Complete Guide to Different Soil Types

image showing different types of soil

Is your garden refusing to flourish despite all your efforts? Don’t blame your brown thumb just yet — the real problem might be your soil type. Knowing the different types of soil (and which one you have) will help you understand what problems your grass and landscaping plants are up against.

So, we’ve put together this comprehensive guide to help homeowners learn about the different soil types, ways of determining the type of soil in their yard, and how it will affect their lawn care needs.

6 different types of soil

Soil is more than just dirt — it’s a combination of organic matter like decomposed leaves and grass clippings, along with weathered rock particles. Different soil types of soil exhibit unique characteristics that can help you identify the soil in your garden, including:

  • Texture
  • Compaction
  • Water retention
  • Size of the particles

The varying soil types affect vibration and porosity, making it essential to know your yard’s soil composition. This knowledge can help you determine which plants will flourish in your garden. Understanding your soil type also can help you figure out a proper watering schedule and select the right fertilizer for your grass to thrive.

1. Clay soil

fine particles of soil
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Clay particles are very fine, and they stick together. The result is a dense, heavy soil that feels sticky. If you roll up clay soil into a ball, it will hold its shape, much like the clay used to make pottery. Like potter’s clay, this type of soil tends to dry out and bake hard in the heat of summer.

Pros of clay soilCons of clay soil
✓ High in plant nutrients Not enough air space for water, nutrients, and oxygen to reach plant roots
✓ Retains water well✗ Becomes waterlogged easily
✗ Sticky when wet and rock hard when dry
✗ Difficult for gardeners to work with

Plants that grow well in clay soils include:

  • Bee balm
  • Canna lily
  • Cardinal flower
  • Ferns
  • Hibiscus

2. Sandy soil

sandy loam soil surface
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Sandy soil is the polar opposite of clay. Sand particles are loose, so the soil doesn’t hold its shape. Because the soil particles are so loose, water, air, and nutrients can move easily through them. Sandy soils feel gritty, like sugar or salt, and are usually acidic.

Pros of sandy soilCons of sandy soil
✓ Good drainage✗ Doesn’t hold water and dries out quickly
✓ Easy for gardeners to work with✗ Leaches plant nutrients
✓ Warms up quickly in spring, allowing for earlier planting✗ Tends to be too acidic for most plants

The following plants grow well in sandy soils:

  • Butterfly weed
  • Palms
  • Salvia
  • Succulents
  • Yucca

3. Silty soil

Have you ever felt the slippery, soft material at the bottom of a river between your toes? That’s silt soil. Silt particles are medium-sized, somewhere in between clay and sand. Water and nutrients can move through silt particles better than in clay, but not as quickly as in sand.

Pros of silty soilCons of silty soil
✓ Retains moisture without becoming water-logged✗ Erodes easily (wind and rain carry it away because it’s very light)
✓ Rich in plant nutrients and one of the most fertile soil types✗ Can become compacted (which means water and nutrients can’t reach plant roots)
✓ Easy for gardeners to work with

Plants that grow well in silty soils include:

  • Butterfly bush
  • Daffodil
  • Hardy geraniums
  • Hosta
  • Roses

4. Loamy soil

closeup of loam fertile soil
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With its harmonious blend of clay, sand, and silt particles, loamy soil is the embodiment of perfect soil composition. This balanced combination ensures the unique characteristics of each particle counteract the negative traits of the others. Identified by its fine texture, dark color, and slight dampness, loam soil is considered the ideal soil type.

Pros of loamy soilCons of loamy soil
✓ Holds moisture and drains wellNone. “Loam” basically means perfect soil.
✓ Fertile and rich in nutrients
✓ Enough air space for water, nutrients, and oxygen to reach plant roots
✓ Easy for gardeners to work with
✓ Warms up quickly in spring
✓ Doesn’t dry out in summer
✓ Excellent garden soil

While most plants grow in loam soil, the following varieties particularly flourish in this type of soil:

  • American beautyberry
  • Hydrangea
  • Larkspur
  • Wisteria

Since loamy soil is the ideal soil type for gardening, most fruit and vegetable plants will thrive in it. So, if you’re thinking of starting a vegetable garden, you should choose the area where there is loamy soil on your property.

5. Chalky soil

yellow flowers on a chalky soil
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Chalky soil, sometimes called lime soil for its high lime content, is less common than the four soil types listed above because it only occurs above underground limestone beds and chalk deposits. Often large-grained and stony, chalky soil also can be light, like sand or heavy clay. You’ll often see large white lumps of stone in chalky soils.

Pros of chalky soilCons of chalky soil
✓ Warms up quickly in spring✗ Usually very shallow and doesn’t allow roots to grow deep
✓ Drains well✗ Highly alkaline because of the high calcium carbonate (limestone) content
✗ Drains freely, which causes drying out and loss of nutrients
✗ Difficult to improve with soil amendments because organic material decomposes so rapidly in it

Plants that grow well in chalky soils include:

  • Bellflower
  • Ceanothus
  • Clematis
  • Dianthus
  • Lavender

6. Peat soil

peat soil on a white surface
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You’ll rarely find naturally occurring peat soil in a garden setting. It usually develops in bogs and wetlands where peat moss is found. Peat soil is very high in organic matter and contains few rock particles. It looks darker than other soils and feels spongy.

Pros of peat soilCons of peat soil
✓ Retains a large amount of water and nutrients for a long time✗ Low in plant nutrients on its own (you have to add them with soil amendments)
✓ Warms up quickly in spring✗ Poor drainage because it holds water for so long
✓ Perfect for acid-loving plants✗ Too acidic for most plants
✓ Rich in nutrients

Plants that grow well in peat soils include:

  • Azalea
  • Blueberries
  • Caladium
  • Camellia
  • Magnolia
  • Rhododendron

Combination soil types

Think of the six basic soil types mentioned above as the primary colors. Just like how red, blue, and yellow blend in various combinations to create other colors, the different soil types also can be mixed together to create a diverse range of soils.

For example:

  • Clay loam is an almost perfect loam that contains more clay particles than sand or silt. It has the traits of loam with increased heaviness and water-holding capacity from the clay.
  • Silty clay is a mixture of clay and silt particles. As a combination of the two, silty clay soil has better drainage than clay on its own but also erodes faster.
  • Sandy clay is soil made of mostly clay and sand particles. It is lighter and has better drainage than regular clay because of the high sand content.
Soil Texture Infographic - Soil texture is based on clay, sand, and silt percentages and coarseness
Infographic by Juan Rodriguez

Your soil could be any combination of the basic soil textures and their characteristics since different parts of your yard can have vastly different soil compositions. It’s possible to have sandy soil in the front yard and clay in the back.

When you test your soil type (which we’ll explain how to do in a moment), take samples from each section of the yard. Then, you can figure out where the soil is best and choose that spot to start your garden.

Tests to determine your soil type

If you can’t tell what kind of soil you have based on the traits we’ve already discussed, there are some simple at-home tests you can use to figure it out. These tests aren’t an exact science, but they should give you a general idea of your soil type.

Touch test

The first test is simple. Take some wet soil and rub it around in your hands. If the soil isn’t wet, use a spray bottle to moisten it. You may be able to tell your soil type based on what it feels like.

How the soil feelsSoil type
Sticky (like potter’s clay)Clay or a combination with high clay content
GrittySand or a combination with high sand content
Soft and slippery (like soap)Silt or a combination with high silt content
Fine, soft, and slightly dampLoam or a loam variation
Rocky and chalkyChalk or a combination with high chalk content
Spongy and dampPeat or a combination with high peat content

Ribbon test

In this test, you want to see how well your soil holds together.

  1. Hold a ball of moist soil about ½ to ¾ inch in diameter between your thumb and forefinger.
  2. If the soil isn’t wet, you can use a spray bottle to moisten it until it’s about the same consistency as modeling clay.
  3. Squeeze the ball of wet soil into a flat ribbon shape sticking out past your fingers. Keep squeezing so that the ribbon grows longer until it breaks.
  4. Once the soil ribbon breaks, measure it with a ruler or measuring tape. The length of the ribbon is an indication of your soil type (see table below).
Length of ribbonSoil type
No ribbonSand or a combination with mostly sand
Less than 1 inchLoam, sandy loam, or silt
1 to 2 inchesClay loam, sandy clay loam, or silty clay loam
More than 2 inchesClay, sandy clay, or silty clay

Having a hard time visualizing this test? Watch this quick demonstration from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Note: This test doesn’t apply to peat or chalk soils.

Settle test

This test shows how your soil settles in water, which can help determine the soil type.

  1. Add a handful of soil to a transparent container, such as clear plastic Tupperware or a glass jar.
  2. Add water on top of the soil, leaving at least 1 inch of free space in the container.
  3. Shake the mixture well.
  4. Leave it to settle for 12 hours.
  5. After 12 hours have passed, check the container to see what the mixture looks like.
How the mixture looksSoil type
Cloudy water with a layer of soil at the bottom of the containerClay, silt, or a mix of both with high clay or silt content
Mostly clear water with a thick layer of soil at the bottom of the containerSand or a mix of both with high sand content
Mostly clear water with distinct layers of different-sized particles at the bottom of the containerLoam or a loam variation
Pale gray water with white, gritty pieces at the bottom of the containerChalk or a mix of both with high chalk content
Slightly cloudy water, lots of particles floating on the surface of the water, and a thin layer of soil at the bottom of the containerPeat or a mix of both with high peat content

Other types of soil tests

There are other types of soil tests you can use to determine the make-up and properties of your soil. A lab test will give you the most accurate results, but a home soil test kit may be more convenient for the DIYer.

Here are some of the different ways to test your soil:

  • Soil test kit: You can purchase a soil test kit for a DIY method to determine the make-up of the type of soil you have in your lawn. With a soil test kit, you can determine if your soil is acidic or alkaline or if it has sufficient nutrients.
  • Analog: Analog tests give you results very quickly. With analog tests, you stick a metal spike made for testing soil into the ground, and the readings from the test will give you data on your soil’s moisture and light levels as well as the pH level.
  • Chemical tests: Make sure to follow directions for the soil test kit. The use of water and a reagent will help determine the pH level and nutrients in your soil.
  • Lab test: Collect a soil sample from your property and send it to be tested in a professional laboratory.
  • Paper strips: Mix the soil with water and then dip a paper strip in it to test the soil. The paper strip will change color depending on the soil’s pH level.
  • Penetrometer: Penetrometers measure a soil’s compaction levels and how resistant soil is to penetration. Knowing how compacted your soil is will let you know if your lawn needs aeration.

You can get a soil test from your local Cooperative Extension Service. The results will let you know the best way to take care of your yard so you can plan out your lawn care maintenance routine. Plus, you can figure out what lawn fertilizer you need to correct any nutrient deficiencies.

Other soil characteristics

Soil texture isn’t the only thing you need to know about your soil. The other important characteristics aren’t things you can see or feel.

Soil pH

Soil pH tells you whether your soil is acidic, alkaline, or neutral.

  • Acidic soils are commonly found in areas that experience frequent rainfall.
  • Neutral soils are usually ideal for growing plants because most nutrients are absorbed into the soil.
  • Alkaline soils are usually found in dry regions or areas where there isn’t much rainfall throughout the year.
illustration showing the pH levels of soil
Infographic by Juan Rodriguez

Neutral soils are usually the best soil type for most plants, although some plants prefer alkaline or acidic soils instead. So, the best soil pH for your garden depends on the plants you want to grow.

The soil’s pH level matters for your plants because it determines which plant nutrients the soil can absorb. If your soil can’t absorb nutrients, your plants can’t take them in.

Soil pH levels are categorized as follows:

Soil typeSoil pH levels
Acidic0 to 6.5
Neutral6.6 to 7.3
Alkaline7.4 to 14

Soil nutrition

Plants need many nutrients to grow healthy, and they get these nutrients from the soil. If your soil lacks essential nutrients, your plants or grass may turn weak and sickly.

Plants need varying amounts of different nutrients. The three categories of plant nutrients are:

  • Primary nutrients: Nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Plants need these three the most.
  • Secondary nutrients: Magnesium, calcium, and sulfur. Plants need less of these than the primary nutrients, but they still need a significant amount.
  • Micronutrients: Boron, zinc, iron, manganese, chlorine, copper, molybdenum, nickel, and cobalt. Plants only need a small amount of these.

Note: Most of the time, you’ll only need to worry if your soil is deficient in one of the primary nutrients.

Soil taxonomy

On a more technical level, there are 12 scientific soil orders to describe different types of soil around the world. Most of these may not be relevant to you and your garden, but the 12 soil orders are as follows:

  1. Gelisols: These are soils in permanently frozen regions that contain permafrost within 3 feet of the soil surface.
  2. Histosols: Often found in bogs, moors, peatlands, and similar settings, these soils comprise mostly organic matter.
  3. Spodosols: Mostly found in coniferous forests in wet climates, these acidic soils have a subsurface horizon enriched with iron and aluminum.
  4. Andisols: These soils, formed from weathered volcanic materials, such as ash or volcanic glass, are characterized by high fertility.
  5. Oxisols: These are highly weathered soils in tropical and subtropical regions.
  6. Vertisols: Made of expansive clay material that shrinks and swells drastically, these soils can damage roads and building foundations.
  7. Aridisols: These soils are found in extremely dry climates and often have a subsurface horizon of accumulated minerals.
  8. Ultisols: Extreme weathering has depleted the soluble minerals in the subsurface horizon of these acidic soils commonly found in humid climates.
  9. Mollisols: These soils have a thick, dark surface horizon and are usually found in prairies and grasslands.
  10. Alfisols: Often found in humid climates, mostly in forests, these fertile soils have a subsurface horizon enriched with clay and minerals.
  11. Inceptisols: A diverse group of soils found in various climates and habitats, often on slopes and in mountainous regions, these young soils have minimal horizon development.
  12. Entisols: These soils that don’t fit in the other 11 orders are usually found in areas with little to no soil development, such as dunes, flood plains, landslide areas, or areas behind retreating glaciers.

Improve your soil with amendments

Luckily for gardeners, “you get what you get, and you don’t fuss a bit” doesn’t apply to soil.

While it’s true that you can’t change your fundamental soil type, you can add materials to cancel out its negative properties. Those materials are called soil amendments, and different soil amendments can cultivate good soil in a variety of ways:

  • Lighten clay
  • Improve sandy soil’s moisture retention
  • Prevent erosion in silt
  • Balance soil pH
  • Add missing nutrients

Soil requires certain organic matter to maintain the nutrient content necessary for turfgrass and landscaping plants to survive. You also can change a soil’s pH level by adding soil amendments. Agricultural lime raises the pH level of soil, while sulfur lowers the soil’s pH level.

If the nutrients in your soil aren’t enough, you need to add amendments to boost your soil’s beneficial properties, such as:

  • Encourages the growth of beneficial fungi
  • Encourages worm activity
  • Water retention

FAQ about soil types

What is the best type of soil for growing plants?

Loam is usually the best soil for plant growth. It combines the strengths of sand, silt, and clay without their weaknesses.

What is a soil horizon?

Soil horizons are the layers of soil extending from the surface down into the ground. From top to bottom, the soil horizons are:

  • O horizon: Also known as humus, this horizon is a thin layer of organic matter, such as leaves, on top of the soil. However, not all soils have an O horizon.
  • A horizon: Typically around 5 to 10 inches deep, this topsoil layer is composed of rock particles, humus, roots, nutrients, air, and organic matter in which plants grow.
  • E horizon: Also known as the eluviated layer, E horizon is a layer of sand and silt particles containing no organic matter, clay, or minerals.
  • B horizon: This horizon, also known as subsoil, is a layer rich in minerals filtered down from the A and E horizons.
  • C horizon: Also known as parent material, C horizon is the rock material on the Earth’s surface from which the soil forms.
  • R horizon: While not actually part of the soil, R horizon or bedrock is the mass of rock beneath the soil.

What is compost soil?

You’ve probably heard of the eco-friendly benefits of composting since compost soil is useful for lawn projects. Compost can be applied to your yard as a fertilizer. This will help feed nutrients back to the soil and increase the health of your grass and landscaping plants.

Leave lawn maintenance to the pros

If you feel frustrated that nothing you plant seems to grow in your yard, it’s not necessarily your green thumb at fault. The issue could lie in the quality of your soil, which may lack the essential nutrients vital for plants to thrive.Knowing your soil is the first step to attaining a healthy lawn. The next step is to connect with a lawn care pro who knows the different types of soil, as they can take care of the other steps for you – from lawn mowing to weed control to leaf removal.

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Jordan Ardoin

Jordan Ardoin is a writer and editor with a passion for sustainable, earth-friendly gardening and lawn care practices. When she isn't sharing her knowledge about lawn care and landscaping, you can find her curled up with a good book and a cat in her lap.