DIY Soil Testing: Your Green Thumb's New Best Friend

Team McFly Sep 06, 2023
5 People Read
soil testing

Disclosure: Some of the links in this article may be affiliate links, which can provide compensation to me at no cost to you if you decide to purchase. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. 

How to Get a Soil Test for Gardening

If you are having trouble cultivating healthy plants, conducting a soil test can provide valuable information that will allow you to address issues more efficiently. Here's how you can do it.

Mastering DIY Soil Testing: Your Garden's Secret Weapon

Take samples from your garden, vegetable patch, and other planting areas when the weather is warm and dry using paper lunch bags or clean buckets to collect samples.

Why Get a Soil Test?

Launching healthy lawns and gardens starts with conducting a soil test. Test results provide all of the information needed to amend your soil, such as specific recommendations for lime or fertilizers.

Fall or spring are ideal times for conducting soil tests so you can put any amendments into place before planting your garden. Keep track of your test results in your garden journal to monitor any changes over time.

Use a plastic bag or clean container to take a soil sample from your property and place it for testing in a lab. Doing this can avoid wet spots, compost piles, animal urine spots, brush piles, or sites where trash has been burned; instead, submit one-half cup for testing; This way, you avoid providing samples from different areas on your property that can lead to inaccurate test results.

Once dry, they're tested for pH, organic matter content, nutrient levels, and exchange capacity before chemically extracting them to determine plant growth opportunities available within each sample - eventually providing detailed results reports detailing all details available within.

What Will a Soil Test Measure?

The root of most garden problems often lies in soil issues. A professional lab consultation can help you identify what your soil lacks and has in excess.

Knowing what your soil requires will save you money on unnecessary fertilizers. Knowing its current composition will prevent overfertilizing, which stimulates excessive growth while leaving extra nutrients behind that leach into surface waters and groundwater supplies.

Your soil test should measure pH, organic matter (OM), nutrient content, and exchange capacity. A nutrient analysis will show how much nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium is plant-available in your soil; iron, zinc, and manganese may also be measured as essential elements.

The laboratory will use chemical extractions to assess your soil sample and analyze it to measure levels of different elements before reporting its findings. Your soil's nutrient levels depend on which extractant was used during sampling handling, and storage procedures - some extractants vary based on acidic and alkaline soil types.

soil in hands

How Often Do You Do a Soil Test?

You can do various things to improve your soil's health, such as adding organic matter and limiting fertilizer use. Still, nothing beats having your dirt tested by an accredited laboratory. At a minimum, obtain a soil sample every three years to track changes in pH levels and levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and other micronutrients.

When taking soil samples from your garden or lawn, select areas for testing that best reflect them. It is wise to avoid wet spots, compost piles, animal urine spots, and brush piles as these could skew results; also, when sampling vegetable gardens, try and avoid areas where fertilizer has been applied directly onto plants as these may influence results negatively.

To obtain a soil sample, dig six-inch core samples from eight to 10 locations throughout your garden or lawn and collect them all into a plastic bucket provided. Label each bucket so you know from which location each sample came before filling out your soil-testing sheet accurately and completely.

Make sure it includes your name, address, county, and crop code (look for boxes marked "lawns," "veggie," or similar) along with a five-digit code you create yourself for easy referencing each time a new sample comes from.

Where to Get a Soil Test

Many gardeners spend money on fertilizer and soil amendment products that promise to enhance lawns, increase flower counts, or produce abundant vegetables - yet these products often fall short due to insufficient plant nutrients in the soil. Soil testing is the key to eliminating guesswork around nutrient deficiencies so plants have what they require for healthy growth.

Most gardening centers, supermarkets, and Amazon sell basic kits that allow you to perform some simple soil testing yourself at home - such as testing moisture levels, pH, and phosphorus levels. Professional lab analyses offer more precise data analysis of garden soil health.

To perform your soil test at home, find an empty straight-sided jar, such as a peanut butter or mason jar, and fill it about one-third to one-half full with soil.

Mix this mixture with distilled water (tap water can interfere with results) according to your kit's package instructions, then shake and view the liquid contents for color readings that indicate the acidity or alkalinity levels in your soil.

woman on computer

Reading The Test Results

Soil quality in any garden or vegetable plot varies considerably, so the first step in using soil testing should be taking an accurate sample from where you wish to test. The sample box and Field and Soil Sample Information form include instructions for taking good samples; make sure to abide by them!

Laboratory recommendations for lime, fertilizer, and other amendments are determined based on optimal nutrient levels established through greenhouse and field research in Maine and other Northeastern states. Furthermore, these recommendations may be adjusted each year based on soil types or cropping practices as new findings emerge from these fields of inquiry.

Nitrogen deficiency is one of the primary issues for plants, and soil tests usually recommend fertilizers high in nitrogen yet still allow it to dissipate naturally through organic matter (manure, compost, etc) into usable forms such as nitrates and ammonium ions that plants can utilize.

Soil Acidity or Alkalinity:

Acidity or alkalinity of soil is one of the key determinants of plant success in your garden, impacting how easily plants absorb nutrients, soil bacteria, toxic elements, leaching rates, and soil structure.

No chemistry degree is necessary to test soil pH; home garden centers offer affordable soil test kits. Furthermore, cooperative extension services often offer free testing services.

To test soil pH levels accurately at home, collect samples from various areas of your garden bed (or yard).

Combine and mix thoroughly before filling a straight-sided jar about one-third to one-half full with distilled water and adding two teaspoons of the soil mixture - once stirred or shaken vigorously, the color will reveal your soil's pH level: reddish-pink hued liquid indicates acidic soil. In contrast, blue/purple hues indicate alkaline conditions.

Soil Texture: The Peanut Butter Jar Test

Your soil's sand, silt, and clay mix will determine how much water and air reach its roots. A more sandy soil drains slowly, while dense clay soil may remain waterlogged for much of its lifetime.

Sand particles are the largest and feel gritty when rubbed between your fingers. Silt is smaller, while clay particles are so microscopic they cannot be seen without a microscope.

For this mason jar test, fill a glass jar halfway with soil from your garden, and cover and shake vigorously for 1 minute before measuring the sediment at the bottom of the jar with a ruler after one minute.

This number represents your sand percentage. Wait four more minutes, and measure again, but this time measure nearer to the top for silt percentage measurement.

Consider these percentages when combining them to find your overall soil type on the USDA Soil Texture Triangle chart; for instance, 15% clay, 65% silt, and 20% sand with similar loam soil texture.

Earthworm Test

Soil appropriate for garden plants typically contains various pores of various sizes that enable water, oxygen, and nutrients to move through it freely, allowing plant roots to access all the essential nutrients they require.

Healthy soil is home to natural organisms that help decompose plant residue into nutrients available for garden plants. Earthworms are one such organism, helping aerate the soil as their castings add organic matter, enzymes, and bacteria.

To test for this, dig a small hole and count the earthworms you find. Or conduct an informal visual check of your garden: look out for natural areas (like fencerows) which have remained undisturbed with plenty of living root biomass; these types of areas tend to host more natural organisms than tilled annual croplands so comparing samples between natural areas and garden beds can provide insight into your progress.

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Disclosure:  Some of the links in this article may be affiliate links, which can provide compensation to me at no cost to you if you decide to purchase. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.