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Soil Ribbons

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How do you figure out what kind of soil you have? Make a soil ribbon of course!

Soils contain four parts: weathered minerals, organic matter, water and air. All of these different parts work together and effect how plants grow and how the soil can be used. Rocks and minerals weather or break down over time into smaller particles. These particles are called sand, silt, and clay. Sand is the largest soil particle, followed by silt, and clay is the smallest.

Soils are different amounts of sand, silt, and clay mixed together. The kind of mixture is called soil texture. Soil scientists determine soil texture by making something called a soil ribbon.

Supplies

  • 3-4 cups of different soils

  • Spray bottle

  • Bucket of water

  • Paper towels or a rag

Let’s Do it!

  1. To make your own soil ribbon, take an egg-sized soil sample, and spray it with water to lightly moisten it.

  2. Mix the soil and water together. If it is too dry, and completely falls apart, spray more water. If it is too wet, add dry soil.

  3. When you are trying to figure out what kind of soil texture you have, think about this:

    • Sand tends to have a gritty texture, like salt or sugar, and it falls apart when squeezed into a ball.

    • Soil with a lot of silt has a silky feel, similar to flour.

    • Clay tends to be sticky and greasy, and it easily forms a ball.

    • Most soils have varying amounts of these particles, and will have a combination of the properties.

  4. Once you have a moist soil ball, gently press your thumb and push the soil over your forefinger into a ribbon.

  5. The longer you can make your ribbon, the higher the clay content. Clayey soil can ribbon out or three-fourths of an inch or greater, Figure 2.

  6. If your ribbon is short (less than three-fourths of an inch) and cracks, the soil is considered to have a loamy texture (usually containing varying amounts of sand, silt, and clay).

Talk it Over!

Ask yourself these questions while you are observing your soil:

  1. What does the soil feel like?

  2. What does the soil look like? Is it heavy? What color is it?

  3. Is there evidence of plant material or other living materials?

Keep Digging

Do you love making soil ribbons? Figure out exactly what kind of soil texture you have by using the soil texture by feel guide. Do you have a “sandy loam” or maybe a “sandy clay loam!” Let us know! Upload a photo of your soil ribbon to earn a Super Soil Sleuth Badge!

Extra Resources 

Soil texture by feel 

Soil Ribbons PDF Activity