Should You Test Soil Before Planting A Garden?


When you want to grow a garden, testing the soil isn’t the first thing that comes into your mind.

What you’re thinking about is all the flowers, fruits, and vegetables you want to plant there. But trust me! Testing your garden soil is just as important as sowing seeds or harvesting.

Testing soil provides critical information on its chemical, biological and nutritional composition. This information is used to amend soils that aid productive plant growth. It saves time and money by removing the guesswork on what your garden requires.

Your garden soil is like a camel traveling through the desert. Once hydrated, it can survive for weeks. But sooner or later, it’s gonna tumble.

Just like that, your garden soil may work great for years and years, but eventually, it’ll need your attention.

You’ll see the signs. Off-color leaves, the yellowish coloring between leaf veins, stunted growth, and even your harvest will have volumes to say.

The idea of testing is to know what you’re getting into before planting! If something is lacking, then we can balance it before it’s too late!

Remember: Feed your soil not your plants.

Why Is Soil Testing Important?

Everything plays a part in the collective good of the garden. From thorns to the worms, nothing is insignificant. Soil is one of the most overlooked and critical parts of the garden.

Healthy soil means a healthy harvest. To avoid issues, I recommend testing it before planting anything.

A soil test usually shows you two major things. The pH value and the nutrients present in it, along with their quantities.

Testing soil for PH and Organic Content

The concept of soil testing spans further than testing for organic content and pH. We need to check for the structure, compaction, soil organisms, worms, and drainage.

The perfect garden soil is easily workable and porous to allow aeration. A compact patch of soil doesn’t support soil life and is difficult to maintain.

Earthworm importance during soil testing

We also check for worms in the soil sample. These worms move across the soil, eat from the organic matter present in it, and their waste works as a nitrogen fertilizer.

The presence of earthworms naturally means that the soil is fertile and alive with microorganisms.

Collecting the soil sample correctly

Taking the right sample is crucial to get the right results. To take a sample for testing. Make sure that the soil is neither too wet nor too dry. Dig about 6-7 inches deep holes at various locations in the garden.

Take a fistful from each hole and add it to a bucket. Mix the various samples and separate a cup of soil for testing. Leave the final sample to dry for 24 hours before testing.

Conducting Soil Tests At Home

You can conduct a soil test at home with a DIY kit or send the sample to a lab. The test determines organic content (nutrients) and the pH value of the soil sample.

The organic content tells you which macronutrients and micronutrients are present in the soil. Nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium are among the macronutrients.

Micronutrients include calcium, sulfur, copper, etc. The test also recommends the number of fertilizers and compost that you must add to cover the deficient nutrients.

This saves you a considerable amount of money otherwise wasted in unwanted fertilizers.

The fertility of the soil is the future of civilization.

Albert Howard

Soil pH value determines if your garden soil is acidic (below 7) or alkaline (above 7). The value of 7.0 is considered neutral on the pH scale. Most plants thrive in a slightly acidic or neutral (6.5-7.0) pH range.

Some plants like blueberry prefer acidic soil. Planting a neutral plant in acidic soil or vice versa is a recipe for disaster.

The right pH enables plants to use soil nutrients from the soil actively.

A soil test can make or break your garden. Don’t overdo anything but before sowing, make sure that your soil is ready.

What Exactly Does the Soil Test Do?

The soil test helps you decide if your garden soil is ready for planting.

It determines the fertility and health of the soil. My years of experience in the garden have taught me that every plant is different. A certain habitat is needed for them to grow. They even die if those conditions aren’t met.

Soil testing takes the guesswork out of gardening. You don’t waste money on fertilizers that aren’t needed. Nor plant anything in the wrong place. It tells you,

  1. Structure.
  2. Percentage of organic matter.
  3. Nutrients.
  4. pH value.

5 Reasons Why you Should Test the Soil before Planting:

As we’re on the topic of whether we should or shouldn’t test the soil. Let me give you five reasons why testing is something you won’t regret doing.

DID YOU KNOW! It takes 500 years to produce just under an inch of topsoil; this is the most productive soil layer.

1.   Understand your soil:

The first reason why you should test the soil is to avoid any surprises. Testing your samples gives you a solid number to work with. Even if the allotment is unused, the weeds may be swallowing water and nutrients over the years.

You can’t just keep using the nutrients. There is a time to take, and there’s a time to give. There may or may not be a problem in a nutshell, but it’s better to make sure than regret later.

2.   Nutrient Deficiency and Fertilizers:

The soil test report tells you which nutrients are present in your soil sample. It also gives you the exact levels of the macronutrients and micronutrients.

In that way, you can prepare your soil for planting. In case of a nutrient deficiency, the test recommends the amount of fertilizer you should use. You can save money on fertilizers that you don’t need.

3.   The acidity of the Soil:

The soil test also gives you the pH value of the sample. The pH values lie between zero to fourteen.

The perfect pH value to sustain most of the plants is between 6.5 to 7.0. Many plants can’t sustain acidic or alkaline soil. In which case, it helps you decide which seed you should or shouldn’t sow.

4.   Soil Structure and Aeration:

Soil texture is important for several reasons. The perfect garden soil allows air and water to pass to the roots and keep them hydrated. Worms and soil life are important for aeration and drainage.

Not every soil is a good place for these microorganisms and earthworms. Without understanding your soil structure, you won’t know if the soil is suitable for crops. And what kind of crops will grow better in your garden?

5.   Soil Life:

A simple soil test can tell you if your garden holds an adequate amount of earthworms. The gardener can never underestimate the importance of these tiny worms.

Your soil says a lot about the kind of microorganism and worm that want to live in it. A garden alive with earthworms is supposed to be healthy. Having earthworms also indicate the presence of the beneficial microorganism.

The movement of these worms creates tunnels that allow oxygen and water to pass through.

Remember, One plant’s wine is another plant’s poison.

How to Take a Soil Sample?

Taking a proper soil sample is absolutely critical. How else are you supposed to get the right results? Even for a small garden, the soil sample should be about one and a half cups.

It needs to be the perfect representative of the entire garden soil. To achieve that,

  • Dig at least half a dozen 6 inches deep holes at various random locations in your garden.
  • The samples mustn’t be collected from near a fence or after spreading the compost. Clear the weeds, compost, and other scraps from the surface of the soil before digging.
  • Suppose you’re taking a sample from a greenhouse with a variety of crops. Take soil samples from distinct plant species to make sure that you’ve covered everything.
  • The sample should be moist but not wet. Collect a fistful of soil from each hole and mix all the samples in a container.
  • Clean stones, insects, roots, and weeds from the sample before putting it out to dry. Let it dry for about 24 hours before testing.
  • Wear clean garden gloves to avoid contaminating the soil samples.

Soil Testing:

So, you’ve taken a sample of your soil. Now it’s time to test it. There are two ways to approach soil testing.

  1. Do-It-Yourself soil testing.
  2. Send the soil sample to a lab for testing.

Do-it-Yourself Soil Testing:

If you’re a seasonal gardener and want to test your own soil, then rest assured. The process is pretty simple. I personally prefer the Luster Leaf Soil Kit. It tests the pH levels and nutrients present in your soil.

The kit I linked to is available on Amazon. This kit is awesome as it will give you 200 tests

  • 200 Tests, 50 ea PH, N, P, and K
  • Simple Easy To Use
  • Sturdy Plastic Moulded Case
  • PH Preference List for hundred of plants.
  • Tips on altering soil conditions at home.

Laboratory Soil Testing:

If you’re a home garden owner, then DIY soil testing is perfect for you. For a more serious gardener, several laboratories can do all kinds of soil tests for you. I live in the UK and use Laboratories. Agrolab or Lancrop is an excellent option for those living in the United States. You get the test results back in about a week.

List of soil testing laboratories

Labs In The UKLabs In The USA
Lancrop LaboratoriesCrop Services International
Safe SoilInternational AG Labs
Soil AssociationAGQ Labs
Nutrient ManagementAgrolab
YaroAglabs
K4soilsTPSL
Anglian Soil Analysis LTDMidwest Laboratories
GeolabsWlabs

What are We Testing the Soil For?

We’re testing the soil to determine the nutrients and pH value of the soil.

Ph Value

Soil pH determines the acidity of your garden soil. It’s measured on a scale from zero to 14. With zero being highly acidic, 14.0 being highly alkaline, and 7.0 as the neutral pH value.

Most plants grow well in slightly acidic or neutral soil (between 6.5 to 7.0).

Blueberries and azaleas are among the acid-loving crops. Growing them in alkaline soil is not recommended. You can test the pH values with a DIY soil kit or send the sample to a laboratory for testing.

AcidicNeutralAlkaline
0 – 7.07.07.0 – 14.0

Organic Content:

To stay healthy and to grow, your body needs certain nutrients. Blood tests are used to confirm if we’re in good shape or need supplements. Our gardens are no different from ours!

They also need proper care and supplements (fertilizers) from time to time. Soil tests reveal a nutrient deficiency in the soil and recommend the proper fertilizer.

Macronutrients and Micronutrients:

There are two types of nutrients present in our garden soil. Macronutrients are found in large quantities in the soil, usually about 0.1%. Only trace amounts of Micronutrients are found and needed in your garden soil.

Any home kit can measure the top three important nutrients (Nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium).

You must address any deficiency in these three ASAP. The micronutrients aren’t tested in the DIY kits. If you want to test for them, then lab tests are the way to go.

MacronutrientsMicronutrients
Nitrogen (N)Iron (Fe)
Phosphorus (P)Manganese (Mn)
Potassium (K)Zinc (Zn)
Calcium (C)Copper (Cu)
Magnesium (Mg) 
Sulfur (S) 

Soil is at the bottom of the food chain, yet it is the cornerstone of life on earth.

Simple In-house Soil Tests:

The soil is the first thing that catches your eye. The color, texture, and especially the smell are mesmerizing. Today, I’ll share 4 simple soil tests that you can do at home without any testing kit.

1.   Soil Structure:

To test the composition and structure of your garden soil. Dig a hole of about 6 inches and when the soil is moderately moist. Hold the soil in your hands and examine it.

Garden soil is classified into three basic categories. Among the three types, loamy soil is considered perfect for gardening.

 TextureNutrientsAerationDrainage
Sandy SoilBroken rock particles.Doesn’t retain nutrientsGood enoughDoesn’t hold water
Loamy SoilSmall particles, smooth yet grainy.Nutrient-rich.Very good.Moderate drainage
Clay SoilVery fine grains.nutrient-richVery bad.Slow drainage.

2. Which type of soil do you have?

Sandy Soil. The sand particles are fairly grainy. It’ll fall apart as soon as taken out of the container.

Loamy Soil. The soil particles are fine and smooth. It holds water and nutrients better than sand. You’re lucky if your garden has loamy soil.

Clay Soil. The particles in clay soil are very finely grained. It’s nutrient-rich and holds too much water. Clay is not suitable for gardens.

3. Monitor soil life during soil testing

A strong presence of worms means your soil is healthy. Earthworms do more than half our jobs in the garden. They break the organic matter and aerate the soil. Their presence usually means your soil has a thriving ecosystem with most of the beneficial bacteria and fungi.

You can confirm the presence of earthworms by digging a 6-inch hole in the soil. Make sure that the soil is moist.

It shouldn’t be wet, nor dry. Please take out the shovel and count the number of earthworms on it. If it’s 10 or above, then your soil is perfect. Less than five earthworms is not a good sign.

It means your soil lacks organic matter to feed the organisms. Productive agricultural soil contains between 3% to 6% organic matter. Use compost to make up for the organic matter.

The video below talks about 9 reasons why you should make compost at home. This can really help to amend the soil after testing your soil. But it explains about the importance of soil life.

4. Water Drainage:

Water drainage is not something your soil test can report. It’s important because many plants, specifically culinary herbs, can’t survive in wet soil. To test the drainage, dig a six-inch hole, fill it with water, and let it drain. If it takes longer than 4 hours to drain, then your soil has a drainage issue.

5. Insects and disease:

Insects and diseases can kill a perfect harvest. Having an active presence of soil organisms means there is less chance for pests and diseases. These issues show signs in several ways.

To test the soil for pests and diseases. Gently dig the area around a plant, preferably a weed. Pull it out once you’ve reached the root depth. Look out for,

  • Brown/yellow mushy roots.
  • Stunted growth.

Which Factors Can Affect your Soil Test Result:

Sometimes, the soil test doesn’t correctly identify the issues. Several factors can affect the results of your soil test. A few most common factors are,

  • Season.
  • Moisture.
  • Inadequate water drainage.
  • Plant disease and pests.
  • Sampling depth.
  • Crop removal.

The best way to avoid improper results is to take special care of the sample. Ensure that it’s not too moist, the temperature is normal, and you dug a six-inch hole to extract the sample. We average the result by mixing samples from overall the garden.

Pro Tip: If your garden is suffering from a disease or you have a pest issue, then it’s better to take care of the problem before sampling for a soil test to avoid misguided results.

How Often Should I Test the Soil?

If your garden is healthy and thriving, then a soil test is recommended every three years. You should also monitor the fertility of the soil by keeping the previous reports handy.

In case of any problems like a disease or pest issue. Consider testing more often (once a year). I would also recommend testing again if you’ve been regularly using compost and fertilizers to monitor the progress.

Related Questions:

How do I test my garden soil?

Soil testing is a simple and inexpensive procedure. You can test your soil at home with a DIY soil kit or send it to a laboratory for a more in-depth analysis. There are homemade tests to test soil without a soil kit too.

We’ve already talked about some simple tests earlier, but you can also test the soil’s pH with vinegar and baking soda.

  • Put two tablespoons of soil in a container and pour half a cup of vinegar in it. If it fizzes, then your soil is alkaline with a pH of 7 or 8.
  • If it doesn’t fizz after the vinegar test, add distilled water in 2 tablespoons of the soil and add half a baking soda cup. If it fizzes, then you have acidic soil (with ph values of 5 or 6).
  • If it doesn’t fizz at all, then congrats! Your soil is neutral (7.0 pH).

What to add to garden soil before planting?

The plants in our garden continuously need nutrients and water. They get those from the soil, which is why the soil needs fertilizer and compost. You can add a couple of things to your garden soil before planting.

  • Fertilizers.
  • Composted organic matter.
  • Raw organic matter, green manure, and mulch.

How do I make good garden soil?

Soil is the life and soul of your garden. Better soil means a better harvest. To improve the quality of your soil,

  • Add 4 to 5 inches of well-rotted compost or organic matter on the soil.
  • Cover the organic matter with wood chips, straws, and bark. The mulch retains water on the surface and invites earthworms.
  • Use fertilizers if necessary.
  • Add a 3-4 inch compost layer each year or every six months.
  • Grow cover crops or green manure.

Is baking soda good for plants?

Baking soda doesn’t pose any apparent harm to the plants. It’s useful in preventing powdery mildew and foliar diseases in the plants.

Experienced gardeners recommend regular use of baking soda during spring to fight plant disease. It’s also used as a fungicide to disrupt the ionic balance in the fungal cells.

The solution of baking soda with water is said to neutralize acidic soil.

What is the best soil for gardening?

The best soil for gardening is loam. It’s a combination of sand, silt, and clay.  The fine grainy texture allows the loam to hold an adequate about of water without getting too wet.

It’s also rich in nutrients and perfect for the growth of any fruit or vegetable. The particles are not too small or too grainy. They’re perfect for water drainage, holding nutrients, and retaining soil life.

Conclusion

I know you are itching to start planting out into your new garden. But take the time to do a soil test, and it will save you so much money, heartache, and time later on in the season.

It will also confirm that you’re doing it the right way for not only you and your plants but also your garden’s overall health.


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Tony O'Neill

I am Tony O'Neill, A full-time firefighter and long-term gardener. I have spent most of my life gardening. From the age of 7 until the present day at 46. My goal is to use my love and knowledge of gardening to support you and to simplify the gardening process, so you are more productive

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