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Every gardener, no matter their skill level, could use a little help to get a better result. Whether you’re talking about a little advice from a neighbor or some seeds passed along, we all like to feel like we’ve got the inside track to a great looking yard. One way to get in on some great inside information is to go underground and test your soil.

Your soil is the garden’s source of both nutrients and moisture. Every plot of soil has a different profile and personality. Even in a small yard, the soil can differ drastically from one side to the other. Soil testing give you the information you need to get you garden performing at its best. A soil test can tell you where you need to amend your soil and with what materials. It can also help you decide what to plant.

What's Soil Testing?

Soil testing is the process of analyzing what nutrients are present in the sample provided. The results can help you decide what fertilizer(s) or amendments are necessary to give your soil optimal balance and fertility.

Soil testing is generally quite reasonably priced. A reliable and fairly comprehensive test can cost as little as $5-$10 in many areas. Testing kits may be available from your local cooperative extension office. A link to the United States Department of Agriculture’s list of cooperative extension offices can be found here. You may also be able to find private agencies locally that offer similar services.

And a typical test will tell you the pH of your soil, its nutrient content and its percentage of organic matter. The readings your test reveals will tell you what to do about the conditions. One thing a test will not likely tell you is the level of nitrogen in your soil. This can change very quickly and very dramatically. You may have to request this test and pay a little more to have it performed.

Soil Information

Most flowers and vegetables like a soil that is slightly acidic. A neutral soil level, neither acidic nor alkaline, is 7.0. So if you want to grow these and your soil is alkaline (more than 7.0) you would add materials to lower that number like garden sulfur. If your number is too acidic, you might add lime to counteract the acidity. Many soil test reports will give you specific advice on what to add to balance your soil.

  1. Use a trowel and bucket that are not zinc-coated. Zinc-coated instruments will skew your results.
  2. Remove the surface layer. Scrape back mulch and leaf litter.
  3. Dig out a wedge about 6 to 8 inches deep and set it aside.
  4. Scrape about an inch of soil from the bottom of the hole and drop it in your bucket.
  5. Replace the wedge you set aside.
  6. Repeat steps 2-5 in *various locations of the garden. About 5 to 10 digs (depending on the size of the yard or garden) scattered across the testing area should do.
  7. Mix the contents of the bucket together well so it becomes a single sample.
  8. Fill the soil test vial, bag or other container and fill out the accompanying paperwork then drop it in the mail as directed by your testing agency.

*Certain spots should not be included in your testing sample. Back-filled areas like ditches, soil under fence lines, wet soil, heavily or recently fertilized areas and patches of soil where grass or plants have died suddenly should be avoided.

Once you have received results, you should have a better understanding of your soil and garden. You can use this information to choose plants, schedule and choose fertilizing treatments and care for you garden. It’s a big payoff for a little bit of effort. Get the inside dirt on your soil this spring.