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Smooshing Soil Like An Expert

By   /   May 13, 2013  /   2 Comments

Figuring out your soil’s texture is as easy as mud pie. Here we show you how to do a little hands on testing.

Here’s how to find out the texture your soil. It’s a process of smooshing soil. Get a golf ball size of soil in one hand, wetting it slightly as you knead it. Make sure it is well mixed in your hand. If you don’t mix it completely, little clumps of silt and clay may stick together, fooling you into thinking that they are really grains of sand.

Texture by feel: from ball, to smoosh, to ribbon. That looks like a clay soil!

Texture by feel: from ball, to smoosh, to ribbon. That looks like a clay soil!

While you are working on this ball of soil, gauge its stickiness and how easy it is to knead. Does it feel rough and gritty, suggesting a fair bit of sand, or smooth and silky, as though it has a lot of silt? Hold it to your ear and rub the soil between your fingers. Do you hear a grinding sound?

Now you can try and squeeze a ribbon from the soil, using your thumb to push soil over your forefinger. The longer the ribbon, the more clay is present.

LOOK OUT! It's a 3-sided graph!!! It's also a cool tool to check out the texture of a soil with, say, 35% sand, 25% clay, and 40% silt. Follow the arrows, and you will find them intersecting ---at loam!

LOOK OUT! It’s a 3-sided graph!!! It’s also a cool tool to check out the texture of a soil with, say, 35% sand, 25% clay, and 40% silt. Follow the arrows, and you will find them intersecting —at loam!

Answer these questions to see what your soil texture is:

  1. Can you form a cohesive ball with the soil? No: sand.
  2. Can you form a ball, but not a ribbon? Yes: loamy sand.
  3. Does the ribbon break at less than an inch and
    1. Soil makes a grinding sound and has a gritty feel? Yes: sandy loam.
    2. Soil feels smooth and floury, with no grinding sound? Yes: silt loam.
    3. Soil is a bit gritty, but no grinding sound? Yes: loam.
    4. Is the soil medium sticky, and forms a 1-2 inch ribbon and
      1. Soil makes a grinding noise, with a gritty feel? Yes: sandy clay loam.
      2. Soil feels smooth and floury, with no grinding sound? Yes: silty clay loam.
      3. Soil is only slightly gritty and has no grinding sound? Yes: clay loam.
      4. Is the soil pretty darn sticky and firm, and makes a good size ribbon of 2 inches or more and
        1. Has a grinding sound and grittiness? Yes: sandy clay.
        2. Has a smooth, floury feel and no grinding sound? Yes: silty clay.
        3. Has a slight bit of grittiness, but no grinding sound? Yes: clay.

There you go – a useful tool that also can be a fun party trick.

About the author

editor and contributor

Rachel's interest in sustainable agriculture and grazing has deep roots in the soil. She's been following that passion around the world, working on an ancient Nabatean farm in the Negev, and with farmers in West Africa's Niger. After returning to the US, Rachel received her M.S. and Ph.D. in agronomy and soil science from the University of Maryland. For her doctoral research, Rachel spent 3 years working with Maryland dairy farmers using management intensive grazing. She then began her work with grass farmers, a source of joy and a journey of discovery.

2 Comments

  1. [...] You can learn more about the potential of the soil on the property from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.  The NRCS Web Soil Survey provides online soil data for nearly every area of the nation. You can also enlist a local NRCS agent for guidance in evaluating the soil on a potential property.  A soil test is also a great way to get to know your pasture better.  (Here are a couple On Pasture articles that might help make soil testing easier:  Take the Drudgery Out of Soil Testing, and Smooshing Soil Like An Expert.) [...]

  2. [...] You can learn more about the potential of the soil on the property from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.  The NRCS Web Soil Survey provides online soil data for nearly every area of the nation. You can also enlist a local NRCS agent for guidance in evaluating the soil on a potential property.  Your agent may recommend a soil test.  (Here are a couple On Pasture articles that might help make soil testing easier:  Take the Drudgery Out of Soil Testing, and Smooshing Soil Like An Expert.) [...]

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