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How Does the Soil (Ground) Affect my Watering?

by Dawn West, All About Lawns Columnist

There are three different types of soil - Clay, Loam , and Sand. Each has its own water absorbing properties and can react differently to the same watering. Most people don't have a purely clay or purely sandy soil, but rather a combination (i.e. sandy-loam, Clayish-Loam, etc.). We have put together 3 general descriptions to help determine what type of soil you have and its relative watering properties:
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  1. Clay: Clay soils are made up of tiny particles that cling together and subsequently cling well to water. To help determine how much of your soil is clay, you can simply take a handful of your soil and try to squeeze it together. Once squeezed, release your fingers and see if the soil is still in a ball. The more clay it has, the more solid and less brittle it will appear. A good example of the watering properties of clay soil is to think of a glass jar half-filled with a clay soil. Once water is poured into the remaining top portion of the jar, you will notice the slow rate at which the water is absorbed into the clay soil and ultimately reaches the base of the jar. However, you will also notice that your clay soil will eventually resemble a "muddy" substance that clings well to the water absorbed. Although it is not unique to any one place, you can usually find an abundance of clay soil in the southeast portions of the U.S.

    Watering Clay Soil: Because of its high-density, clay soils tend to take longer to soak-up water, and subsequently take longer to release it as well. Additionally, its density also leads to poor aeration and may require a good aerating once or twice a year to increase air in the soil: (see: Aerating) and How Much Should I Water)


  2. Sand: Sandy soils are made-up of less-dense soil and sand particles and have much poorer moisture and water holding properties than clay. To help determine how much sand is in your soil, you can simply take a handful of your soil and squeeze it together (the same as we did with the clay). Once squeezed, release your fingers and see if the clump of soil falls apart. Unlike clay, sandy soil will not cling together well and should break apart in your hand after squeezing. Although it is generally not unique to one place, you can usually find an abundance of sandy soils in the southwest regions of the U.S.

    Watering Sandy Soils: Because of its low-density properties, water can pass-through sandy soils quickly. Subsequently, it can dry-out quickly as well. Again, think of our analogy with the clay soil but this time imagine small pebbles in the jar with water on top. As you would imagine, the water will reach the base of the jar much quicker then it would with clay. The same applies to your lawn. As a rule of thumb, sandy soils require more frequent watering. However it generally takes less water to reach the deep roots of your lawn (usually 6-8 inches). If this doesn't make sense, think of the analogy we used with the jar.


  3. Loam: As you've probably already guessed, loam is a combination of sandy and clay soils. In fact, most people tend to have some sort of this combination in their lawns. But for purposes of comparison, it is good to think of the extremes so you know where in between your soil may be. When applying the same squeeze test we used with the previous soil types, loam will be somewhere between the sold ball of clay and the brittle mass of sand. A good combination could have the water retaining capacity of clay and the quicker water penetration of sand. In short, only you can determine what kind of lawn you want and can manage. Once that is determined, you should have a good idea of what kind of soil combination will best fit your needs!


About the Author
Dawn West B.A. holds a B.A. in English from Harvard University and teaches writing at Oregon State University.

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