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Soil Testing?

January 26th, 2011

I have a confession to make – I’ve never tested the soil in my garden *gasp*. Any time you read a gardening book they tell you to do a soil test first thing before you start gardening. I always wonder if I should but have never taken the time to do it. I do have a pH test kit that I purchased several years ago just for fun, which I have used a few times.

Knowing your soil pH is pretty easy to determine if you have hydrangeas. Pink your soil is sweet, blue and your soil is acidic. We have fairly acidic soil here in the garden of Chiot’s Run. My hydrangeas were deep blue when I first started gardening and as I’ve been adding more and more organic material to the soil they’ve been getting more pink so the soil is sweetening up a bit.

As I was looking through the catalog for my local organic farm supply store deciding how much greensand, gypsum, rock phosphate and lime I wanted to buy I came across their ad for soil testing and wondered if I should have one done.

I’ll have to do some research because I think my local extension office will do fairly extensive soil testing as well and they offer advice on how to deal with deficiencies or problems.

Have you ever had a soil test done? Was is beneficial?

18 Comments to “Soil Testing?”
  1. Sue on January 26, 2011 at 6:26 am

    I confess: I haven’t either. My neighbors had their soil tested, followed all the recommendations, and their garden was the worst ever. I figure “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. My garden has always produced well….I add lots of compost every spring and things do just fine.
    I WOULD recommend getting one if there is a problem-stunted growth, purplish leaves, whatever. But if it’s growing well, why bother?

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  2. goatpod2 on January 26, 2011 at 8:01 am

    I’m not sure if we’ve done a soil test here before.


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  3. alan on January 26, 2011 at 8:41 am

    We test at least some part of the garden every year. Any time we make a change in how we are managing the soil we test. We use Ohio Earth Foods ( to do our testing. It’s not expensive, and they give all the information we need. I’ve found that by bringing our calcium levels up to where they should be and keeping the right balance between sulfur, magnesium, and phosphorus we have better plant health. I’ve seen a real difference in areas that are in balance and areas that aren’t. Less disease, like wilt, and blossom end rot, less bug pressure, especially from bean beetles, better drought tolorance, less weed problems (we still have weeds, but difficult ones like thistle and bindweed have been greatly reduced). I’d recomend using soil testing from a source that follows William Albrect’s soil health theories.

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    • Susy on January 26, 2011 at 8:59 am

      That’s the place I get all my amendments from and the page above is from and I was thinking about having the test done through. Small world!

      Thanks for the great info.

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  4. Kelly on January 26, 2011 at 10:11 am

    Like you I keep thinking about it. I know we have acidic soil because we’re surrounded by oaks and more oaks and nothing but oaks. That and I have a lot of moss. My MiL keeps telling me I should “fix” the “moss problem” but a) I *like* moss and b) the fix wouldn’t last long since we’re surrounded by the wondrous acidification powars of oaks.

    Maybe one of these years I’ll pick up a soil tester, but so far I’m doing ok without.

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  5. Mary W on January 26, 2011 at 10:22 am

    I used the UMass extension service for our soil test because some of the other people in our garden area did and it was cheap. Mistake. I thought the results were hard to understand and the recommendations were too generic. If you’re going to put out money, make sure you’re going to get results you can use. I’ve previously used Timberleaf (years ago) and remember the recommendations as being very thoughful.

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    • Heather on January 26, 2011 at 6:06 pm

      Mary each state has different testing labs. You might want to try another one and tell them exactly what you want to use the garden area for, they should then be able to tailor the nutrient recommendations to your needs. If you have trouble reading the results you should contact your local master gardener program or extension office for help, they are there to help with free gardening advice.

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  6. Emily Jenkins on January 26, 2011 at 11:03 am

    I have yet to test the soil anywhere I’ve lived. Any time I start a new bed, I simply break the ground, lace it with composted manure and lots of grass clippings and I’ve never had any trouble at all. Every year I supplement with lots of compost and things seem to still be doing well. This year I plan to pay a little more attention to trace minerals just in case I’m seriously depleting my soil, but other than that this works for now.

    In fact, several years ago I lived in an apartment owned by a master gardener who put in a carefully calibrated organic raised bed. He let us plant it in veggies and that was actually the worst year for production. What’s more, I had planted a vegetable garden for a friend locally and her garden thrived while ours failed miserably!

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  7. Justin on January 26, 2011 at 11:30 am

    If you do have it done, I hope you’ll post about the results (I know…as if you wouldn’t). :-)

    I actually had a problem with one bed this past year at our new home where the squash plants turned into a rain forest of leaves but very little fruit. Either you or one of your readers mentioned too much nitrogen can do that (which makes sense…the soil was probably heavily “amended” with chemical fertilizer and potting soil as this was the previous owner’s flower garden). I ended-up buying one of those home test kits that I believe also tests for nitrogen. I haven’t used it yet…will do it as soon as the snow lets me.

    Interestingly, we had one hydrangea in an odd corner of the back yard that came in as a beautiful purple lilac color. I knew about the PH affects on color but had never heard of a purple one. After some Googling, I found out that purple is caused by a very delicate balance of the PH in-between acidic and basic. Many gardeners actively TRY to get that color and few can get it just right. Ours is just dumb luck. Made me second-guess my plans of moving that plant to another area of the yard. :-)

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    • Susy on January 26, 2011 at 11:33 am

      Yes, I have one hydrangea that has blooms that are light purple as well, I have amended the soil there so it’s right in between, it is quite a lovely color! I also have one hydrangea where the blooms are half pink half purple, quite lovely. So amazing how pH of soil can affect bloom color – very fascinating!

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      • Seren Dippity on January 26, 2011 at 2:57 pm

        I considered planting a hydrangea in between my asparagus bed and my blueberry bed. I thought it would be a pretty way to make sure things are still acidic. But I am guessing that by the time the blooms turn pink the damage to the food plants would already be extensive. Cute idea though and if space works out I may just do it anyway.

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  8. MAYBELLINE on January 26, 2011 at 11:45 am

    I flunk the test for soil testing too. I’ve never done it. We have a local Garneners’ Supply store that will test soil free and I’ve never took advantage of that service. The native soil in my garden is alkiline and clay with a few stones thrown in. The USGS used to have soil maps available.
    My raised beds were supplemented with Amend, peat moss, and sand. So far, so good. My camellias and azalias have an acidic mix for there roots.

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  9. Morgan G on January 26, 2011 at 1:00 pm

    Yes, we’ve done it and it was very helpful. We were in serious need of nitrogen and moderate need of potassium. Another helpful thing we did that we wish we would have done earlier was test our drainage.

    Reply to Morgan G's comment

  10. bonnie on January 26, 2011 at 1:18 pm

    Yes. Done free by extension service. I love all the info it provides. Around these parts, lime is often needed to raise the pH.

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  11. Joshua on January 26, 2011 at 1:32 pm

    I skipped soil testing when I first moved into the Wallow. I found a web page that compared soil test-kit results with the results from a full-on laboratory, and they found that the test kits you buy in the store are of extremely dubious accuracy. I would have to search around to find the page for you, so take this with a grain of salt, but my conclusion at the time was that store-bought test kits were worthless.

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  12. Corrie on January 26, 2011 at 5:55 pm

    I have never done it, either at home or in the city parks I maintain. My brother did it for his vegetable garden, and the one thing it doesn’t tell you about is nitrogen. In his case, he wasn’t getting any tomatoes or root crops, but big healthy leaves. I suspected too much N, but the soil test didn’t shine any light on that. He has since cut down on adding leaves, cow/horse manure and grass to the garden and has been harvesting like crazy.

    I’d love to have those blue hydrangeas– around here the soil is alkaline so all we get is pink.

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  13. Heather on January 26, 2011 at 6:04 pm

    Hi Susy, yes I have had soil testing done in the past and as a Master Gardener I advocate for soil testing all the time! Those PH or home soil kits you buy are pretty much a waste of money! For somewhere between $5-$15 almost any local extension can tell you where to send your soil to have it tested extensively. Each lab will usually provide you with instructions of how to collect, how much and will give you the bag to send it in.
    You should have tests run on different areas of your garden depending on what you will be using it for. When you get your results they will tell you what and how much nutrients to apply for specific areas of your garden. A bed of acid loving shrubs and mixed perennials would be very different than what you need for turf or a veggie garden. They tell you the major and minor nutrients and PH.
    It’s probably the best thing you can do to understand the foundational health of your garden. It would be equivalent to your Dr running blood work on you. Once you know what you’ve got you know what to do to make it better! Good luck and I do hope you will write about it if you have it done. Also, the local extension and master gardener programs are available for free gardening help in almost every county of every state!

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  14. annie on January 28, 2011 at 9:01 pm

    I have tested the soil. We use the Texas Plant and Soil Lab. The test we get includes macro and micro nutrients, ph, and organic matter %.

    You can definitely just go for it and amend with general stuff. However, if you don’t have various micro-nutrients in sufficient quantities your plants will not be as healthy as they could be. That may just look like lack of vigor but it can also manifest as disease and pest infestation. We know that, like animals, well nourished plants can fight off problems. The ratio or micro-nutrients to one another is also important. And, if it turns out you have a whole lot of something in your native soil you don’t want to add more. For example, the soil on my property is extremely high in iron. I didn’t know this until I got it tested but now I avoid high iron amendments because it is indeed possible to reach toxic levels of some nutrients if you add too much. If that happens, the plants will get sickly.

    Also, certain nutrients, like calcium and magnesium, have a significant effect on soil structure. And soil structure affects not just plant growth in a physical sense (for example highly expansive clays physically limit plant growth through root shearing) but also how much salt is likely to accumulate in irrigated soils which can effect growth.

    Definitely good to test for pH though if nothing else. There is a narrow range of pH in which nutrients are maximally available. Higher or lower and various nutrients will become less available. There is a cool chart found in any soils textbook (and elsewhere I’m sure) that demonstrates it graphically.

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This is a daily journal of my efforts to cultivate a more simple life, through local eating, gardening and so many other things. We used to live in a small suburban neighborhood Ohio but moved to 153 acres in Liberty, Maine in 2012.

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