages: Can contain stones that affect harvest quality
What to plant: Black bamboo, delphinium, berry crops, tomatoes, peppers, green beans, onions, cucumbers
Tips to make the most of your soil, regardless of its type
- Add ground limestone to your soil to make it more alkaline, and aluminum sulfate or sulfur to make it more acidic
- Combine organic matter—such as compost or manure—to enrich the soil and improve its texture
- Make sure your soil contains nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium—the three main nutrients. Just like plants, think of your soil as a living thing. Supply it with fertilizers, food, and water as needed. This will help your plants thrive
- If you’re planning to re-plant in already harvested soil, renew it before planting a successive crop. Legumes, buckwheat, and clover are examples of plants that fix nitrogen into the soil while building texture. These can be planted in-between crops to reinvigorate the soil
- Introducing living organisms such as fungi to the soil can help your plants absorb water and nutrients
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