The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Jar test to measure soil texture

Jar test

Do you want to learn about your soil without paying a lab?  Jar tests are a quick and fun way to figure out the texture of your soil.  Simply put some of your garden soil in a Mason jar, add a bunch of water, shake it up, and let the soil settle into layers.  Sand will drop to the bottom, followed by silt, then (eventually) clay.

In the photo at the top of this post, my soil has been settling for about a day, but there's still a lot of clay in suspension (dirty-looking water.)  I wanted to post about it now, but I'll take a second round of measurements later once the water is entirely clear.

Soil texture triangleUsing the data so far, I can figure out the percentage of each type of soil particle by measuring how high the layer is and dividing by the height of all the soil in the jar.  My soil is 29% sand, 64% silt, and 7% clay.

Next I use a soil texture triangle to figure out what type of soil I have.  I start at 29% sand on the bottom of the triangle, then follow that line up and to the left at an angle until I reach the line for 64% silt and 7% clay.  I put a red dot at the result --- a silt loam.

You can get this same information by looking at the soil survey for your area.  I have an ancient paper copy, but you can get the same information online nowadays.  The front garden area where I took the sample for my jar test is listed as a Teas-Litz silt loam --- looks like I did it right!

Here's what the soil survey says about Teas-Litz silt loam:

Steep slopes, ease of erosion, and difficulty of controlling runoff make this complex unsuitable in most places for cultivation. A very small part is used for corn and wheat, which under common management produce low yields.  Pasture seems to be the best use, and nearly all the cleared land is so used.  The pasture plants are generally poor and broomsedge is common in most pastures.  Under the common management 5 to 6 acres of this complex are needed to graze one head of cattle; under the better practices about 4 acres.

I'm actually pretty glad that I didn't pore over the soil survey while buying land because the USDA's analysis is wrong for no-till, homestead-style management.  This soil is my front garden, which I consider high quality, and it produces great vegetables.  Of course, that's because I hold all of my topsoil in place with mulch, rarely churn up the soil, and add lots of organic matter.  The power of permaculture!

Our chicken waterer never spills or fills with POOP.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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My husband does this test with our soil as well. Thanks for a very nice writeup of the process.
Comment by Dene Brock Sun Nov 20 21:22:18 2011
I'm glad you enjoyed the writeup! Once I clean out my jar, I'm itching to try out the mule garden, which has completely different soil. Jar tests are a bit addictive. :-)
Comment by anna Mon Nov 21 08:33:19 2011

Can you please tell me how I can get permission to use your jar/soil test photo in a book? Thanks! Janet

Comment by Janet Thu Aug 27 15:09:37 2020

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