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Gardening with Kids

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Fun experiment to determine your soil texture

November 23, 2021

How to do a soil texture test

How to do a Soil Texture Test

I first published this article in November 2011, but with better cameras, and a flurry of tests being undertaken this year in various community gardens, it seemed like a good time to update it.

Why? Getting to know your soil is half way to determining how well your plants will grow.

Soil texture describes how soil feels. It can influence how plants grow as it affects water and nutrient efficiency. If you can identify your soil type, whether it’s clay, sand, peaty or loam, you can work with the soil you have and grow plants that prefer the growing conditions, rather than constantly fighting against them.

How to find out what your soil texture is

How to do a soil texture testA fun experiment you can carry out at home (and a great one for the children to help with too) is to place about a cup full of your soil (preferably) into a straight sided clean jar, removing any larger pebbles or stones first.

Add a tablespoon of laundry detergent and a tablespoon of salt to the soil then fill the jar with water to the top before screwing on a lid tightly.

Shake the jar for five minutes or so (you may need help!) then leave the jar undisturbed where you can see it. After a couple of days the soil particles will settle into layers.

Reading the Results

As the sand particles are the heaviest they will sink to the bottom first, followed by silt then clay. The thickness of each layer will help to determine how much of each is contained in your soil.

As you can see from the results of this soil sample taken from a community garden and marked on the jar, a layer of sand has settled at the bottom, then a layer of silt, followed by a small layer of clay at the top.  We have estimated that this sample is 65% sand, 30% silt and 10% clay. If you follow the lines in the soil texture chart below to cross reference, you can see that the soil sample is considered sandy loam.

Soil Texture Triangle

Source: USDA Soil Texture Triangle


You can often identify your soil type by looking at it and feeling it, without the need for an experiment (this was just for a bit of fun). Sandy soil is lighter in colour than clay for instance and peat much darker again.

How to determine soil without the experiment

Grab a handful of dry soil and add a few drops of water, mixing well until it become pliable. Try rolling the soil into a ball.

If it feels gritty, if it crumbles when you try to roll it into a ball then your soil is sandy.

Course sand feels like granulated sugar when rubbed between fingers.
Medium sand feels like table salt when rubbed.
Fine sand is harder to detect unless you hold your fingers near your ears as you rub it.

Sandy soils are easy to dig but water and nutrients flow through them easily, meaning they dry out quickly and will have to be replenished regularly. Sandy soils warm quickly and retain their heat (just think of a warm beach) which some plants especially like, particularly carrots and their roots will swell.

If, when you try to roll the soil into a ball in your hand it holds together well, or if it feels much finer than sand, then your soil texture will be silt or clay. If it feels like plasticine then its fine clay whereas silt particles will leave it feeling like icing sugar. If you can roll the soil into a sausage and it forms a ring, its clay. If it forms a sausage but breaks up as you try to make a ring and feels silky, its silty loam.

Clay soils are described as heavy and can be very sticky to dig. If you try digging when clay soil is wet you can damage the structure of it. Clay soils are slow to warm up but retain water better in the hotter months and therefore keep their valuable nutrients for longer.  Because their particles are so tiny they tend to pack together tightly which creates poor drainage and aeration and can contribute towards roots rotting.

Silty soils feel silky or soapy when moist.
Clay soils feel sticky when moist.

How to improve your soil texture

You can improve your soil texture and structure by adding well-rotted organic matter. It will help to bind the particles in sandy soils and separate them in clay soils, providing space for air, water, nutrients and organisms to travel.

If you’d like to delve deeper into soils, Teagasc, the Agricultural and Food Development Authority in Ireland have produced a comprehensive soil map that you can find here.


3 Reasons Why We Need to Build More Bug Hotels

July 19, 2015

3 Reasons Why We Need More Bug Hotels

Bug hotels have grown in popularity over recent years as we’ve become more aware of the plight of pollinators and the need to protect and encourage them, but why bother building them a winter home? Surely there’s enough nooks and crannies for insects to hang out in without creating bug hotels? You might not even like insects so why encourage more? These thoughts were in my mind recently when I was encouraging two community garden groups to build bug hotels in their gardens.

Loss of Habitats

Insect and pollinator habitats are dwindling due to large-scale commercial farming, hedgerow removal and human population growth. A few untidy gardens might not be enough for insects to feel safe and to prosper. Insects are essential to our existence and they need hidey places. If you need any more reasons to build a bug hotel and get stuck into a garden project that will enhance the space outdoors for you and the beneficial wildlife that surrounds it, here’s three more.

3 reasons why we need to build more bug hotels

Holes drilled in wood for solitary bees

No. 1 – Solitary Bees & Beneficial Bugs Need Our Help

Created carefully, bug hotels can provide good temporary residences for solitary bees to nest in and rest their weary heads as they hibernate during the winter months.

If you’re wondering why solitary bees are grabbing our attention, here’s a few figures for you to ponder over:

♥  There are 20,000 recorded bee species in the world and despite all the publicity honeybees receive, it might surprise you that 95% of the bee species are solitary.

♥  In Ireland we have 97 bee species, of which 76 are solitary bees

♥  Of the 100 crops that provide 90% of the world’s food supply, 71 are pollinated by bees.

♥  In Europe alone, 84% of the 264 crop species are animal pollinated and 4,000 vegetable varieties exist thanks to pollination by bees (UNEP, 2010).

Solitary bees rock!

Dr Una Fitzpatrick from Ireland’s National Biodiversity Centre published a paper in 2006 stating:

“Unfortunately, Irish pollinators are in decline. More than half of Ireland’s bee species have undergone substantial declines in their numbers since 1980, with 30% considered threatened with extinction from Ireland according to IUCN criteria.”

No. 2 – Bug Hotels Can Be Beautiful Pieces of Garden Art

3 reasons why we need more bug hotels

One of several Bug Hotels at the Delta Centre

If you’re able to take a trip to the Delta Centre in Carlow, look out for the bug hotels dotted around the grounds, adding to the look and feel of the gardens.

3 Reasons Why We Need To Build More Bug Hotels

Bug Hotels for Horticultural Therapy

Ian made the skeleton of this small bug hotel out of scraps of wood at home so that I could take it into my horticultural therapy class for the adults to fill.

I instantly fell in love with it and, despite already having lots of places for bugs to hang out here at home, would like to encourage more. I can already picture one of these hanging on the wall opposite my kitchen window.

No. 3 – Bug Hotels Offer Learning & Therapeutic Opportunities for Kids and Adults

3 reasons why we need more bug hotels in our gardens |

Glen na Bearu Insect Hotel

Glen na Bearu is an inter-generational community garden project where everyone is being encouraged to reuse and upcycle. They opted for a large, pallet style insect hotel complex.

During my last morning with the group we discussed how best to create the bug hotel and I left them instructions so that they could work on it during the summer months with both the older gardening club and the teenagers who meet there at the youth club.

An Taisce created a handout detailing how to build a pallet style bug hotel which they found useful. You can find it here in English or as Gaeilge here.

When you build a bug hotel it’s difficult not to learn about the habitats of the beneficial creatures you’re hoping to attract. Ladybirds like dry sticks and leaves to hibernate in while lacewings enjoy bedding down among straw, cardboard and dry grass. These two insects in particular are excellent for keeping aphids at bay as their larvae have ferocious appetites for the little bugs, making them fantastic beneficial insects in our gardens.

3 Reasons Why We Need To Build More Bug Hotels

Straw and cardboard for lacewings

Castle Activation Unit in Carlow is a day centre for adults with intellectual disabilities. We found that carefully poking the pieces of slate, fir cones and sticks into the bug hotel was like getting stuck into a jigsaw puzzle, something that many of the adults enjoy doing at the centre.

Research has shown that puzzles are great for keeping our minds active so not only is this a fun and educational project, it also makes a good therapeutic one too and all the clients who participated in this workshop were delighted with the outcome.

3 Reasons Why We Need To Build More Bug Hotels Our own children are older now but I know when they were younger they would have really enjoyed collecting all the sticks and cones lying around and adding them to a hotel for the bugs.

3 Reasons Why We Need More Bug HotelsBug Hotel Aftercare

For all the positive reasons I’ve encountered for putting bug hotels in our gardens, I came across one negative from Naturing Nature who suggest that all those interesting holes and crevices can harbour unwanted pests and diseases.

Just like a regular hotel, if the toilets aren’t clean and the floors aren’t hoovered regularly, germs can spread. Good husbandry is essential if we want to encourage safety, warmth and welcome in our bug hotels. In the late springtime when the majority of insects have moved out, replace the straw and cardboard and sweep out the slates and bricks that might be hiding unwanted bugs or germs, replacing them with fresh bedding and new places for insects to scurry into if needs be.

If you’d like to see some more ideas for bug hotels, check out this Inspiration Green page which has some spectacular ideas while the Eco Ecolution blog mentions several ideas for filling your bug hotel.



How to Make Mini Scarecrows

July 13, 2012

Are you looking for an indoor activity that will entice kids of all ages away from the TV or computer for a couple of hours? If so these mini scarecrows can be made by young and old alike using household odds and ends.

How to make mini scarecrows

How to make mini scarecrows

All you need to make these scarecrows are wooden spoons, pipe cleaners or lollypop sticks for the arms, permanent markers to draw on the faces (with googly eyes optional) and a selection of wool, fabrics, buttons & beads. Glue, staples or needles & thread can be used to fix the ‘clothes’ on or just tie them with wool or string.

How to make mini scarecrows - hippy scarecrow

Simply wrap a pipe cleaner around the wooden spoon, or fix a lollipop stick across it to form arms and tie them on securely with wool. Add fabric and accessories to create hair and clothing.

How to make mini scarecrows - lady scarecrowI found this activity very calming for all involved and enjoyed sitting down, letting the imagination run away with itself, and seeing how differently each of the mini scarecrows turned out, developing personalities as we clothed them.

Children might enjoy having a puppet show with the scarecrows when they’ve finished making them, before they’re finally placed into the garden to scare the birds away.

How to make mini scarecrows - lady scarecrowThe joy of this activity is seeing where the imagination goes. Armed with the same bag of bits and bobs, every mini scarecrow is different. They can also be adapted for themes such as Halloween scarecrows, Christmas scarecrows. The only limiting factor is imagination!

If you’re looking for some more ideas that will help to keep kids away from the TV or computer, you might like some earlier blog posts.


Gardening with Kids – How to Make Recycled Plastic Flowers

June 16, 2012
Gardening with Kids - How to Make Recycled Plastic Flowers

Recycled Plastic Flowers

Do you ever buy the small minerals for your children for trips or treats? If so don’t throw them into the recycle bin, why not make a few colourful recycled plastic flowers for your garden?

You will need scissors, empty bottles, strong wire (I used a metal coat hanger), pliers, then twine, gardeners wire or an elastic band to secure. Decorations of your choice.

Wash the empty bottles out and cut them just above the half way mark.

Gardening with Kids - How to Make Recycled Plastic FlowersTaking the bottom piece, cut strips as far as the fold that’s in the bottle to make the petals. They can be as thin or thick as you like. We found the thinner they were the prettier but whatever your child can manage. Repeat with the top half, once again stopping the cuts at the fold. Bend each cut strip outwards so that it flattens, just like a flower.

Gardening with Kids - How to Make Recycled Plastic Flowers

Here’s where an adult will have to intervene. Using the wire cutting part of the pliers, cut the wire to the appropriate length – about 30cm is a good size. The bases of the bottles are very difficult to cut holes into. I found the easiest method was to hold the piece of wire over a hot flame, the heat from which will pierce the base easily.

Gardening with Kids - How to Make Recycled Plastic Flowers

Once the wire is through the plastic bend the top over to form a loop with the pliers. The loop should be about the width of the neck of the bottle as it’s this that will keep the flower in place once you’ve threaded the top onto it.

If you have still have the cap, simply screw it back onto the bottle, hiding the metal wire. If you’ve lost it, wrap some string or raffia around it or even make a little woollen pompom that will act as the centre piece.

Gardening with Kids - How to Make Recycled Plastic Flowers

To stop the flower sliding back down the metal wire, just tie some string or an elastic band between the wire and the back of the bottle.

That’s it! You can decorate with paints, ribbons, raffia, wobbly eyes ~ anything you have to hand that might jazz your flowers up – or just leave them plain. The flowers are sure to liven up a garden on a dull day.

I can’t take all the credit for this post as it was inspired by Penny at the Millennium Community Garden in Kilkenny who’d been cutting out lots of bottles ready for a summer kids camp. There they will be making a wall mural with a gardening theme (and my own children would like to thank you for the idea too Penny as it meant I had to buy a pack of bottles to make this project with them – double bonus :))


Gardening with Kids: Grow Your Own Grass Head

September 13, 2011

Gardening With Kids - How to Make Grass HeadsIf you’re looking for a way to get children interested (and some adults) in growing seeds, how about growing your own grass head for a fun project?

Gardening with Kids: How to Make a Grass HeadAll you need are some nylon pop socks, compost and grass seeds – permanent markers, felt and wool optional.

Just place a handful of grass seed into the toe of the pop sock then add compost to whatever size head you want. Once full, tie a knot in the loose end and snip off the excess fabric.

Gardening with Kids: How to Make a Grass HeadPlace on a dish and water until the compost is moist, then just add water as required. The grass will keep growing for weeks – months even – so can be snipped and styled frequently.

Here’s a short time-lapse video clip showing you how your grass may grow and die back again in three weeks.

Do you remember making grass heads when you were a child? Do you make them with your own kids?