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How to Take a Soil Sample

Test your soil to learn its nutrient levels before spending money on unnecessary fertilizers and soil amendments.

Test your soil to learn its nutrient levels before spending money on unnecessary fertilizers and soil amendments.

Reasons to Test Your Soil

Why should you test your soil? Knowing exactly what kind of nutrients it needs (and how much of each) will save you money and protect the water system. If you know your soil's nutrient deficiencies, you can buy only what's required, applying the nutrients your plants will be sure to use.

This means you won't break the bank on unnecessary and expensive soil amendments. Additionally, knowing your soil's nutrient needs means that you won't apply too much, resulting in fertilizer run-off that pollutes the creeks, streams, and other waterways in your community. Save money and keep pollutants from entering the ecosystem? Sounds like a good deal.

Home gardeners only need to have their soil tested once every three years. Depending upon where you live, a test may cost anywhere from $8–$15. County Extension Offices in some states, like Arkansas, offer soil testing as a free service. Residents in many states, however, must pay nominal fees to independent labs.

What Will You Learn?

  • How to prepare a soil sample for testing.
  • How to locate a soil testing center near you (even if you’re an organic gardener).
  • How to read your test results.

How to Take a Soil Sample

There are a few things you need to do to prepare your soil for testing. Don't worry, it is simple. Just follow these three steps:

  1. Collect soil
  2. Mix soil
  3. Prepare soil for testing lab

1. Collect Soil

Take soil from eight or more locations within the testing area. For instance, if you're trying to determine the fertility of your lawn, collect soil from various places within it. If you plan to test your vegetable garden, collect soil from your garden only.

Don't mix soils from different areas in your yard, such as the flower bed, the lawn, and the vegetable garden. Doing so will skew the test results, and you won't learn what each area of your landscape needs in order for plants to thrive.

Use a trowel, a shovel, or a specially made soil sampler so that you can scoop down into the soil horizon about six inches. When taking soil samples from a flower bed, scrape away mulch first.

Place each small sample in a clean plastic bucket. Don't use a rusty or galvanized bucket, or a bucket that has been used to hold cleaning products. Residual traces of chemicals and/or metals may affect test results.

Once you've collected a good number of samples, it's time to mix them.

2. Mix Soil

Mix the samples together for about a minute with your hand. Discard rocks and other debris, as well as worms. If you've taken samples from your lawn, be sure to remove turf, too. The soil should not be wet. If it is, allow it to dry before performing the next step.

3. Prepare Soil for the Testing Lab

Place 1–2 cups of the mixed soil in the paper bag or cardboard container supplied by the testing lab. Make sure the soil reaches the fill line. If you don't have a container from the lab, put the soil in an unused paper bag, Ziploc bag, or clean Mason jar.

Clearly mark the outside of the container with your name and the date. Also, indicate where the soil came from in your yard. This is particularly important if you're submitting three separate samples, which is typical for most home gardeners. For instance, one sample might be marked "garden," another "lawn," and another "flower bed."

Locating a Soil-Testing Lab in Your Area

The Cooperative Extension Agencies of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) are a great source of information for home gardeners located in the U.S. Through your state Cooperative Extension office, you can learn the best plants and the best planting times for your region.

Traditional Labs

Your extension office can also provide you with a list of local authorized soil testing labs. Find an extension office near you, or check out the USDA website links to reliable soil testing labs.

These traditional testing labs will perform a standard soil test on your sample. You'll learn your soil's pH level as well as how high or low your soil's levels of plant-available nutrients are. And you'll receive valuable recommendations for the type and amount of fertilizer needed for optimal growth.

Labs for Organic Gardeners

If you're an organic farmer, a standard test is of little use. It won't provide organic fertilizer recommendations. For that, you'll need to send your sample to an alternative soil testing lab. For the names and contact information of alternative labs in the U.S., visit the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service website.

Home Testing

You might also opt to purchase your own testing equipment and test your soil at home. Test kits that measure soil nutrients, as well as pH levels, are readily available online and in home-garden stores.

How to Read Your Results

Most test results include at least three pieces of helpful information:

  1. The general levels of nutrients in your soil
  2. Your soil's pH level
  3. Specific fertilizer recommendations

General Nutrient Status

Although test results vary from lab to lab, most include a graph that tells you the general level of important nutrients in your soil, such as:

  • Phosphorus
  • Potassium
  • Magnesium
  • Calcium
  • Sulfur
  • Zinc
  • Manganese
  • Iron
  • Copper
  • Boron
  • Sodium

Levels are usually marked as:

  • Excessive or very high
  • Optimum or high
  • Medium
  • Low or very low

pH Levels

Test results also include your soil's pH level. pH is a measurement of soil's sourness (acidity) or sweetness. The pH scale ranges from 0–14. Although individual plants have specific pH preferences, in general blueberries, azaleas, rhododendrons, and conifers are acid-lovers that like pH levels of 5–5.5 best.

Vegetables and turf prefer a more neutral pH in the 6–7 range. Getting the pH level right is vital to plant performance as it directly impacts the availability of nutrients in the soil to plants. To raise pH levels, lime is often recommended.

Fertilizer Recommendations

Most importantly, soil test results include recommendations (in lbs.) of fertilizer you should apply per 1,000 square feet.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.