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Soil Testing

Following a long cold winter, we are all ready for warmer days and lots of sunshine.  Personally, I get really excited about starting my garden.  The challenge is keeping my cool and not going too crazy planting things too early before the last frost. My seed starts are bursting, ready to get outside and in the ground, but not too fast!


One often overlooked aspect of planning a home garden is to test the soil. Soil testing, although not necessarily essential, can really help step up your home garden quite a bit. For a rather inexpensive (some as low as $5 or $10) and comprehensive test, you could potentially save a lot of time and money. Not to mention saving fertilizer and soil amendments that may not even be needed and, of course, havea successful and thriving garden season.


Basic information
The most basic information gathered from soil testing is the soil matrix/structure, nutrient composition and soil pH. The benefit of this information is huge. By understanding your soil structure, you can determine how well your soil drains or retains moisture. Nutrient composition will tell you what nutrients are abundant in your soil and which nutrients you might need to supplement based on particular plant needs. Most plants have an optimal soil pH (some are more sensitive than others) and having an optimal soil pH, whether acid or alkaline, is essential for crops to uptake nutrients.


There are some very basic tests to determine what type of soil texture (and thereby the basic structure) you have in your garden. All you need for the first test is a handful of moist soil from your garden. Roll the moist, but not soaked, soil in your hand and then rub it between your fingers. Soil that is mostly sandy will fall apart and feel gritty between your fingers. Clay soil will hold together well, feel very smooth in your fingers and will make ribbons when squeezed in your hand.  Loam soil is a combination of both that holds together well yet is gritty. Loam is usually preferred. This is certainly not an exact science but you can learn a lot from this test and determine what amendments you need to add for your particular needs.


Nutrient tests
Nutrient tests, the most widely used soil tests, should be used by all gardeners to determine the level of nutrients in their soil. This is always useful whether you are starting a new garden, getting ready for the season, or rotating crops with different needs.  It is also environmentally responsible.  Spraying fertilizers regularly when it is not necessary can lead to nutrient pollution. When there is too much nitrogen or phosphorus, plants will not take the nutrients up and they will end up in our local water system, creating numerous problems. A soil test will ensure you are only giving crops what they really need.


There are some tests you can buy and do at home but I would not rely on them. For costs ranging from $9-$40, labs will test levels of phosphorus, potassium, nitrogen, calcium, magnesium, and soil pH. These are the essentials but labs will test for a wide range of things including other micronutrients, biological activity (including microorganisms), and chemical pollutants (such as arsenic, mercury and lead). As you can imagine, the price goes up dramatically for these extra tests. We are lucky to have one of the nation’s best agricultural schools right in our neighborhood so take advantage of it. Check out the UW Extension’s website for all kinds of great local agricultural information. Their soil testing website is: uwlab.soils.wisc.edu/    


Proper ph
In order for those essential nutrients to be made available for your plants to absorb, the soil must be at the proper pH. The pH describes the relative acidity or alkalinity of your soil’s makeup, and it has important implications for plant health and growth. Soil pH not only influences whether essential nutrients are available for uptake by plant roots, but is also impacts beneficial fungi and bacteria in the soil. Simple pH tests can be purchased and performed by home gardeners but are usually included in most lab tests anyways. Remember that certain plants like certain ranges of pH.


When our gardens are treated like ecosystems and managed in a way that supports natural processes there is little need for constant soil testing, or for constant additions of fertilizers. Exceptions are highly disturbed soil, soil that has been mismanaged through indiscriminate applications of fertilizers and synthetic compounds, or instances where the native soil is truly deficient in a specific nutrient. A soil test will establish the baseline for a fertilizing plan andpH tests will help to monitor the progress.


mulch, microbes & moisture
Whether or not you have your soil tested, just remember the 3Ms: mulch, microbes and moisture. Maintain two inches of organic nutrient dense mulch at all times to provide needed nutrients and organic matter. This will in turn help to retain moisture, control temperature and provide the nutrients necessary to support a thriving microorganism population that will assist in keeping your plants happy and healthy. And of course, where would any of us be without water? Your plants are no different. If all else fails, just remember these three things and your garden will thank you! Happy gardening!


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