Identifying the soil type in your backyard is vital for achieving successful gardening and landscaping outcomes. Various soil types possess different drainage abilities, nutrient levels, and water retention capacities.

In a previous blog post, we have already delved into the important considerations for landscape planting. Nevertheless, this blog post will concentrate specifically on the process of identifying soil types in Western Washington. Recognizing the soil type in your yard is essential for fruitful gardening and landscaping projects. By establishing the soil type, you will be able to evaluate its drainage abilities, nutrient levels, and water retention capacities. This guide will furnish you with step-by-step instructions on how to visually examine the soil’s color, texture, and structure to identify the specific soil type in your backyard.

Visual Inspection

Soil Color

When observing the color of the soil, it is important to note that it can vary greatly, ranging from light to dark shades. This variation in color is actually an indicator of different soil types and can provide valuable information about the soil’s composition and characteristics.

Light-colored soil, for instance, often indicates the presence of sandy soil. Sandy soil is characterized by its coarse texture and high drainage capacity. This type of soil is typically light in color because it contains larger particles that allow for better aeration and water movement. The lighter color of sandy soil is a result of its composition, which usually consists of a high percentage of sand particles and a lower percentage of silt and clay particles.

On the other hand, dark-colored soil tends to indicate the presence of clay or loamy soil. Clay soil is known for its fine texture and high water-holding capacity. It has a higher percentage of clay particles, which are smaller than sand particles, and this contributes to its ability to retain moisture. The dark color of clay soil is often a result of the higher organic matter content it contains. This organic matter, such as decomposed plant material and humus, adds nutrients to the soil and enhances its fertility.

Loamy soil, which is considered ideal for most plants, is a combination of sand, silt, and clay particles. It has a balanced texture, providing good drainage while also retaining soil moisture. The color of loamy soil can vary depending on the proportions of each particle type present, but it often falls within the medium range of colors, neither too light nor too dark.

Soil Texture

When you hold a handful of soil and feel its consistency, you can differentiate between various soil types based on their characteristics. For instance, sandy soil has a rough texture when touched. It is made up of larger particles and lacks the ability to maintain its form when compressed. If you were to compress sandy soil, it would effortlessly crumble and disintegrate.

On the contrary, clay soil possesses a sticky feel and a much finer consistency compared to sandy soil. When you compress clay soil, it retains its shape and does not crumble. This is due to the minuscule size of its particles, which enable them to adhere to each other. Clay soil is often linked to inadequate drainage because of its compactness.

Loamy soil, recognized as the optimal soil type for gardening and farming, exhibits a crumbly texture. It is a combination of sand, clay, and silt particles, which contribute to its distinctive feel. When you compress loamy soil, it maintains its shape like clay soil, but it also breaks apart effortlessly. This loose structure facilitates effective drainage while simultaneously retaining sufficient moisture for plants to flourish.

DYI Jar Test

Collect Soil Samples

Properly collecting a soil sample is crucial because it provides valuable information about the soil type and its characteristics. Following these steps will ensures the integrity of the sample, allowing for accurate analysis.

To properly collect a soil sample, follow these steps:

  1. Excavate a small hole in your yard: Begin by digging a small hole in the area you want to test. The hole should be deep enough to reach different layers of soil, also known as soil horizons.
  2. Take samples from different soil layers: Once the hole is dug, collect soil samples from various depths. This will give you a more accurate representation of the soil composition in your yard. Use a clean gardening tool or scoop to collect the soil.
  3. Avoid contamination: It’s important to ensure that your soil sample is not contaminated. To do this, make sure the gardening tool or scoop you use is clean. Avoid touching the soil with your hands to prevent any transfer of contaminants.
  4. Store the soil sample properly: Place the soil sample in a clean jar or a sealed plastic bag. This will help preserve the integrity of the sample and prevent any moisture loss or contamination.

Prepare the Jar

Mixing the soil and water properly for a jar soil test is essential to get accurate results. Follow these steps to ensure a thorough mixing:

  1. Use a clean jar: Start by selecting a clean and transparent jar with a lid. Make sure there is no residue or contaminants in the jar that could affect the test results.
  2. Add the soil sample: Fill the jar about one-third full with the soil sample collected from different depths in your yard. This will give you a representative mix of the soil composition.
  3. Add water: After adding the soil, fill the jar with water until it is almost full. Ensure that the water is evenly distributed throughout the jar.
  4. Close the jar tightly: Secure the lid tightly to prevent any leakage or spillage during the shaking process.
  5. Shake the jar vigorously: Hold the jar firmly with both hands and shake it vigorously. Shake the jar back and forth, up and down, or in circular motions to thoroughly mix the soil and water. This will help release any particles that may be trapped in the soil and allow them to settle properly.
  6. Allow the soil to settle: Once you have finished shaking the jar, set it aside and let it sit undisturbed for some time. Over time, the soil particles will start to settle at the bottom of the jar, while the water will become clearer.

By following these steps, you can ensure that the soil and water are mixed properly for a jar soil test, providing you with accurate information about the soil composition and characteristics in your yard.

Observe the Layers

After allowing the jar to settle undisturbed for a couple of hours or overnight, you can interpret the results of the soil jar test by observing the different layers that have formed in the jar. These layers will help you identify the different types of soil present in your yard. Here’s how to interpret the results:

  • Sand layer: The bottom layer of the jar will consist of sand particles. Sandy soils are characterized by their larger particle size, which allows for good drainage. If you see a thick layer of sand at the bottom of the jar, it indicates that your soil is predominantly sandy.
  • Silt layer: Above the sand layer, you may observe a layer of silt particles. Silt soils have medium-sized particles and offer good drainage while retaining some moisture. If you see a layer of fine particles above the sand layer, your soil may be silt-based.
  • Clay layer: The top layer in the jar will contain clay particles. Clay soils have the smallest particle size, which leads to poor drainage but good water and nutrient retention. If you see a layer of fine particles at the top of the jar, your soil may be clay-based.
  • Floating particles: In the case of peat soils, you may notice particles floating on the water surface. Peat soils are rich in organic matter and are often found in wetland areas. If you see floating particles, it suggests the presence of peat soil in your yard.
  • Cloudy water: Silty and clay soils tend to keep the water cloudy even after settling. If the water remains cloudy with no distinct layers, it indicates the presence of a significant amount of silt and clay in your soil.
  • Gray water with gritty fragments: Chalky soils will result in gray water with lightly colored, gritty fragments settling at the bottom of the jar. These soils are characterized by a high content of calcium carbonate and are commonly found in areas with limestone deposits.
  • Fine particles floating on clear water: Loamy soils, which are a desirable gardening soil type, will result in clear water with fine particles floating on top. Loamy soils are a balanced combination of sand, silt, and clay, offering good drainage, moisture retention, and fertility.

By carefully observing the layers and soil characteristics in the jar, you can determine the soil type in your yard. This information will be helpful for making informed decisions regarding landscape planting, soil amendments, and understanding soil drainage.


Identifying the type of soil in your backyard is crucial for understanding its characteristics and making informed decisions about gardening and landscaping. By visually inspecting the soil, conducting a jar test, and performing a percolation test, you can determine whether your soil is sandy, clay, or loamy. Armed with this knowledge, you can take appropriate steps to improve your soil quality and create a thriving outdoor space. To learn more, you can visit our nursery and garden center in Woodinville WA.



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