A person holds soil in their hands
Testing your soil can help you discover its type and acidity. This can help you decide what will grow best and how to improve your soil.

Helpful information

Timing: All year round (avoid doing when the soil is frozen)

Where to do it: Outdoors

Garden space: Large garden, small garden

  • This is a gentle physical task, involving squeezing and releasing of the hands
  • Handling soil can be relaxing and a way to relieve stress
  • Knowing your soil type can improve your confidence, helping you get to know your garden better
Testing soil 4
A trowel in soil

Soil is such an important part of the world around us. Not all soil is the same. Getting to know soil can be a real science. Luckily, it is one everyone can take part in with a little know-how.

In the garden, it is important to understand the soil around you. It makes a difference to how well some plants will grow. For example:

  • Carrots do not grow as well in nutrient-rich soil. They tend to do better in looser soil
  • Hydrangeas and dogwoods can grow well in water-retaining soils.

To find out what type of soil you have, we suggest trying the simple but effective ‘squeeze test’. There are more complicated methods of testing your soil, but you can get idea this way with minimum fuss or equipment.

As well as the squeeze test for soil type, you may also want to find out the pH level of your soil. We look at this below.

I have always loved to have my hands in the mud ... I am not a gardener who wears gloves unless I am pruning my roses.

Nikki, gardener

With the squeeze test, you can get a good idea of which of these soil types you have:

  • Sandy
  • Silty
  • Loam
  • Clay
  • Chalk

Loam is soil made with a balance of sand, silt and clay.

How to do the squeeze test

Find a patch of soil in your flower or vegetable bed. You may want to repeat this test using soil from a few different sections of the garden, depending how large your garden is. Soil type can vary from one area to another.

Take a good handful of soil. If your soil is hard, you may need to use a trowel or spade to dig it a bit first.

Give the soil a firm squeeze in your hand. Release your grip and look closely at what is in your palm.

Make it easier

You can try a different technique if you have issues with manual dexterity and grip. Cup both your hands together and exert pressure with your arms.

Identifying your soil type

The soil in your palm should look like one of these options.

1. A tight, hard ball of soil

This means your soil is mostly clay.

Clay soil is made up of tiny particles that stick together to create large lumps. It can be moulded with your hands without breaking up into smaller chunks.

Clay soil holds water. It creates a boggier planting environment, as it does not drain well. It is hard for roots to push through. Root vegetables can struggle to develop in clay soil.

Clay soil contains a surprising amount of nutrients. These can benefit the health of your plants.

If you want to improve the structure of clay soil, you could add horticultural sand to it. Adding compost, or giving a mulch, will also help a bit with structure and nutrients. Read more in our guide to improving soil health.

2. A ball with a ‘cakey’ consistency that falls apart when poked

Good news, you have a loam or silty soil.

This is usually dark in colour and is a mix of sand and clay. This soil type can still be compacted (too firmly packed together) if it’s trodden on too much. But this type of soil usually has a good level of organic matter and nutrients within it. It can retain enough water to keep most plants satisfied.

3. A handful of soil that collapses easily

You have soil that is largely made up of sand.

Sandy soils can feel lighter in weight, be gritty to touch and be lighter in colour.

Sand is made up of surprisingly large particles. This allows lots of movement and creates large gaps. Water and air can get through sandy soil easily. This makes sandy soil good for draining water, but bad for holding nutrients.

To improve the nutrient content of your soil and make it easier to dig, you could add manure, leaf mould or compost. Late winter or early spring is a good time to do this.

4. Pale soil, with white chunks in

You have soil that is chalky.

Chalky soil can be different textures. The squeeze test on its own may not let you know for certain. But, if your soil looks a pale colour and has obvious white chunks, it could be chalky.

If you live near chalk downs, it’s more likely you may have chalky soil.

Another way to tell if you have chalky soil is to do a pH test (see below). Chalky soil is alkaline, with a pH level typically of 7 or more.

Some plants thrive in chalky soil, like lavender, rosemary and cotoneaster. Plants that like acid soil, like rhododendrons, won’t grow well.

You could try and make your soil less alkaline, but it is hard work fighting against nature! It’s better to add plenty of organic matter, like compost or leaf mould, and choose suitable plants.

Make it easier

If you have heavy soil that is difficult to work with, you may want to consider gardening in raised beds. This gives you control over the soil, as well as avoiding working at ground level.

If your garden soil is heavy and clay based, any digging is best done in the autumn.

Different soils can have different pH levels. They could be neutral, acid, or alkaline (as discussed when looking at chalk soil above).

It is straightforward to check the pH of your soil. You can buy pH testing kits relatively cheaply. This is an enjoyable activity that lets you get to know your garden better.

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