Easy Home Mason Jar Soil Test

Before getting your garden started this season, test your soil composition and texture in minutes with a simple home mason jar soil test.

| March 2018

  • Be sure to collect multiple layers of soil to get a comprehensive reading.
    Photo by John Laurie
  • Using dish soap will separate the soil particles for a better reading.
    Photo by John Laurie
  • The different layers of soil in your mason jar will to composition of your soil.
    Photo by John Laurie
  • “Grow. Food. Anywhere.” by Mat Pember and Dillon Seitchik-Reardon is a guide to growing fresh and nutritious produce no matter the size and location of your garden.
    Photo courtesy of Hardie Grant Publishing

Grow. Food. Anywhere. (Hardie Grant, 2018) by Mat Pember and Dillon Seitchik-Reardon goes through every fruit and veggie you can think of, giving you the best tips on growing each, as well as the different buggies and diseases that may be coming after your garden. The following excerpt is their at-home mason jar soil test.

When going on a date, there are a few basic pieces of information you probably want to know before you proceed. Do they have any dietary requirements? Do they have a passport? Have they previously dated any of your friends? Although none of it is necessarily make-or-break, a little bit of information can go a long way in helping you to manage your expectations. It will also change how you approach the date. The Mason Jar Soil Test will offer similar insights for the garden. In fact, it’s a bit like garden speed dating.

While not as precise as sending soil off to the lab, the Mason Jar Soil test is a quick and easy way to get a snapshot of your soil texture, which is to say, the relative proportions of sand, silt and clay. Just like potential partners, your soil will not be perfect, but understanding its flaws will guide your approach to your shared life. If the two of you are going to build an enduring relationship, then it is always going to be a work in progress.

What You Need

• 470 milliliters (16 fluid ounces) sealable glass jar (or larger)
• Water
• 1 teaspoon dishwashing liquid
• Hand trowel or shovel


1. Find a clean jar with a threaded lid. We like this old passata bottle. Be sure that your jar has a vertical edge, as curved jars will distort the results.

2. Dig a small hole to a depth of about 20 centimeters (8 inches). Angle the shovel straight down to cut a thin cross section of the soil. Remember, this needs to fit in a jar, so don’t get too much.

3. Remove any obvious rocks or organic debris from the sample. You want to get your soil sample as clean as possible for this test.

4. Place your soil sample into the jar, so that it is about half full and add a teaspoon of dishwashing liquid. This will work as a surfactant, which helps to separate soil particles so that you have more accurate results.

5. Fill the jar nearly to the top with water and shake well. Leave the jar overnight to allow your muddy mixture to fully settle. The heaviest/largest particles should sink to the bottom, with finer sediment at the top.

6. Note the different layers of each soil type. Sand will settle on the bottom, clay in the middle and silt on top. Knowing what kind of soil you have will make it easier to choose plants that will thrive, and to add the right amendments to help improve it.

Soil Types

Potting Mix

It typically comes in a bag and is our human attempt at creating the perfect soil. Usually containing a 40–40–20 mix of sand, silt and clay, it also has some added extras: coconut/pine bark fibers to make soil friable and allow for better drainage/air flow; peat moss to improve friability and moderate soil dryness/wetness; organic matter, such as compost and/or manure; and perlite for aeration and drainage. As the name suggests, it is designed to be used in pots.


The ideal starting point for many in-ground or raised garden beds, loam consists of 40 percent sand, 40 percent silt and 20 percent clay. Many gardeners aspire to have a loam that is mixed with organic material, resulting in a soil that holds nutrients and water but still allows the excess to drain away. It’s truly the Goldilocks of soil.


The popcorn of the garden world. This naturally occurring volcanic glass mineral is heat-treated and expanded into light, porous kernels (they look like tiny pieces of styrofoam). Improving aeration and drainage, it also prevents compaction. It’s commonly added to potting mix to create wicking bed soil. Perlite is sterile, meaning it has been heat-treated to kill any pathogens.


This is a heat-treated and expanded mineral like perlite. Where perlite is excellent at draining water, vermiculite is good for water retention. It will add to soil structure and help prevent soil compaction. Commonly used for germinating seeds, vermiculite is sterile.

Expanded Clay

A heat-treated clay that forms lightweight aggregate balls, expanded clay is commonly used as a growing medium (instead of soil) for aquaponic and hydroponic gardening, because it is easy to use, light, porous, pH neutral, and does not compact. Expanded clay is sterile.

More from: Grow. Food. Anywhere.:

Using Natural and Artificial Light for Indoor Plants
How to Grow Plants from Cuttings
Hand Pollinating your Garden

Excerpted with permission from Grow. Food. Anywhere. by Mat Pember and Dillon Seitchik Reardon, published by Hardie Grant Books February 2018, RRP $24.99 hardcover.

1/19/2019 9:08:25 AM

I was hoping for something useful here like if this is what you found this is what you should do. What everyone should know is each state had a state Extension office that will test your soil for free or very little money and tell you what you need to do to enrich it. This article was a collection of information that was not tied together nor did it help you to know what to do to help your particular soil. You have a great platform please do better articles

1/18/2019 11:35:10 AM

Hasn’t vermiculite, like asbestos been banned due to health hazards?

1/18/2019 10:03:03 AM

Owned a hardware store for 30 years (& worked there for years before when Dad owned it). Never saw or sold a "potting mix" that was a 40–40–20 mix of sand, silt and clay. Potting mixes are usually mostly peat moss with some perlite and maybe some charcoal. Authors here (and editors) need to check their facts!



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