Time to Test Your Soil

Garden-soil testing can reveal nutrient deficiencies, pH imbalances and other information to help you grow a successful crop.

by Kevin Fogle

Time to Test Your Soil - Photo by Kevin Fogle (UrbanFarmOnline.com)

This week I have decided it is time to go ahead and test the soil in my front-yard garden. I’ve had issues with blossom end rot on my full-sized tomato plants the last few growing seasons, and I suspect that a calcium deficiency in the soil is the underlying cause.

It is a good idea to test your garden’s soil health every few years by sending off a few samples to a certified state soil laboratory.Soil tests allow home gardeners to understand the nuts and bolts of their soil, including the amount of organic matter present, the pH levels and critical nutrient levels, all of which determine the success of both edible crops and ornamental plantings.

Getting to know the specifics of your soil can help avoid unnecessary fertilizer applications or soil additives that waste your money and could actually damage your crops. The results of soil testing will help you apply the correct amount of fertilizer, helping to prevent unintended environmental damage from excessive nitrogen into the groundwater and local watershed.

Getting Tested

The first step in getting your soil tested is to find your local state soil laboratory. The best way to go about this is to contact your county or regional extension agent, who can provide you with soil sample boxes or bags, test forms and sampling instructions. Easily find your local extension office online.

Soil testing involves collecting several soil samples from your garden plot, sending them along to a laboratory, and waiting to receive your personalized soil report that details the needs of your soil and offers a plan to improve it. Testing can be done year-round, but the best time for your garden might be fall or early winter, when your soil can be safely amended in time for spring and summer plantings.

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The soil collection process is usually straight forward, but will vary with the state lab you are using. This means it’s very important to follow the testing guidelines regarding the physical collection methods, the number of samples required for your plot size and the best sample locations to get an accurate reading. The cost for basic soil testing varies from state to state, but usually costs range from $5 to $15 per sample.

Toxicity Testing

A concern, especially for urban gardeners, is learning the history of the soil on your property. Knowing how your property was used in the past can help point to possible soil contaminates like lead, arsenic or cadmium. These toxins are commonly found in low levels around most residential sites from paint or pesticide use, but can found in dangerously high levels near old industrial sites or certain commercial sites, such as gas stations.If you’re concerned about soil contaminants, you should expect to pay significantly more for these types of soil tests. The upside is that most contaminants only need to be tested for once, unlike traditional soil testing that should be done every three or four years to check soil health.

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