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Duration (approx) 100 hours
Qualification Advanced Diploma

Understand Soils: how to improve them to improve plant growth.

Healthy soils for a healthy future.

Learn how to manage soils in a sustainable manner - we rely on soils for our food, gardens and landscape; understanding how to properly manage soils without causing damage is key to sustainable use and resilience.

  • Manage the soil for the benefit of the crop and the broader ecosystem.
  • Learn to investigate soil and its characteristics in relation to plant growth.
  • Learn to manage and manipulate soil without causing damage.
  • Understand methods on how to improve soil and modify it to grow specific crops.

Good soil conditions are critical for the healthy growth of most plants.

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LEARN TO MANAGE SOILS in Gardens, Plant Nurseries, Farms.

Understand soils and how to improve them to increase yields.

Nutrient levels, pH, salinity, depth, texture (properties of sand and clay), structure (form and arrangement), porosity (air space), consistence (the ability of soil to withstand rupture) and even colour can affect plant growth independently or interdependently. 

Over eight lessons this course will develop an understanding of physical and chemical properties of soils, the ability to carry out simple tests and determine soil characteristics, and to decide ways of treating a soil to improve its ability to grow plants.

This course provides a credit in ACS qualifications, accredited through IARC, and also prepares you to sit for modules and acquire credits in an advanced certificate or diploma.

The course is specifically designed for ornamental gardens, landscaping, container growing, and turf situations.

Lesson Structure

There are 8 lessons in this course:

  1. Physical and Chemical Properties of Soils
    • How soils develop
    • The main rock forming minerals: silicates, carbonates, oxides and sulphates
    • Types of rock: igneous, sedimentary, metamorphic
    • Denitrification, immobilisation, mineralisation and ammonium fixation
    • Understanding soil function: plant nutrition, support, water and air supply
    • Naming a soil
    • Improving soils for plant culture
    • Organic matter
    • Plant nutrition
    • Nutrient availability and pH
    • Cation exchange capacity
    • Conductivity
    • Salinity build up
    • The nutrient elements
    • Major elements and minor elements
    • Total salts
    • Diagnosing nutrient problems
    • Fertilisers
    • Composting
  2. Soil and Plant Tissue Test Methods
    • Soil sampling
    • Common soil tests: pH, texture, structure, etc
    • Tissue analysis
    • Different methods od measuring pH
    • Water content of soil
    • Fertiliser solubility
    • Testing the effect of lime
    • Laboratory testing of soils
    • Measuring salinity
    • Colorimeters
    • Bulk density
    • Understanding soil analysis
    • Deciding when and how to test
  3. Soil Science and Health
    • Organic carbon
    • Available phosphorus
    • Soil colour
    • Texture and its affect on plant growth
    • Structure and its affect on plant growth
    • Consistence: affect on plant growth
    • Depth of profile, pH, porosity and other things affecting plant growth
    • Soil classification and description: different horizons
    • Factors affecting soil formation: parent material, climate, ecosystem, etc
    • Weathering processes in soil formation: physical, chemical, geochemical
    • Pedochemical weathering
  4. Container Growing
    • Introduction
    • What to grow
    • Problems with containers
    • Care of containers
    • Comparing materials: plastics, terracotta, fibreglass, etc
    • Aesthetics of containers
    • Potting up
    • Potting mixes
    • Ideas for container gardens
    • History of potting mxes
    • UC mixes
    • Soilless mixes
    • Testing for toxins in potting media
    • Propagating media
    • Problems with Organic materials in media
    • Coir
    • Rockwool
    • Components of potting media
    • Cleanliness with soils and potting media
    • Hydroponics
  5. Land Degradation and Other Soil Problems
    • Chemical damage to soil
    • Builders rubbish in soils
    • Salinity
    • Dogs or cats urinating
    • Growing plants in dry areas
    • Soil degradation
    • Erosion
    • Salinity
    • Acidification
    • Compaction
    • Chemical residues
  6. Soil Management Applications
    • Aims of soil management
    • Soil management in orchards
    • Fertilizer application
    • Soil covers
    • Soil management for Vegetables
  7. Organic Techniques and Soil Management
    • What is organic growing
    • Organic principles for overcoming soil problems
    • Natural plant nutrition
    • Trace elements
    • Earthworms
    • Types of mulch and its use
    • Nutrition management in a plant nursery
    • Applying liquid fertilizers
    • Organic fertilizers
    • Natural fertilizers
    • Mineral rock fertilizers and soil conditioners
    • Apatite phosphate rock
    • Dolamite
    • Gypsum
    • Soil management in market gardens
    • Crop rotation
    • Determining kind and quantity of fertilizer to use
    • Cover crops
  8. Soils and Managing Earthworks
    • Eath forming
    • Machinery
    • Creating mounds
    • Sources of "fill"
    • Drainage
    • Improving drainage
    • Improving surface drainage after construction
    • Designing a drainage system
    • Improving permeability during construction
    • Layout of drains
    • Types of drains

Each lesson culminates in an assignment which is submitted to the school, marked by the school's tutors and returned to you with any relevant suggestions, comments, and if necessary, extra reading.


  • To describe the significance of different physical and chemical properties of soil, in relation to the growing of plants.
  • To correctly extract samples of soil, appropriate to different situations; and then conduct a range of simple tests to determine varying characteristics of the sample taken.
  • To further explain the characteristics of a soil, scientifically; and relate those characteristics to the capacity of a soil to grow plants.
  • To recommend appropriate selection and management of potting and other alternative media for growing plants in containers.
  • To diagnose and recommend the treatment of a variety of soil degradation problems
  • Understanding of the principles of sustainable soil management
  • To determine appropriate management programs for different soils in horticultural situations.
  • To recommend soil management practices which are not going to cause a degradation of soil quality.
  • Explain the methods used in managing earthworks in a way which is sensitive to soil condition.

What You Will Do

  • Identify evaluate soil structural problems in the field
  • Build a compost heap and monitor its decomposition process
  • Perform simple experiments to evaluate fertilisation rates and methods
  • Define and describe soil properties and processes
  • Perform simple tests and field analyses on soil
  • Identify nutrient deficiencies
  • Evaluate the attributes of various mulches
  • Analyse the impacts of earthworks and earth working machinery on soil and landscape
  • Analyse the effects of different soil management methods.
  • Identify soil and land degradation
  • Propagate and grow plants in containers
  • Identify and evaluate soil degradation minimisation programs and methods




soil improvers i.e. lime, dolomite, gypsum, trace elements etc

Acid soil

Soil with a reaction below pH7 (having more hydrogen ions over hydroxyl ions)


When air in the soil is replaced by air from the atmosphere


groups of particles of sand, silt clay and humus within the soil held in a single unit as a clod, crumb, block or prism


The science of soil management and crop production


When the soil is as dry as the surrounding air making it impervious to water

Alkaline soil

soil that has a pH value of greater then pH7

Alluvial soils

Soils of a recent geological age made up of sand, silt and mud that have been deposited by rivers or floods

Clay soils

Soil material containing more than 40% clay less than 45% sand and less than 40% silt

Clay pan

Compacted area whish is slowly permeable to water can be of variable thickness with a sub-soil of vastly higher clay content then the soil above it; usually hard when dry and sticky when wet


A compact, easily broken up mass of soil that has usually been created through the use of tillage on overly wet or dry soil


soft, porous structures of soil that are naturally occurring and about 1 to 5mm in diameter


a surface layer on soil that can vary in thickness from a few millimetres to several centimetres and is harder and more brittle when dry then the underlying soil.


a limestone source having significant magnesium content


the removal of the land surface by wind, water, corrosion or gravity


refers to the a soil moisture consistency that crumbles when handled

Green Manure

a crop that is ploughed into the ground while still green to improve the soil.

Heavy Soil

A soil with a high content of clay or one that is difficult to cultivate without high powered equipment

Light Soil

Sandy soils which are easy to cultivate


refers to a specific textural class of soils that have prescribed amounts of clay, silt and sand

Organic soil

a soil that contains a high (more than 20%) amount of organic matter


a unit of soil structure such as a crumb, block, aggregate prism or granule that has been formed by natural processes.


sand, silt, clay and humus are all individual particles within the soil


the movement, downwards of water through the soil


measure of alkalinity or acidity of the soil


the amount of air passages (pores) in the soil

Saline soils

soil containing soluble salts in a concentration sufficient to weaken (or impair) plant growth.


the top 3-7cm of soil held together by grass or legume roots

Soil Structure

the arrangement of primary soil particles into peds etc. within the soil, (the manner in which the smaller particles i.e. sand, silt, clay are aggregated.

Soil Texture

the relative percentages of sand, silt and clay in the soil


that part of the soil that lies below the topsoil but above the bedrock

Tension, soil moisture

The attraction with which water is held to soil particles; negative pressure of water in soil

Benefits of Studying This Course

Understanding soils is imperative to understanding plant growth. You not only need to understand the properties of soil (chemical and physical) to successfully grow plants, but also so as to modify the soil if necessary. Students who complete this course have a thorough knowledge of which soils suit which types of plants, making sense of soil testing and observations, and options for altering soil. The course will appeal to those working in, or aspiring to work in, the following areas:

  • General Horticulture
  • Nursery Work
  • Crops - Fruit and Vegetables
  • Landscaping
  • Garden Maintenance
  • Parks and Gardens

STUDENT COMMENTI really appreciate Gavin's (tutor) comments and look forward to receiving the feedback from him.
- Nadine





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Meet some of our academics

Maggi BrownMaggi is regarded as an expert in organic growing throughout the UK, having worked for two decades as Education Officer at the world renowned Henry Doubleday Research Association. She has been active in education, environmental management and horticulture across the UK for more than three decades. Some of Maggi's qualifications include RHS Cert. Hort. Cert. Ed. Member RHS Life Member Garden Organic (HDRA) .
Yvonne Sharpe (Horticulturist)Started gardening in 1966, studied a series of horticulture qualifications throughout the 1980's and 90's, culminating in an RHS Master of Horticulture. Between 89 and 1994, she worked teaching in horticultural therapy. Founded the West Herts Garden Association in 1990 and exhibited at Chelsea Flower Show in 1991. In 1994, Yvonne joined the staff at Oaklands College, and between 1996 and 2000 was coordinator for all Amenity Horticulture courses at that college. Since leaving Oakland she has been active as a horticultural consultant, retail garden centre proprietor and sessional lecturer (across many colleges in southern England). In 2000, she also completed a Diploma in Management.

Check out our eBooks

Organic GardeningFor decades farmers have relied upon chemicals to control pests and diseases in order to produce saleable crops. In the ornamental, vegetable and fruit gardens reliance on chemical controls has also been the mainstay for many gardeners.
Starting a Garden or Landscape BusinessExpert advice on how to get started in your own garden or landscape business! Packed with valuable business advice, horticultural and landscaping knowledge, and practical ideas - this book is a must have for garden lovers. It is great for anyone thinking about (or already involved in), a horticultural, landscaping or garden business. This updated re-print is only available as an ebook.
Garden Design Part 1The Garden Design ebook part 1 is an essential handbook for students and landscape professionals. A foundation guide to garden design, this book provides stunning full illustrations to demonstrate tips and examples on garden design, functional uses and aesthetics. Some topics that are covered in this ebook include 1/ Introduction to Garden Design, 2/ Appropriateness of garden design, 3/ Creating an impact, 4/ Designing to a budget, 5/ Choosing plants, 6/ Using the garden, 7/ Where the garden meets the house, 8/ Making the winter garden more comfortable, 9/ Gardens for children, 10/The secure home and garden, 11/ Lighting a garden, 12/ Dealing with shade, 13/ Garden Art, 14/ Pots and planters, 15/ Colour in the garden, 16/ Applications for colour and 17/ Garden furniture.
Commercial HydroponicsThe Commercial Hydroponics ebook is ideal for students, professional horticulturalists and those who want to build a strong foundation knowledge in hydroponics. The commercial hydroponics ebook explains how to set up a commercial hydroponics system, including growing techniques and equipment that you will need. The topics covered in this book include an introduction to hydroponics, site considerations, alternatives, plant nutrition, nutrient film technique culture, rockwool culture, aggregate culture, other techniques, hydroponics equipment, greenhouse operation, plant culture in hydroponics, Vegetable crops, berry and other fruit crops, flower crops, other crops, managing a commercial hydroponic farm and a troubleshooting guide.