2 things to consider when testing garden soil

October 9, 2015

To make the best use of the soil in your garden, you should know its properties; before you can improve it, you must know its deficiencies. Here are two important things to keep in mind when it comes to testing soil.

2 things to consider when testing garden soil

How to test your soil

In some provinces, soil tests are available for a fee through the provincial ministry of agriculture or a university agricultural research station. This test will tell you the texture and pH of your soil, and provide an analysis of its nutritional content and requirements. Contact the local office of your provincial ministry of agriculture to find out if this is available. If not, look for commercial laboratories online under "Soil Testing."

Soil-test kits are available if you wish to do the job yourself. With the exception of pH-test kits, however, they can be tricky to use, and the results are meaningless without knowledgeable interpretation.

Either way, the reliability of the test depends upon the care with which the soil sample is taken.

  • Avoid contaminating it with fireplace ashes, residue from tools or containers, or any other foreign substance
  • It is also important that the small sample you send is representative of an entire area where similar plants, such as roses or vegetables, are to be grown. This means gathering soil from several places and mixing it together to form a composite
  • Do not, however, mix together soil from clearly different areas. Have each analyzed separately
  • When feasible, take samples in midfall, when the growing season is over
  • Certain corrective materials, such as bone meal and elemental sulphur, take several months to become effective; so they are best applied in fall

How to take a soil sample

  • There are special tools for sampling, but the job can easily be done with a sharp spade or trowel
  • For each sample make a steep vertical cut 15 to 20 centimetres (six to eight inches) deep
  • From this vertical face take a one-centimetre-thick (half-inch-thick) slice to the full depth of the cut
  • Remove stones and other debris
  • Mix all the samples from an area thoroughly in a clean container, and take about 500 grams (one cup) of soil for analysis
  • Put it in a container that will stand the rigours of shipping, such as an ice cream container or a plastic (not glass) food storage container
  • Attach to each sample a letter, including your name and address; the date the sample was taken; the place it was taken (front lawn, garden, etc.); whether fertilizer or lime was used the previous year; what type of crop you plan to grow (grass, shrubs, flowers, vegetables, etc.); and as much information as possible about how the land has been used in the recent past
  • Enclose the containers and letters in a durable cardboard box
  • Be sure your name and address are clearly marked on the outside

Once you have a better understanding of your garden's soil, you'll be better prepared to maintain it. Get your soil tested so you can fully enjoy the fruits (and vegetables) of your gardening labour from the ground up.

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