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How to Test Your Garden Soil and Why It Matters

Lucy Mercer
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How to Test Your Soil and Why It Mattes

Juicy tomatoes and glossy peppers taste better, grow more abundantly and with fewer problems, when grown in healthy soil. When you understand the makeup of your soil from the ground up, you have the keys to a healthy foundation for your vegetable garden.

First, take a minute to appreciate garden soil. This is not dirt, that is what you sweep off your floor. Garden soil is made up of minerals, organic matter, air and water in a matrix that provides the ideal conditions for plant roots to provide fuel for plants to grow and thrive.

A soil test is the best way to find out what’s going on under your plants, including the pH level and essential minerals like calcium, lime, gypsum and potassium.

Basic do-it-yourself soil test kits are an inexpensive and easy way to determine if your soil is missing vital nutrients. Or, for a small fee, your local Cooperative Extension Service will test your soil for you. Either way, you’ll learn what you need to add to your vegetable garden for a healthier harvest.

Tip: When gardeners mention pH, they’re really talking about nutrient availability in the soil. On the pH scale, 7 is neutral, and anything below is acidic. Above 7 is alkaline. Most plants will thrive in a pH range from 6.0 to 7.5, and that happens to be the pH of most commercial garden soils.

Of course, there are exceptions, like acid-loving blueberry bushes that prefer a pH around 5.5. Acidic soil can be amended with lime to make it more neutral or alkaline, while garden sulfur is added to alkaline soils to decrease the pH. Compost is neutral and will not affect the acidity of soil when added.

HOW TO TEST VEGETABLE GARDEN SOIL:

  1. Gather three to five samples from different parts of your garden, each from 4 to 6 inches below the surface.
  2. Remove any plants, roots or debris from your samples.
  3. Thoroughly mix your samples to ensure you have enough soil to test. The kit will specify how much you need.
  4. Spread soil over newspaper and allow to dry for at least 24 hours.
  5. Follow the instructions listed on your soil test kit or send a dry sample to the County Extension office.
  6. Add amendments as prescribed by the soil test. Soil testing is the only way to know the pH of your garden soil. 

Got questions about this article or any other garden topic? Go here now to post your gardening ideas, questions, kudos or complaints. We have gardening experts standing by to help you!