Why You Should Test Your Soil

Updated on July 13, 2018
Diane Lockridge profile image

Lockridge is an avid reader who enjoys learning about beautiful things in the garden. Among other things, she has worked with a florist.

Healthy soil yields healthy plants.
Healthy soil yields healthy plants.

Do the plants in your garden like sweet, sour or neutral soil? If you don’t know what I’m talking about, odds are you haven’t ever had your soil tested. (But I’ll explain more about “sweet” and “sour” soil later.)

The quality of your soil is as important to the growth of your plant as the weather it will endure. With that in mind, it’s best to know the type of soil you have, so you can best amend it to help your plants grow as healthy and strong as possible.

Notice the rich organic matter and dark color of this soil.
Notice the rich organic matter and dark color of this soil.

The Benefits of Soil Testing

Quality soil will be organically rich and will have both large and small particles to it. Quality soil will also be well draining, which will help your plants not get water-logged from heavy rains or excessive watering. It will also be somewhat loosened, not too compact, so that roots can easily grow deep.

If you want your plants to grow in a healthy environment, you’ll need to test the soil to make sure it has the proper nutrients. Odds are that you (or your kids) take vitamins to help amend your body. The same thing can be done for your soil. You can add nutrients and vitamins back into the soil, but you should only add soil amendments if you know what your soil is lacking.

What Soil Testing Kits Measure

Among other things, a soil test will measure the pH level. The pH scale ranges from 1 to 14, with a low score indicating high acidity and a high score indicating high alkalinity; pH7 is neutral. Most plants prefer to grow in conditions between pH6 and pH7.5. Soil is considered “sweet” if it is above ph7, and “sour” if it is below pH 7.

Before planting anything in your garden, it’s best to test the soil so you know if you’ll need to add anything to help your plant grow adequately

In addition to measuring the pH level in your soil, test kits can indicate if something is missing from your soil.

Where to Get a Soil Testing Kit

Look for soil testing kits at home and garden centers, nurseries and big-box locations; larger grocery stores may also have soil testing kits near the produce or floral section of the store. You can also purchase kits online. Regardless of where you purchase the soil testing kit, expect to pay $10 to $30.

Local cooperative extensions from the university system frequently offer soil testing, and your state may offer testing as well for a small fee. Visit Gardening Know How for a listing of cooperative extensions by zip code.

How to Prepare Soil for Testing

Things you’ll need:

  • Bucket
  • Plastic container
  • Garden trowel
  • Newspaper

Steps:

  1. Clean the bucket, container, and any other tools you’ll be using to collect your soil sample with warm soapy water. Thoroughly rise the utensils, and allow them to dry out.
  2. Dig at least five holes 6 to 8 inches deep in the area you want to plant.
  3. Slice about a ½ inch piece from the side of each hole, and place it in the bucket.
  4. Mix all the soil you’ve gathered in the bucket. You’ll need about a pint of soil.
  5. Spread the soil on newspaper to dry out for about a day or so.
  6. Test the soil for yourself once it is dry, or send the soil off to the collection site.

When testing your soil avoid using clumps of soil and other non-organic matter.
When testing your soil avoid using clumps of soil and other non-organic matter.

How to Improve Soil Quality

Areas of higher rainfall such as the Eastern US and Pacific Northwest tend to be naturally more acidic. Whereas soils in the central and southwestern US tend to have higher alkalinity.

If your soil is overly acidic, you’ll likely need to apply limestone. Plants frequently need a healthy amount of calcium and magnesium, which is found in lime. Although it is best to apply lime to your soil in the autumn months, it can really be applied at any time in the year.

If your soil has too much alkalinity you’ll likely need to add sulfur, gypsum, or peat moss to improve the soil.

Always be sure to read and follow all package directions on the handling and application of soil amendments.

Money-Saving Tip

If your test results prove that your soil will need a lot of amendments, consider planting in a raised bed instead. Creating a small raised bed and using store-bought soil may also be less expensive than adding a lot of soil amendments to your existing soil. Raised beds allow you to cater the needs of the soil more closely to each type of plant you’d like to include in your garden.

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