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  • Sue

Back to basics

Updated: Nov 7, 2021

The first thing to understand when taking on a new garden is the soil. Soil character and health are going to determine a big chunk of the garden's personality and it is important that you take this into account if you and your new garden are going to get along.

That being said, my new garden and I have had a challenging start - as this appears to be its personality:

Or maybe I have just chosen an unfortunate place to start digging.

There are two things to consider when analysing your soil - what its type is and acidity/alcalinity.


This is, as you would expect, what it is made of. If your soil has very fine particles which bind together or which can be moulded into little shapes which hold together when the soil is damp (i.e. if you can roll it into a sausage between your fingers) then it is a clay soil. If it is very light and falls between your fingers even when damp then it is sandy. Sandy particles are big and clay particles are very fine. A third variety is silt, which is finer than sand but not as fine as clay.

Most soils are somewhere between the three and, beside the mineral content which determines the type there is usually a degree of humus from decayed plant matter. The ideal soil is structure is mid way between clay, silt and sandy and is a loam - ideally a silty loam which is the sort of soil you find on river flood plains. As example of this is the Garonne river valley, which is why that area is so fantastic for crops.

We have a clay soil. It is characteristic of the Entre Deux Mers region and helps give our wines their character. Clay soils are slow to warm up, hold water and are heavy and physically very hard to cultivate. On the plus side they retain water longer than a sandy soil, and are less likely to have nutrients washed out of them.


The mineral base of a soil can help determine how acidic it is - or not, as is the case with us. We have a soil which is clay over limestone and limestone is very alkaline. Again, this is typical of the wine growing area we live in and is also very common with clay. Think of heathland or moorland which has light, sandy soil - this has a tendancy to be acidic. Then think of the plants you find in these two places and you will see that they are very different. The alkalinity of our soil will determine what we can grow.

You can buy kits which test for the acidity and alkalinity of soil. The perfect soil is a silty loam with a pH (measure of acidity/alkalinity) of around 5.5 to 6. I once had oneof these - in Devon when we lived in the Otter river valley, and it was bliss. If you don't have a kit, then look at the plants which are growing around you naturally and that will give you a good indication of whether your soil veers towards acid or alkaline.

On our clay, alkaline soil the things that grow easily are brambles, elderberry trees, hydrangeas with pink flowers, weigeila, forsythia, virginia creepers, irises......chard, asparagus, grapes, peaches, cherries....the sort of things that we see in this part of France as a matter of course.

So....we have a clay soil, with limestone underneath. It doesn't appear to have a deep layer of top soil, so is going to need the addition of lots of humus and will love having various mulches applied to it.

Time to roll my sleeves up and get back to that wheelbarrow.

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