Garden: The Dirt On Soil
The following is the second part of a new column for Rural Intelligence, a weekly Q&A that seeks to address basic issues facing the ever-inquisitive back and front-yard toiler. Both questions and answers are provided by the people who know best, the fertile master gardeners from the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge. This week, should you have further queries about the subject at hand, you can check the websites provided at the bottom of the article.
Should I have my soil tested?
Yes, yes and YES! For almost all of the plant health questions that we receive, the first thing that we do is to ask whether or not you have had your soil tested because, more often than not, poor or wrong soil conditions are usually the issue.
Your soil has a lot going on down there. It’s a combination of sand, silt (rock), clay particles, organic matter (poop and dead stuff), air, and water. The decaying organic matter is food for all of the creatures that live in healthy soil: earthworms, insects, beneficial nematodes, bacteria and other microorganisms. If you took just one quarter of a teaspoon of soil, you would find about a BILLION microorganisms. All of those elements and creatures create a balance that is critical to your plant growth.
One of the most important conditions that affects the quality of plant growth is ph; the measure of soil acidity or alkalinity. The soil ph impacts the release of minerals into the soil. When the ph is incorrect for the plant growing there, the minerals needed for plant growth are not released to the plant even if all of the nutrients are present. It’s like having a safety deposit box at the bank filled with gold but no key to open it. We measure ph on a scale of 1-14 where 7 is neutral. Below 7 and your soil is acidic, above 7 and your soil is alkaline.
When should I have my soil tested?
If you can, test your soil BEFORE you put in that new flower bed or fencerow of trees. Most soils will probably need amending and that can take a lot of time if you are relying on those nutrients to move through the soil from the top down. If you can mix in those amendments to the top 6-8 inches of the soil before planting, you can speed up the process.
It’s best to have your soil tested every 2-3 years. Sample more frequently if you are monitoring your fertility levels or growing crops or plants that are known to use a lot of resources.
How to take a soil sample:
1. First, determine the area where you want to plant. Find a small spot in that area and remove any turf, debris, mulch, residue, etc. that may be covering the soil.
2. Take your trowel and make a cone-shaped hole that is 6-8 inches deep.
3. Now, remove a thin layer from the side of the hole with your trowel, a “slice” of soil if you will, and put it in a container.
4. Repeat this step ten times. That’s right, ten times and no cheating! It is important to get a good sampling of soil throughout your planting site for an accurate reading. For larger areas you may even want to do more.
5. Once you have all of your “slices,” go ahead and mix them up really well, breaking up large clumps.
6. Now spread the mixture out on a paper towel and let that air dry overnight.
7. Once dry, take a ½ cup of the soil and put it in a plastic bag. Label the bag with your name, contact info, site location, and what you intend on growing at the site.
Congratulations! You have got yourself one good soil sample that is ready for testing.
Where to get your soil sample tested:
There are lots of different places you can have your soil sampled. Most places charge just a small fee and can do sampling rather quickly.
• The Master Gardeners perform soil testing for ph levels here at the Berkshire Botanical Garden every Monday from 9 a.m. to noon for just $1. Bring a sample with your name, telephone number, and what you wish to grow at the site.
• The Farmer’s Market at the Berkshire Mall in Lanesborough also has soil testing on the following dates from 9 a.m. to noon: May 11 and 18, June 15, July 13, August 17, and September 7 and 14.
• In Massachusetts, mail your soil sample to UMASS for a complete soil analysis.
• In Connecticut, visit the UCONN website.
• In New York, visit the Cornell website.
• You may also want to contact your local municipality to see if they provide soil testing. Oftentimes, towns or counties will have free testing for residents or will do it locally.