Whether you are creating a new garden or taking steps to improve an existing one, your soil is a vital element. Garden soil provides the nutrients your plants need and is the first step in ensuring your garden is healthy. Ultimately, the secret to healthy, nutritious soil is fertilization.
Many of us simply throw organic matter into our gardens and fertilize our plants every once in a while. But the only way to assess the nutrient content in garden soil is by testing it. In essence, it will tell you what nutrients are lacking in the soil as well as those that are abundant and don’t need to be replaced.
Is there a need to check the soil before planting?
It’s a good idea to check the soil before you plant, especially if you have a vegetable garden. But it’s not something you absolutely have to do.
Many people grow vegetables and have stunning flower gardens, lawns, and so on without ever testing soil. But then many humans aren’t cognizant of the importance of good nutrition for healthy bodies and somehow they stay healthy!
But, as Mariel Borgman from the Michigan State University Extension states, most garden plants need about 18 different nutrients for the best possible growth and production. The most important ones, as far as the average home gardener is concerned are phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, sodium, sulfur, manganese, copper, and zinc.
Unless you check your garden soil before planting, how will you know whether it contains these nutrients or not? Once you are informed, you will have a much better understanding of what you need to do to prepare garden beds and fertilize the soil.
If it is rich in nutrients you may not have to do anything much to improve it. But if it isn’t, a soil test will tell you what fertilizers you need to supplement these necessary nutrients in the soil.
What is the purpose of testing the soil before planting?
The most obvious reason to test garden soil is to assess its condition. It tells you what is lacking and also what isn’t lacking. And obviously, if you know which nutrients are lacking in your garden soil, you can adjust these using specific fertilizers.
Something to remember is that overfertilization can be damaging. It can also lead to an increase in plant diseases.
Testing soil also shows you the pH of your soil. The pH is very important because a large proportion of vegetable garden plants don’t like acidic soil conditions.
But different plants need different pH levels. Some, like azaleas and blueberries, prefer acidic soils. So, it’s a bit of a conundrum.
When you test soil you have a tool that tells you how to adjust the acidity and alkalinity in soil depending on the needs of specific plants.
Another reason for undertaking a soil test is for contamination, particularly from lead. In some urban areas, particularly in sites near busy roads or old buildings that have been demolished, lead from gasoline and paint products that contained lead has seeped into the ground.
There’s not a lot you can do about it, but there are some strategies that you can use to overcome the problem. For example, if you use a plastic liner in raised beds you can fill these with uncontaminated soil and avoid the risk of exposing people and animals to lead.
How to test your garden soil
There are many inexpensive soil test kits available in the marketplace. They are easy to use and will give you a very good idea of your soil pH as well as the nutrients that are in your garden soil.
When you buy a soil test kit, all you do is follow the instructions. On this level, soil testing really is easy, but the results will not be as comprehensive as they will be if you opt to use a professional service to test your soil pH and nutrients.
The other option is to have the soil test done professionally. A lot of university extensions do soil testing in different U.S. states, so check the one nearest you to see what they offer.
While their requirements might differ slightly, Oklahoma State University has a fact sheet that explains the basics. Really all you need is a soil sample for them to be able to identify which fertilizers you need to use in your garden.
Typically, they will also tell you how much fertilizer you need and when you should apply it. If your pH isn’t in the correct range, they will also state how much lime you need to adjust it to the required level.
A good rule of thumb when you collect soil samples is to dig down about six inches deep. Make sure that you use a clean bucket, spade, and other tools to avoid contamination of any sort.
You should also take not just one soil sample, but at least a dozen or more. Just be sure to mix every soil sample in the bucket.
Usually, the laboratory will need at least a cup of your soil mixture for testing. It will also need to be air dry.
When should I test my garden soil?
Generally, it is best to avoid testing soil during the growing season. So, a good time is early in the spring when there is no danger of frost. Alternatively, you could opt for testing it in the fall before any freeze sets in.
If you test in the fall and have the time to amend and fertilize your soil right away, fall is probably the better bet. This is because any organic matter you add will have time to decompose before you plant again.
It is also important to collect soil for testing before you add any fertilizer. Remember that your aim is to maintain the fertility of the soil so you don’t want false results.
How often should I test the soil in my garden?
You should probably test your garden soil at least every three years. Soil isn’t static, so the results will likely be different every time you test it.
If you rely on the food you produce from your vegetable garden, or if you are selling products at a farmers’ market, then do it more frequently. After all, when you rely on the fruits of your labor, you need to do all you can to maintain soil fertility.
Soil testing is a great tool to help ensure you have fertile soil with a balanced pH. If you don’t, you’re likely to be in a hit-and-miss situation.
Some of your plants will thrive, while others will die. But if you test your garden soil regularly, you will be able to make sensible choices when it comes to fertilizers and soil amendment procedures.
Testing soil will also help you to diagnose any plant problems that crop up. Ultimately, it’s an excellent way to ensure that your plants will be healthy.