Posted on 17 May 2011 by

Start the Garden Season Off Right with a Soil Test

By Mindy McIntosh-Shetter

The gardening season is quickly approaching and many gardeners are planning their garden without taking a soil test.

This can sometimes work out fine if the garden is established, had no problems in the past year and/or was given an annual dose of fertilizer.

If the garden space is going to be new this year or the garden space showed problems, then a soil test is in order.

Home gardeners can do the soil test themselves.

The test requires some paperwork from the local extension office and a container. To begin, decide where you are going to do the test. Each garden and/or flowerbed area should be tested separately along with the turf. Any space that is going to be used as a new garden area should also be tested.

To begin the process, the gardener must remove any vegetation from the area and dig down 4 to 6 inches. This is the depth where the soil sample should be taken. Choose 4 to 6 samples of each unique area and place samples in a bucket.

Mark the container that was acquired from the extension office with the type of bed, existing plant material, test required and any additional information requested. Fill the container with soil until it reaches the line on the container and seal. If the soil is damp or wet let it completely dry before placing in the container. Place the sample in the mail and wait for the results.

Small home gardens that are found in residential areas grow a variety of vegetables, which makes the fertilizer recommendations from the soil test not very valuable. These test and recommendations are based on a large, monoculture garden but the results can give the gardener some insight. A better approach to testing established soils that have had an annual fertilizer treatment is a simple pH test.

The results will tell the gardener if the soil chemistry is conducive to nutrient absorption. Most vegetables except potatoes like a pH of 6 to 7. If the soil pH is too high it can be reduced through the application of elemental sulfur. If the soil pH is too low it can be raised through the application of limestone. The amount of either one of these substances is determined by the soil type, pH level, and plant material.

New garden areas or areas that have problems need to have more in depth testing done. This includes tests for phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, pH, and soluble salts. Nitrogen levels typically do not have to be tested since there is normally enough nitrogen in the soil to create a growing base.

A good fertilizer program starts with an annual fertilizer application this can be a completely balanced fertilizer such as 10-10-10, compost or manure. This fertilizer needs to be applied at 2 pounds of fertilizer per 100 square feet. To start this process, broadcast half of the fertilizer over the garden soil and mix into the first 6 inches. The second application occurs 4 weeks after seeds are planted. This fertilizer is applied in a sidedress fashion at 1 pound per 100 square feet and 6 to 12-inches away from the plants.

Another perfect time to apply fertilizer is when the plants are put into the ground. Plants during this time need a fertilizer high in phosphorus with a formulation such as 8-32-16 or 10-52-8. Dissolve the fertilizer in water according to the directions and apply ½ capful of fertilizer to each newly planted plant.

The above fertilizer plans will help even the most inexperienced gardener grow the healthiest plant while producing lots of vegetables. So until we blog again, always remember, that plants like to eat, beyond their photosynthetic nature. Supply them a snack, that will last them the growing season, and as reward they will produce all season long.

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