Working in Your Florida Soil

A cross-section of Florida soil

A cross-section of Florida soil.

Good, nutritious soil is the basis for any plant's success. To the frustration of many gardeners, Florida's "soil" is mostly sand.

This gray, fine soil is called Myakka, (pronounced My-yakah), an Indian word for "big waters." Only found in Florida, Myakka covers the majority of the state—more than 1½ million acres—and is actually our official state soil.

While the majority of the state is covered in Myakka, soil properties can vary widely. The soils of North and Central Florida are typically very sandy, while in the panhandle, the soil can contain substantial amounts of clay. Clay soils compact more easily and drain slower than sandy soils.

Meanwhile, down south in the Everglades, soils tend to be peat-based and extremely fertile. If you live in this area, you may not need to amend your soil. Finally, in extreme South Florida, soils are often shallow and have a high pH due to the influence of the limestone bedrock.

For best results in any soil, always choose plants that tolerate the site conditions.

Soil Health

Soil health is a key factor to the success of your garden. Healthy soil is alive and full of active microorganisms, most of which are invisible to the naked eye. It's only with these organisms that soil can produce plants. Healthy soil is loose, holds moisture, and has an adequate supply of plant nutrients.

But the fine "sugar sand" we have here in Florida doesn't hold water or nutrients very well. Plus, many homes are built on fill soil that has been compacted by construction.

Soil compaction is usually the result of heavy foot or vehicle traffic. Soil particles get packed together, reducing the number and size of the spaces between the particles. This makes it difficult for plant roots to grow and take up water and nutrients. It can also lead to unnecessary stormwater runoff.

In new homes where construction may have caused widespread soil compaction, loosen soil with a pitchfork or tiller, and consider incorporating organic matter before landscaping. If you're repeatedly walking or driving over the same part of your lawn, install permeable pavers to serve as paths or driveways. They'll help distribute the weight of the traffic and still allow water to filter through.

Soil pH

The pH of a soil is the measure of its acidity or alkalinity. Essential plant nutrients like iron become more or less available depending on the soil pH. So your soil's pH can affect the health of your plants.

To determine your soil's pH, bring a soil sample to your county Extension office for a soil test. You can take a sample from a limited area, like a bed or small garden, or, for a large area like a lawn, you can take samples from multiple locations to get an average reading. Detailed directions come with a soil sample kit, which you can get from your county Extension office or from the IFAS Extension soil testing laboratory.

Once you have the results, you can choose plants that are adapted to your conditions. Most plants do best in a slightly basic soil, but some, like blueberries and azaleas, prefer strongly acidic soils.

It's also possible to alter the pH of your soil by adding supplements like lime or sulfur. But the effects may be temporary, and applying too much lime or sulfur can damage your plants.

Organic Soil Amendments

You can improve your soil with a host of Florida-friendly organic amendments, such as compost, manure, or even worm castings. By doing so, you’ll increase the nutrient content of the soil, help soil retain moisture, and also stabilize soil pH. Soil amendments are especially helpful for flower beds and vegetable gardens, since these plants need plenty of nutrients and moisture to perform well.

Organic amendments should be added before you plant an area. First loosen compacted soil with a pitchfork or tiller, then incorporate composted yard waste or composted animal manure into the soil.

Learn more about the types of organic soil amendments and how to incorporate them into your landscape in "Organic Soil Amendments."