Determine Soil Quality: Correctly Identify Garden Soil

Only when the soil meets the needs of plants, they can thrive magnificently. What are the characteristics of a fertile garden soil? Can you determine the soil quality yourself?

  • Determining the soil quality also makes sense in the hobby garden
  • Soil quality influences the success of the harvest
  • professional soil analysis shows causes of poor development
  • important properties can be recognized even by laymen
  • first hints are given by indicator plants

Garden soil

If plants do not thrive properly in the garden, various causes come into question. Are the light conditions at the site suitable? Shade plants do not thrive in full sun, and plants that need light cannot develop optimally in the shade. How much water does the species need? Make sure there is adequate watering. Prevent waterlogging; many garden plants are sensitive to it.

If you have checked these characteristics, the soil quality could be the cause of puny growth.

The garden soil is a mixture of:

  • Sand
  • Loam
  • Clay
  • Silt

Note: The term “silt” indicates weathered rock.

Recognizing fertile soil

What characteristics identify fertile soil? If your garden has gorgeous flowers blooming and lush greenery, these are clear signs.

Regenwurm in Erde

Features for fertile soil:

  • dark brown color
  • earthy smell
  • crumbly consistency
  • no unpleasant odors

The optimal garden soil for vegetable growing consists of

  • 35 to 55 percent sand for good permeability
  • 10 to 25 percent clay for good water retention
  • 25 to a maximum of 45 percent silt
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First analysis options
You can tell the quality of your garden soil by doing some simple tests. To do this, dig up some garden soil.

rubbing test

Take some soil between your thumbs and index fingers and rub them together.

Does it feel like sandpaper? This is a first indication of sandy soil.

Does the soil feel supple? Then this is a sign of a high clay content.

Bodenqualität bestimmen - Reibeprobe an Gartenerde

press test

Take a handful of soil and press it firmly.

If the soil trickles through your hands, the sand content is very high. Lime soil also does not stick together during the press test.

If the soil clumps and sticks to your hands, it is a sign of high clay or loam content.

Sandy soil

good permeability
good aeration
easy to plant
fast water absorption
easy harvesting
low in nutrients
low support of the roots
extensive watering required
frequent fertilizing necessary

Tips for soil improvement: Sandy garden soil can be improved by laying grass mulch.

Color: Sandy soil has a light, gray-brown color.

Clay soil

can store water well
suitable for most garden plants
very fertile
little watering required
insufficient aeration
regular loosening necessary
danger of compaction after long rains
harvesting of root vegetables difficult

Tips for soil improvement: By mixing in sand or lime, you can loosen the clay soil and support permeability.

Color: Clay soil is ocher to brown in color, depending on the clay content.

Clay soil

can store water well
easy to fertilize
suitable for most garden plants
little watering required
poor ventilation
very dense
regular loosening necessary
chopping work very strenuous
danger of compaction after long rains
harvesting of root vegetables difficult

Tips for soil improvement: By mixing sand, lime or wood chips you can loosen the clay soil and support permeability.

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Color: Clay soil can be recognized by the reddish color.

Lime soil

fast heating
good heat retention
very low in nutrients
can hardly store water
much irrigation required
difficult soil cultivation

Soil improvement tips: Calcareous soil must be regularly improved with compost to allow the cultivation of crops. Lime soil benefits from mulch amendments.

Color: Lime soil has a light gray to coloration.

Acidic or alkaline
The pH of the soil has a decisive influence on the development of your plants. A distinction is made between acidic, alkaline and neutral soil.

pH between 6.5 and 7.5: neutral
below 6.5: acidic
above 7.5: alkaline
You can easily check the pH value of your garden soil.

Bodenqualität bestimmen - pH-Wert des Bodens messen


Mix a handful of garden soil with a quart of distilled water. Hold litmus paper in the mixture and read the result. Alternatively, you can use soil test kits available at garden supply stores or hire a lab to do the testing.

Plants that require acidic soil are called bog plants. A typical representative is rhododendron. In contrast, few plants thrive in alkaline soil. Representatives with these special requirements are thistles, mustard, poppies and conifers. Most garden plants prefer neutral soil.

Necessary soil nutrients

Garden plants need for their growth especially

  • Magnesium
  • Phosphorus
  • Potassium

Important trace elements that contribute to the vitality of ornamental and useful plants are

  • Iron
  • Zinc
  • Manganese
  • Sodium
  • Boron
  • Sulfur
  • Copper

Note: Not only nutrient deficiencies, but also too much fertilizer can damage plants. Poor growth, yellow leaves, diseases and pest infestation are typical signs.

Observe indicator plants

Pay attention to the so-called indicator plants in your garden. Weeds are also of interest. The pointer plants can give initial information about the soil quality before a soil analysis.

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Brennnessel und Trollblume als Zeigerpflanzen
  • Soil rich in nitrogen: Stinging nettle, dandelion
  • Soil poor in nitrogen: wall pepper, toadflax, meadow margarite
  • Acidic soil: sorrel, arnica, wood sorrel
  • Alkaline soil: corn poppy, field bindweed
  • Moist soil: troll flower, coltsfoot
  • Dry soil: Dyer’s chamomile
  • Compacted soil: Field horsetail, creeping buttercup

Frequently asked questions

What information does the soil analysis in the laboratory provide?

A professional soil analysis will provide you with information about the soil type, the pH value and the concentrations of the most important minerals and trace elements. On the results, the experts give tips on fertilization and soil improvement.

What does a professional soil analysis cost?

The cost depends on the scope. A soil quality analysis for hobby gardeners costs about 20 to 30 euros. Elaborate analyses with detailed information on minerals and heavy metals are available for about 50 euros.

What results do soil test sets offered in the trade provide?

You can obtain various sets for determining soil quality in gardening stores. These are easy to use. On the basis of a color scale you get statements about the pH value.

From what depth should samples be taken for a soil analysis?

If you want to have the garden soil tested for vegetable cultivation, you should take a sample from a depth of about 20 centimeters. To determine the proper location for fruit trees, sampling from 50 to 60 centimeters is required. Professional soil testers take a so-called drill stick to help with deep samples.


  • James Jones

    Meet James Jones, a passionate gardening writer whose words bloom with the wisdom of an experienced horticulturist. With a deep-rooted love for all things green, James has dedicated his life to sharing the art and science of gardening with the world. James's words have found their way into countless publications, and his gardening insights have inspired a new generation of green thumbs. His commitment to sustainability and environmental stewardship shines through in every article he crafts.

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