Knowing your soil type


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Knowing what type of soil you have in your garden and what this means for the plants in it is very important. Choosing the wrong plants for a particular soil variety can cause slow growth, yellow leaves and, in some cases, the plant dying. Luckily, once you know the different types, the right choices can be made to select appropriate plants for your garden and correct any problems that a particular soil variety may cause.

Types of soil that naturally occur in the UK

There are six main varieties of soil in the UK: clay, sand, silt, loam, peat and chalk. Of course, even a small garden can have areas with different soil types but usually you’ll find one of these varieties dominates. The main determinant of soil type is the size of the particles which make it up and this governs each soil’s properties.

Clay soil

clay soil with cracked surface

Clay soil is often rich in nutrients but is difficult to drain and can crack in hot weather

© Rocky Reston | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Most of us can imagine what clay soil is like – sticky when wet, hard when dry and, if squeezed in your hand, it tends to hold together in a lump.

The structure of clay soil allows it to retain nutrients, which is good news if you find clay soil in your garden. On the down side, it doesn’t drain well, leaving water sat on the surface and remaining soggy for a long time after rain; it can easily become compacted in this state. In the sun, you might also find it bakes very hard and can even crack on the surface.

Read more about managing and improving clay soil

Sandy soil

sandy soil showing grains of sand and soil structure

Sandy soil is free-draining and gritty and tends to lack essential plant nutrients

© Igor Leonov | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Sandy soil feels gritty and won’t hold together very well in a clod – this makes it very light and easy to work with. Sandy soils drain freely, which can be good for some plants and not for others but this property is also responsible for the lack of nutrients in many sandy soils, which are carried away with the water.


Like sandy soil, silt soils are also light and relatively easy to work with. Though it’s quite unusual to have an all silt soil, if you do it will feel much smoother than a sandy soil, as well as being a lot more fertile. On the down side, like clay soil, it can sometimes hold water and is prone to compaction, but is much lighter and won’t bake hard in the summer.


hand full of loamy topsoil

Loamy topsoil suits most cultivated plants in the UK - the exceptions being wildflowers and some really fussy candidates

You should be very pleased to find you have loam as your garden’s soil type. This is a mixture of the above three types and has the benefits of being fertile, easy to work with, light and draining well with none of the shortcomings! There’s little that won’t grow well in loam soil.

Learn more about loam

Peaty soil

Less common soil types in the UK are peat and chalk. Peat soils can be wet and contain a lot of organic matter, but only because the high acidity can prevent these matter from decomposing, meaning some plants will struggle.

Chalky soil

Chalky soils are likely to contain a lot of stones and are highly alkaline. This can prevent plants getting manganese and iron causing yellowing and slow growth.

Working with different types of soil

No matter what your soil type, all is not lost. For those lacking nutrients, the solution can be as simple as fertiliser, though it’s worth noting that if your soil drains very quickly, the effects of this will be short lived.

For established lawns, top dressing is a good way of improving soil quality and when introducing new flowering plants, vegetable plants or trees, adding good quality loam to your existing top soil beforehand will be very beneficial.

Alternatively, choose plants which will do well in your soil. Even for the worst soil types, you should be able to find specific plants which do well – for example, MeadowMat wildflower turf will only grow healthily on impoverished soils.



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