For almost six years, Master Gardeners have been writing gardening articles for children and families. We always teach children and adults to use purchased garden soil or amended garden soil for plantings. But we have never talked about soil and why good soil is necessary for success in gardening! We have two fun activities you can do as a family at the end of this article.

Here are some terms you need to know:

  • Organic particles: from a plant or animal substances
  • Particles: specks, dabs, or bits
  • Loam: the ideal combination of organic particles

When we are gardening with the students at Hurley Elementary School, we always refer to our planting medium as soil, not dirt. What is the difference? Think of soil like a cake made from a lot of different ingredients. In easy terms, “soil” is a mixture of minerals, organic particles, water and air. At Hurley, we refer to “dirt” as soil where you don’t want it under your fingernails or on your clothing. We do not plant in dirt; we plant in soil.

Soil has three main ingredients: sand, silt, and clay. Rich soil has the right mix of these pieces plus minerals, water, and air to create the perfect soil (called loam) for plants to grow and thrive. Sandy soil has large dabs and feels gritty. Water drains quickly through sand. Silty soil has medium bits and feels similar to silky flour that mom bakes with. Water drains faster through silt. Clay soil has fine specks and feels sticky in your hands. Water drains very slowly through clay, sometimes not at all.

Activity #1: Let’s make a mudshake!

You will be able to see the different layers of organic particles! You will need a large, clear jar with a lid. Fill 2/3 full with water. Add enough soil from your yard or playground. Put the lid on tight and shake vigorously. Observe the jar over the next few days as the particles settle. The larger particles (sand) will settle at the bottom of the jar, followed by silt, with the last layer being clay. Organic matter will float on top of the water’s surface.

You will be able to see the different layers in a few days. If the sand and silt are about the same thickness, and the clay is about half that thickness, then the soil in your mudshake is a good soil to grow plants in! If not, a soil amendment or compost needs to be added to the soil.

Activity #2: Edible Soil

You will need:
Snack baggie
4 T Chex or Life cereal (the sand)
4 T dried cranberries (the silt)
2 T coconut (the clay)

Put all ingredients in the baggie.

The Chex cereal represents the big size of the sand dabs. The dried cranberries represent the medium size of the silt bits. The coconut represents the small size of the clay specks. Shake up your baggie! This is an ideal “loam” which is the exact amount of each of the three ingredients that make up “soil”. Now eat and enjoy!

When earthworms have a rich soil, they can wiggle their way through the soil. This helps the water to drain through the soil, and turns organic particles into nutrients (which enables plants to grow faster, bigger, and stronger). Now you have the scoop on soil!  Happy Gardening!