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Getting down and dirty; Now is the time to start improving your soil to make sure that your garden is healthy this summer.

Byline: GARDENING With Diarmuid Gavin

THE foundation of any good garden is its soil. Before you plant a single species in your plot, it's best to know exactly what type you have - acid or alkaline, chalky or boggy, free-draining or clay.

And once you analyse your soil, you can find out how to improve it and what species will do best in your soil type. So, before we launch into the growing season and planting, let's get down to earth and examine what's in the ground.

Soil is a mixture of organic matter, minerals and living organisms, all of which contribute to the fertility of the soil. Plants need good supplies of oxygen, nutrients and water from the soil and its general structure has a direct effect on how well these elements are retained.

Plant roots are designed to take in water, but also need air pockets to be available in order for them to breathe.

If soil is too free-draining, the water and nutrients will leach away too quickly. The balance is quite a delicate one - a good soil is hard to come by and once you have it, care must be taken to look after it as compaction and digging can destroy a soil.

In general, a good soil has a loose structure, is water retentive and has a good amount of organic matter - the blacker the soil, the more organic it is. The main inorganic content of your soil will be made up of the bedrock that has been eroded and deposited over time - clay, sand and silt as well as larger rock and stone. And it is the relative proportions of these different-sized particles that affect the overall structure of the soil - the different size particles stick together and determine just how much air will be trapped in the resulting spaces.

Clay particles are small, flat and sticky whereas sand is larger and rounder. This will therefore retain free-draining than a sandy soil.

The perfect soil is an approximate equal mix of the three - clay to hold on to nutrients and sand and silt to build good structure for air and water.

Soil can be improved over the years by adding amounts of whichever element is lacking in your mix.

So that's it - just remember your soil is the most important factor in the success of your garden and investing a little time and thought into its care these next few weeks will reap huge rewards later.

WHAT'S YOUR SOIL TYPE? IF IT is crumbly and dark in colour and you can see some earthworms, lucky you - your soil is good. If it is light in colour and very dry, it is more likely to be a sandy soil and will need some treatment.

Mediterranean and drought-tolerant plants are best suited to a sandy soil.

Clay soil will stick together if you squeeze it and retains water in the winter making it unsuitable for Med plants such as lavender and cistus, left.

HOW YOU CAN HELP YOUR SOIL ORGANIC matter is the absolute key to achieving a good soil. This rots down and helps to stick the soil particles together in sandy soil. As earthworms digest matter, they move through a heavy clay soil improving the structure. So dig in plenty of wellrotted farmyard manure, garden compost and leaf mould. Slow-release additions such as bark and shredded twigs can be applied as a mulch and left to rot down every year - these will certainly help matters. Sand can be added to lighten up heavy clay soils.

IT'S ALL ABOUT GOOD CHEMISTRY ONE of the most important factors of your soil is its measure of acidity of alkalinity - a very simple PH kit, can be found in any DIY store so that you can establish this before investing in any plants that won't suit your soil.

The ideal soil on which most plants will grow is ph 6.5 to 7. If you have acidic soil, there are many beautiful plants that you can grow well such as rhododendrons, camellias, pieris, heathers and kalmia.

However, if you want to grow vegetables on acid soil, it's well worth adding some lime to sweeten it up a month before you start planting. If you don't have acidic soil and want to grow rhodos, , and azlaeas, do so in pots with ericaceous compost - don't try and make your soil acidic. Matching the right plant to the right soil will produce the best results - good gardening is keeping things simple and staying realistic.

JASMINUM NUDIFLORUM Winter Jasmine AH, IF only it smelled as sweet as other members of the jasmine family.

Setting aside the lack of scent, this jasmine does a great job in bringing light into a dark space in the winter months.

Native to China, the yellow flowers bloom on naked stems - that's the nude bit in 'nudiflorum'!

It's not really a climber, though you often see it against walls and trellis.

It's pretty tolerant of moist soil and grows well in sun or even a bit of shade. Prune hard in spring after flowering to keep it in check.

WHAT TO DO THIS WEEK | PLANT hardy vegetable seeds in your outdoor seedbed or under cover in colder areas. You can start sowing broad beans, carrots, salad leaves, radishes and parsnips.

Sow tomatoes, aubergines and peppers indoors or in heated propagators. | YOU can also start sowing summer bedding seeds in the glasshouse. Hardy annuals can be sown in pots or, if it's milder where you live, directly outside.

| PLANT summer flowering bulbs such as lilies and gladioli in containers or in beds.

| PRUNE winter flowering shrubs such as mahonia and viburnum when they have finished their display.

| BULBS that were forced to flower indoors such as hyacinths can be planted outdoors now.

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It takes time to improve your soil and compost is one of the easiest ways to
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Mar 3, 2016
Words:981
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