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Your definitive guide to Sydney soils and how to improve them.
Let's talk dirty... discover more about soil and the proven ways to help your plants flourish.
Landscaping and growing plants without good soil is like feeding a kitten with sawdust and expecting it to grow into a lion.
Unfortunately for our plants, Sydney garden soils are the equivalent of the sawdust that poor kitten is eating*.
The most common types of soil found in Sydney are sandy soil or clay soil. (If you want to get scientific and find out more about soil formation in Sydney, check out this article.) Neither is nutritious enough for healthy plant growth and poor soil structure means that neither retains enough water to keep your plants' thirst satisfied.
Sandy garden soil is low in nutrients and water drains out of it quickly. It can suit some low maintenance native plants that are adapted to extract the few nutrients available, but if you want to grow anything else, particularly fruit and vegetables, sandy soil will need improvement.
Clay soil usually contains more nutrients than sandy soil, however, clay is impervious to water, so water flows away, rather than draining through the ground, leaving your plants and their roots high and dry. And without water, they go not only thirsty, but also hungry, as without it they can't access the nutrients in the soil.
Trying to grow plants in low-quality soil is like grooming your poor, underfed kitten. It's a surface fix that will ultimately fail as beneath the surface, the kitten, and your plants' roots will not be thriving.
Healthy garden soil is full of life. It's an entire soil ecosystem that supports not just worms and insects, but millions of microorganisms, living and thriving in every spadeful of good soil. These microorganisms are busily working in your soil, oxygenating it, cleaning it, creating and changing nutrients, and even helping plants absorb water and nutrients.
Good soil is known as loam soil. 'Loam' simply means a soil that has the ideal composition of clay, silt, sand and organic matter. Water will pass through loam at the right rate for your plants' roots to absorb--as well as the nutrients that the water delivers.
The simplest way to analyse your soil to identify what type it is is to dig your fingers into it. Scoop up a handful. Loamy soil will be crumbly and soft when dry and when it's damp it should be firm enough to roll between your palms. If it's lumpy and sticky, then the clay content is probably too high. If it's gritty, then it probably contains too much silt or sand.
So, if your soil is no good, how do you fix it? Don't panic, you don't need to remove the whole lot. Removing soil is toilsome and laborious and what do you do with it once you've dug it all up?! Dumps will charge you for the privilege. The answer is that you improve the soil that you have.
First of all, you need to think about what you want to plant. In the same way that people have different tastes in chocolate (creamy milk or bitter plain?) plants have different tastes in soil.
Native plants dislike soil that is high in phosphorus. Vegies prefer a different level of fertilizer and organic matter than flowers. Turf likes a specific soil and sand composition to encourage its strong annual growth period.
Once you have decided what you want to plant, and where, chosen your soil and had it delivered, it's time to get out your shovel. Dig up your garden beds, going down a few inches, so that the soil is loose and crumbly. Cover this with a few inches of the soil you have chosen for your plants. Dig it through your existing soil to mix it thoroughly. While you are digging, add some compost or fertilizer for a treat for your young plants. Finally, lay a few centimetres of your new soil over the top and you will be ready to grow some pretty impressive plants.