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Soil Tests: A Crucial Step Before Planting Gardens and Grass Seed

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Soil. To some people it’s nothing but dirt, lifeless and boring. It gets on their clothes, makes mud when wet, and needs to be cleaned off their car. It’s not flashy. In fact there are many unflattering sayings and idioms about it. For instance, “dull as dirt”, “dirt poor”, “as common as dirt”, “simple as dirt”, “dishing the dirt”, and “eat dirt” are all negative expressions that portray soil as something loathsome, common, and plain. Yet this humble mix of rocks, minerals, and organic matter is absolutely crucial for our existence. It’s from the soil that plants extract their nutrients and are able to grow. In turn, we depend on plants for food and oxygen, medicines and materials. The quality of our soil ends up having a direct influence on the quality of our lives. History will show that when cultures valued and respected their soil, civilizations thrived. Where soil quality was ignored, civilizations collapsed. We can see the same sort of effect on our lawns and gardens. When homeowners take the time to consider their soil conditions, make the proper amendments, and continue to make improvements, landscapes become lush paradises. On the other hand, homeowners who don’t consider their soil conditions before planting will constantly struggle with poor plant quality no matter how green their thumb happens to be. 

Why Get Your Soil Tested?

There are many reasons why every homeowner should be aware of the quality of their soil. In addition to providing your lawn and garden with the best possible growing conditions, knowing the state of your soil prior to planting enables you to add exactly what your soil needs instead of what you think it needs. Knowing this can save hundreds of dollars throughout the years by eliminating unnecessary lawn treatments, fertilizer applications, and possible plant failure. A high quality soil structure will also save on irrigation costs as water is moved and stored more efficiently beneath the surface. 

Get Help From Your Local Cooperative Extension Office

The best way to find out the condition of your soil is with a soil test. Don’t let the “test” part scare you off though. It’s actually a very simple, inexpensive process that any homeowner can participate in with help from their local Cooperative Extension office. Cooperative Extension is a program run by an agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture and was created to advance public knowledge in areas of agriculture, the environment, and human health and well-being. Each U.S. state and territory has a state office at its land-grant university and a network of local offices located in each county.

How to Collect Soil Samples

shovel digging soilThese soil tests provided by Cooperative Extension can be done anytime the ground is not frozen, but is best done during the autumn. That way, any amendments added as a result of the test can begin to react with the soil during the winter. To begin the soil testing process it will be necessary to collect and prepare several samples from the area that will be planted. For lawn areas, 10+ samples from different areas are necessary to achieve the most accurate results. Use a shovel or trowel to take thin, vertical slices of the soil at a depth of 3-4 inches. Pasture, flower, and vegetable gardens will need soil samples to a depth of 6-7 inches. 

Preparing the Soil Samples

For each sample, only about a cup of soil is needed. Place each individual sample in a large, clean plastic container and mix it thoroughly. After mixing, let the sample dry at room temperature. It’s important not to use heat when drying the samples. Afterwards, take a cup of the dry mixture and pour it into a sealable sandwich bag. Be sure to label the sample on the outside of the bag with the date and location taken from. Clean the plastic container after mixing each sample to eliminate contaminating the other soil samples. 

What Soil Tests Will Tell You

Most soil testing laboratories offer standard soil tests as well as more detailed tests. Standard tests often include pH and lime requirements, levels of available plant nutrients, and any abnormally high levels of toxic elements. Other tests might include soil textural class analysis and organic matter percentages. It’s highly recommended that you find out how much organic matter is present to see if you need to add any to your soil. Available tests will vary from state to state and from lab to lab. Once testing is complete, the lab will provide you with a soil report. When you receive your first soil test report, it may seem like a confusing jumble of scientific abbreviations and numbers. To help make sense and decipher the results, see our soil report guide

Do-It-Yourself Soil Testing

Perhaps you’ve already had your soil tested prior to planting a lawn, and now you simply want to check the pH range of your soil every now and then to ensure optimum levels. There are do-it-yourself tests available at garden centers and agricultral suppy stores. These types of soil testers offer a simple way to get general information about what’s going on below the surface of your lawn or garden.

Soil still doesn’t get the respect it deserves. It’s underappreciated, undervalued, and swept under the rug (literally). But by taking just a little time to consider its needs, we can save a large amount of time and money. Not only this, our lawns, pastures, and gardens will be able to reach their greatest potential as well. Take care of your soil, and it will take care of you.

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