Posted on 27 January 2012 by

Learn about Your Soil-Part II Soil Test

By Mindy McIntosh-Shetter

The other day, I was asked if I test my soil and my reply was yes and no.

I have not had the traditional, chemical analysis of my soil for many years.

One reason is the biggest excuse and that is I do not have the time.

The other reason is that the recommendations I receive are based on an acre and while I would like to have an acre size garden I do not.

Also, these recommendations are based on a monoculture garden design.

Since I do not farm on an acre nor garden in a monoculture style, I have to guess and reduce any fertilizer recommendations. But being a scientist, aggie, environmentalist and many other things, I decided to do another soil test this fall. But before jumping on the bandwagon, one must first plan it out.

Planning to take a soil test is not that complicated but does require some work. Basic soil tests can be purchased from the local home improvement center or nursery but for a more complete test contact your local extension office. Some extension offices are even waving the processing fee to encourage homeowners to do soil tests.

The next step is to decide what you want to test and where. These tests can be used to test the health of the soil anywhere including turf areas, orchards, and garden spaces both flower and vegetable. After you decide what you want to test, you need to note where in that area you need to test. Each unique area in the test area needs to be sampled 6 to 8 times. Unique areas include locations where the soil is a different color, sloped areas, locations with different types of vegetation, etc.

Once these areas are mapped out, the next part of this process is to get all the equipment together. This includes a clean soil probe or shovel, clean bucket, tarp or newspaper, and sampling bag. To begin the process, remove any turf or vegetation from the soil surface. Next, you will need to begin the sampling process but the depth is dependent on the type of plant material that is going to be planted in that space.

The golden rule for soil sampling is to never go deeper than the root zone of the plants that you will plant. In the typical vegetable garden setting, this is translated into a sampling hole no deeper than 6 inches.

Place all the samples for a given area, such as the vegetable garden, in a bucket. Once all the samples have been collected for that area, mix the soil in the bucket and pour out on to newspaper or a plastic tarp. Break up any clumps of soil and let the soil dry out completely.

After the soil has dried, it is time to place it in the sample bag. Make sure to mark on the bags your name, address, location of sample, vegetation planted on that location, and depth taken. Once this is done, place one pint of soil in the bag and seal. Follow the mailing directions that came with the sample bag.

When you get your results back, look in general the pH of the soil and the nutrient levels. Soil pH is something that is generally easier to change but keep in mind to do it a little at a time. Nutrient level, on the other hand, is a little more difficult since many other factors play into it. As a general rule, look for what you are lacking and adjust accordingly.

As an example, if the sample says you are a little low in potassium then apply a fertilizer higher in potassium next year. Another approach is to always supplement your garden space with compost in the fall and then seasoned manure in the spring. Both of these techniques will always give your garden a balanced dose of nutrition, which is best for non-monoculture gardens.

So until we blog again, tuck your garden space into a healthy slumber by testing its health and wealth at least every 3 to 5 years.

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