Planning for the Spring Planting Season, Part 5: Conducting a Soil Test

 

Not all soil is the same. Some soil is mostly made up of clay, while some may be mostly sand. Plenty of people who are reading this blog right now are looking for gardening tips because their soil is very rocky. Or others may have chalky or silty soil. Depending on where you live, what you are used to as “dirt” can vary greatly from what someone else may have to work with.

When preparing to plant a garden, one of the most important things you can do is get acquainted with your soil. Healthy soil is what I consider to be the #1 most important factor in whether you will have a successful garden. It is the lifeline for all of your plants. Any time that you wish to feed your plants, what you really need to do is feed your soil.

So to get to know your soil, you’ll want to conduct two basic tests:

 (1) Test #1- The Squeeze Test

The squeeze test is the easiest way to test the texture of your soil. This is essential because in order for plants to thrive, you must insure that your soil has the right texture to enable water, oxygen, and nutrients to flow through it.

Go out into your yard/gardening space and pick up a handful of your dirt. Now give it a gentle squeeze. If the soil clumps together in your hand, then falls apart when you poke it, this is ideal. This means that you have loamy soil, which is ideal. Loamy soil retains moisture but also drains well. If the handful of dirt doesn’t hold together at all, this means it is sandy. Sand drains well but doesn’t really hold in nutrients. If it holds together and does not fall apart when you poke it, this means your soil is mostly clay. Clay is typically rich in nutrients, but does not drain well.

Now if you have sandy soil, it cannot be transformed into loamy soil. This is to say that the actual particles of sand cannot be turned into something else. However, you can add to your soil to change its overall texture. This way, you can add other particles around the sand particles in order to allow the soil to overall hold in nutrients.

To amend sandy soil, your goal is to add in organic matter. This will help the sandy soil to drain more slowly, and to hold on to nutrients in order for your plants to be able to use them. Amend sandy soil with organic matter such as cow manure, worm casings, shredded bark, peat moss, compost, or a combination of any of these things.

To amend clay soil, use the same method of adding organic matter. This will help to break up the compacted particles of the clay, and therefore allow water to drain through it, and oxygen to flow in it. Aim for a ratio of 50% dirt to 50% organic matter.

With both clay and sand, make sure to till your garden area before adding the organic matter. “Tilling” means that you will be loosening the soil at a depth of about 12 inches. You can use a shovel, spading fork, or hoe for this task. Mix in the organic matter well, rather than just laying it on top. (Laying something on top is referred to as “mulching” rather than “amending.”)

 (2) Test #2- The Soil Ph Test

All soil, regardless of its texture, has an acidity level. This can be measured by testing the Ph level of your soil. Ph is tested on a scale of zero to fourteen. Zero is the most acidic, whereas fourteen is the most alkaline, and seven is considered to be neutral. Most plants grow best in soil with a fairly neutral Ph that is between six and seven. If plants need a slightly more acidic or alkaline soil, the seed packet will specify this. For example, some root vegetables grow well in soil with a Ph of about 5.5. Plants that like “very acidic” soil thrive in soil at a Ph level of 5.0, whereas plants that like “very alkaline” soil do well in soil at about 8.0. So really, you don’t want your soil to be further on the scale than this in either direction.

To test the Ph level of your soil, I would recommend purchasing an at-home test kit at your local gardening store. These typically do not cost any more than $6. If you do not wish to conduct your own test, you can contact your local cooperative extension, as many will offer soil tests for free. Home tests are quite accurate as long as you follow instructions closely.

When attempting to change the Ph level of your soil, it is very important to first recognize that there is no immediate solution. You may need to use a combination of amendments, or apply several treatments over time. There is no quick fix or instant cure. It is best to start amending a whole growing season before you intend to plant.

With that being said…

*If you have acidic soil– add amendments to raise the Ph level, such as ground limestone or wood ashes. Avoid “quick limestone” as this tends to burn out your  plants.

*If you have alkaline soil– add amendments to lower the Ph level, such as pine needles, shredded leaves, sawdust, sulfur or peat moss. These will all add acid to your soil.

Compost has the amazing ability to bring either type of soil to a more neutral level. So as a general rule, it is always wise to be continuously adding compost to your soil.

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