Soil Testing

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
Soil Testing

Nearly 17 years ago, right after the birth of my first child, my husband came to me and handed me his 35mm SLR camera.

He said, "Here. You need to learn how to use this." I was afraid to even hold it, let alone use it. I didn't know anything about cameras beyond the point and shoot kind with two buttons, the one you turned it on with and the one you took a picture with. Fortunately, I didn't have to know everything (or really anything) about photography to begin taking pictures with this camera. I didn't know all the terms at the time, but looking at all the different settings on the knobs, I realized I had right before me the opportunity to take high quality photographs should I choose to learn about lighting, ISO, apertures, and shutter speeds. And I also had the opportunity to take snapshots of my new baby by simply turning the knob to the setting that made all the choices for me, the "Auto" setting. That's where I started. Pretty soon my curiosity led me to reading about apertures and shutter speeds and I took that first step to taking control of my end product; I turned the knob from Auto to "A." And then I tried "S." In a few weeks I took even more control of what went into my camera through the lens. I turned the knob to "M." I was in full manual mode, controlling both how wide the aperture opens and how fast the blades that make up that aperture open and close.

Gardening is much the same way. I doubt there are many people who put their first tomato plant in the ground with much more backing them than faith that if they water it regularly they will have a few tomatoes to slice by the time the hottest summer days arrive. It usually starts with a curiosity full of self-doubt, but the curiosity is greater than the fear of failure so we dive right in and buy a small variety of plants. Most of us choose the "Auto" setting and buy a bag of all-purpose fertilizer to nourish the variety of nutritional needs.

With a little diligence and TLC, most people find a mixture of joy and disappointment within a couple of months. Some plants survive, some don't. Some produce profusely, some don't. If the joy is enough to sustain the curiosity, we begin thinking about next summer and possibly even the next step which is to switch away from "Auto" gardening. Maybe we buy a bag of fertilizer specialized for tomatoes. Maybe we've heard about the magical qualities of black gold, also known by its less prestigious name of compost, and begin saving our vegetable peelings and egg shells. Regardless of the route we take, we begin to understand that taking control of what goes in through the roots of our plants affects the outcome.

This method of experimenting with various fertilizers was the one we used for many years. Yet, our first year of gardening on the farm where we now live, with soil that could qualify as an alternative to concrete, we had so many more bad days than good that I think even the most experienced gardener would have been ready to give up. My husband decided we needed a soil test to find what was wrong with our soil and how to improve it. He went to our county extension service office and they sent him home with a small bag that met their specific needs and some simple instructions on how to dig a sample that would yield the most accurate results. Our results came back on an easy-to-read chart including not only numbers but a bar graph that showed us the overall rating, from very low to excess, for each area.

After another year with equally frustrating results, my husband decided we needed raised beds. The soil test had helped us determine there wasn't anything our garden soil needed nutritionally. Digging in soil that had what seemed like a 1:1 rock-to-soil ratio, a need for massive amounts of organic material to improve the clay qualities of it, and a problem with soil-borne diseases made raised beds a more sensible answer for us. Now we were able to have the ultimate control over what went in through the roots of our plants as well as the physical environment around them; we got to mix our own soil. We still have yearly battles with our garden but they are battles with weather and pests, not our soil. We had our soil tested again just last spring. The results confirmed our personal opinions based on the ease of gardening now and the size of our vegetables and our harvests for the successful crops; We have awesome soil! But of greater value than that confirmation, when we make our garden plan each year, our soil test results are an invaluable tool that helps us make more educated, timely decisions about how to identify a nutritional need a struggling plant may have. We are gardening in full manual mode. If you are ready to take more control of your own garden soil, you can locate the extension service office closest to you through the USDA using this link. Another option, one which we have also used, is a local business that specializes in the sale of fertilizers. Both can not only assist you with soil testing but also help you with solutions for improving the numbers in any areas that are not where they should be.