Dirt-ology – Know Your Dirt

“Dirt-ology” – Know Your Dirt

To the average person, dirt is dirt, but to a gardener, dirt is where the magic happens in gardening!

We are going to dig into some interesting information on dirt and how it relates to having a successful garden. You will never look at dirt the same way you used to!

What Exactly is Dirt?

know your dirt


Earth’s top layer of the ground is a covering that is void of any living microorganisms or nutrients. Dirt is dry, and when wet, it will not clump or form a ball. Dirt is nothing more than dead soil.


Earth’s second layer of ground covering found just beneath dirt. Soil contains the nutrients and microorganisms that support the growth and survival of plant matter. 

Interesting Fact:

An indicator that soil is fertile is finding a worm in that soil.

The Components of Soil


  • Balance of silt, sand, and clay
  • pH level is at a level that allows nutrients and organisms to thrive
  • Calcium level is at a level that keeps the soil chemicals balanced. 
  • Improves soil to retain water
  • Creates the looseness in soil, so oxygen aeration is optimal
  • Reduces saline in soil. 
  • The texture is gritty and crumbles easily


  • Largest particle in soil
  • Does not retain nutrients in the soil


  • Texture is powder-like
  • Highly fertile

Plants do best in Sandy Loam soil. Keeping this in mind when finding a place for your garden as well as soil that you can work into your existing soil is important.

Types of Soil

There are 5 types of soil. When gardening, you may hear these types of soil mentioned. 


  • Contains the largest particles of all types of soil.
  • Dry
  • Gritty
  • Does not hold water. When plants are watered, the roots are unable to absorb soil nutrients because of water running off immediately.


  • Smallest particles of all soil types.
  • Sticky
  • Slow drainage
  • Rich in nutrients
  • Cold
  • Difficult to turn over


  • Brackish
  • High salt
  • Damaging to plant growth
  • This leads to drought stress
  • White layer on the surface of the soil


  • Small particles
  • Holds water
  • Cold
  • Drainage is poor
  • No aeration if compacted


  • Dark brown/black
  • Organically rich
  • Holds water
  • Acidic
  • Spongy

The soil that you find in your own backyard will not be the same as your neighbors yard. 

Dirt can get very “deep” in chemistry and technical terms as far as mixtures and gardening. If in doubt, consulting a nursery or your local Coop Extension office, can guide you in what you need to have optimum soil.

Some gardeners will go the easiest route and purchase gardening soil to load into the garden site. This cuts out the configuration and “hit and miss” of soil mixing.

What Type of Soil do Plants do Best in?

Sandy Loam Soil is the best soil for plants to thrive in for gardening. This type of soil 

contains sand, silt, and clay. By adding compost to sandy loam soil, you can make this soil densely rich for optimum plant growth.

What is Your Soil Type?

Before planting a garden, you will need to do some prep work in learning what kind of soil you have. Get a sample of the soil and let’s take a look at it.

  1. Examine the soil in your hand:
  • It it dense, heavy, clumps together?
    • Clay
  • Is it loose with a sand-like feel?
    • Sand or Silt
  • Is it sticky?
    • Clay
  • Does it crumble easily?
    • Loam

2. Test your soil’s pH:

  • (you can purchase a pH test kit at your local garden supply store)
  • The preferred pH for plants is 6-7.

Amending Your Soil

If your garden soil is not the perfect sandy loam soil that all gardeners dream of having, you will need to “amend” (add to) your soil with other components of soil(s) to have the best soil you need. Or you may need to add nutrients to the soil.

Amending soil should ideally be done in the spring before planting and in the fall when you “put your garden to bed” for the dormant season of winter.

Correcting pH

Lime is used to raise or lower the pH level in your soil. The suggested use is 5 lbs of lime per 100 square foot. Follow the directions on the bag closely. Lime is applied directly to the soil before planting.



  • Natural, free from chemicals
  • Source: agricultural farm manure, compost, bone meal
  • Bulky to haul around and requires more work to spread
  • Inexpensive and sometimes free


  • Contains chemicals
  • Source: combinations of two or more chemicals
  • Easier to haul around and requires less work to spread
  • Expensive
  • Granular or powder form

Adjusting Texture of Soil

Adding organic matter to your soil such as compost, manure, or peat moss is ideal when your soil is sandy or silty.

We have touched the surface of dirt and soil and there is so much more to learn about earth’s richest source of plant growth. Our goal is to provide you with a basic understanding of dirt vs. soil and how it plays a vital role in gardening.

Now it’s time for you to get your hands dirty and get to “know your dirt!”

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