Why and How To Test the Soil In Your Yard
What does your soil say?
Knowing your soil is, according to most garden and lawn experts, essential to getting the most from your landscape efforts. Soil tests can tell you your soil’s nutrient composition, its pH, its phosphorous level, organic content, and its composition.
- Nutrient composition is to plants what RDA levels of vitamins and minerals are to humans — if tests show your soil lacking in certain nutrients, it’s easy to compensate with a fertilizer rich in those areas.
- Soil pH levels tell you how acidic your soil is — a pH level of between 6.5 and 7.0 is generally fine for most types of plants. If you’re planning on a more extensive garden, it’s worth investigating the best soil levels for the plants you intend to grow — rosemary, for instance, thrives in soil with a pH level between 5.0 and 6.0.
- Organic content in your soil helps the soil absorb and store water as well as raises the nutrient levels available in the soil
How do you test your soil?
There are many DIY kits for testing your soil’s pH, nutrient and phosphorous levels. The most reliable way to test your soil, however, is to contact your county extension agent — you can find your nearest extension office on the USDA’s site here.
To get a sense of your soil’s type and composition, there are a few tests you can do yourself with materials found in your kitchen.
- The Squeeze Test for soil type: take a moistened handful of your soil (from the area and depth you will be planting in/to) and squeeze — coarse soil will break with slight pressure, medium texture soil will stay together and change shape easily, fine textured soil resists breaking apart.
- The Jar Test for soil composition: scoop up one to two cups of soil and place it in a large jar. Fill the jar half-way with water and shake. After a few hours, check the jar — the sand will settle at the bottom, the silt in the middle and the clay at the top. Measure the total height of all three layers and the height of each layer to determine the percentage of sand, silt and clay.
(image from Rainbird.com)
Why test your soil?
“Amending” your soil with feritlizer, lime, compost and/or other additives will maximize the chances that you’ll have the lawn and garden you want, and minimize the amount of frustration you’ll experience tending your yard.
For more on your soil content, check out these sites:
- Estimating Soil Texture: Sandy, Loamy or Clayey (Colorado State University Extension)
- Four Easy Do-It-Yourself Soil Tests (About.com Organic Gardening)
- Preparing Garden Soil (TLC)
- Improving Garden Soils with Organic Matter (Oregon State University Extension)
- Understanding your Soil (Rainbird)
- Adventures in Soil Testing: Do DIY Kits Match Pro Results? (HouseLogic)