My brain is bursting with the possibilities of SPRING on the homestead.
The birds have started chirping, there’s the faintest green tint to the prairie when you look out across the wide open space, and the air smells alive and fresh after many months of BLAH. Are we done with snow storms? No way. But we’re getting closer.
I repotted the tomatoes and peppers this week, and they’re happily growing under their lights in the basement. I’ll start the cabbage, brussels sprouts, and broccoli seeds that I purchased from True Leaf Market in a few days, and plans for about a half dozen projects are underway.
Our raised beds have been complete for years now including the addition of our crazy hail protection, and the greenhouse projects have started. So the main garden goal this year is to garden with intention and aim for quality over quantity.
Also. I’m trying not to kill stuff. That’s good, right?
I defiantly learned a valuable lesson after accidentally poisoning my garden several years ago, and I came pretty darn close to disaster again this spring without even realizing it.
Good grief, Jill. Thankfully, soil testing saved the day. Hallelujah.
Why You Should Get Your Soil Tested
I thought about having our garden soil tested, but was never quite organized enough to do it before the growing season started. So I would skip it year after year, then one day a friend brought me a container from the Colorado State University Soil Testing Laboratory I decided it was finally time to test our soil.
I will be the first to tell you that it was the best gardening decision that has been made on our homestead. No more flying by the seat of my pants when it comes to our garden soil. Having your garden soil tested is an inexpensive, quick way to find out exactly what is going on in your garden soil.
Soil tests provide you with actual factual information, so you are not left playing a guessing game every gardening season. It provides you with data that can tell you exactly where you need to start with your soil and how to improve it.
What You Will Learn From Having Your Soil Tested
Soil tests can tell you exactly what you need to get your garden soil in growing condition. When you get your test results it will tell you specifically what nutrients you have or need and what your ph level is. These are both important pieces of information when it comes to garden soil.
What is a Ph Level?
Ph levels are used to gauge the acidity of your soil and it tells if the nutrients are available to the plants in your garden. Your soil can be acidic, neutral, or alkaline these levels are determined using a scale from 0 to 14. o means your soil is extremely acidic and 14 is very alkaline.
For most garden soils you want your ph level to be in the neutral range of the scale, so a 6.5 or 7 is ideal. neutral slightly acidic soil is good for most plants, of course, there are always exceptions.
Main Nutrients in Soil
There are three main nutrients that should be looked at when you are testing your soil. These are Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and potassium. Nitrogen is responsible for the amount of water uptake in a plant and plays a huge role in plant development. Phosphorus helps with root development and also aids in plant growth. Potassium helps plants build up resistance to pests.
When it comes to soil testing the main issues that are usually found are ph levels and the amount of nitrogen in the soil. Your results can vary depending on your climate the area you are gardening in and what past soil amendments were made.
Where to Get Your Soil Tested
There are tons of DIY soil tests floating around on Pinterest and such, but they have mixed reviews and seem to be mostly ineffective. Plus, most of them just check for pH, which really is only a teeny part of the information you really need to know if you’re really wanting to understand the health of your soil.
The soil testing kit that I have been using here at The Prairie Homestead is from a branch of Redmond’s Real Salt call Redmond’s Agriculture. The test is super simple to use, you buy your Redmond’s Soil Test send in a sample of your garden soil and within 7 Days you can view your results online.
There are other ways to get your garden soil tested to get more in-depth lab results you can check with your local county extension and use labs that accept mail-in samples like these places:
Home testing kits are now available and can be purchased at your local farm and garden store or online. These tests won’t give you a full report like the one from Redmond’s or other labs.
How I Collected My Soil Sample
Your soil test will come with directions, but from what I’ve seen, directions are generally the same:
- Dig down at least 6 inches.
- Combine samples from multiple areas of your garden
- Let the soil dry out completely before you package and mail it
Not too hard, eh? While the soil we filled our raised beds with was pretty similar from bed to bed, I still chose to dig samples from 4-5 different beds and combine them together in a bucket. I stuck them in the little plastic testing container, filled out the form, and within 2 weeks I had my results.
What We Learned from Testing Our Garden Soil
HOLY COW YOU GUYS.
I’m so glad I did this.
I was getting ready to add a whole bunch of composted manure to my beds in another month or so, and I’m so glad I had it tested BEFORE I did that. The most notable thing the results revealed was that my soil is already very high in nitrate-nitrogen (108 ppm), which can cause bushy plants with small fruit and stunted roots.
Thanks to my soil test, I will NOT be adding any more composted manure to my beds this year (which also saves me a ton of work– whoop whoop). The notes also mentioned that early planting in the spring will help to make use of the additional nitrogen, so I’m crossing my fingers we won’t have issues.
Other things I learned from our soil test:
pH= Ours is high at 7.8. However, CSU said that most plants will tolerate this higher pH will little problem.
Electrical Conductivity or Salts= Ours are low at 1.9 mhos/cm. When E.C. is less than 2.0, salinity is not a problem for plant growth. However, avoid adding large amounts of manure or composted manure since these are often very salty and can damage plants.
Lime= Our lime levels are high at 2%-5%. (I have never added lime amendments, so this is naturally occurring.) According to CSU, plants can still grow quite well in soil with this lime content.
Texture Estimate= Our soil is sandy loam, which means it will drain at a medium to high rate, which may cause it to dry out rapidly. Raised beds cause soil to dry out faster anyway, so I’m glad we have our built-in drip system.
Organic Material= Ours is high at 9.7%. According to CSU, we don’t need to build up the organic matter beyond its existing levels, but rather focus on protecting and replenishing the OM content by using organic mulch.
Phosophorus= Ours is high at 111.3 ppm. This is naturally occurring in our soil.
Potassium= Ours is high at 3485 ppm. This is naturally occurring in our soil.
Zinc= Ours is adequate at 9.2 ppm. No additional zinc is needed.
Iron= Ours is low at 7.3 ppm. CSU recommended that we add 2 ounces of iron per 1000 square feet. This was interesting, as my bean plants really struggled last year and were the weirdest shade of yellow. After a little research, I discovered this was a symptom of iron deficiency, which now makes complete sense.
Manganese= Ours is adequate at 6.6 ppm. No additional manganese is needed.
Copper= Ours is adequate at 2.4 ppm. No additional copper is needed.
Boron= Ours is high at 0.50 ppm. No additional boron is needed.
What I Did with Soil Test Info:
Well, first off, I’m most definitely NOT adding any more compost to my beds– at least for this year.
Secondly, I’m on the hunt for some organic straw to use as mulch to help protect and preserve the organic matter in the soil (I, unfortunately, won’t be using hay anymore, due to the issue of herbicides).
And lastly, I am researching what sort of iron will be best to add to the garden to hopefully prevent yellow bean plants again this year. Some people say you can simply add rusty metal to your soil (??), but I think I’ll probably just use granulated or powdered iron that I’ll get from…. well, I’m not sure yet.
Suffice it to say, I’m pretty much sold on this whole soil testing thing– best $35 bucks I’ve spent!
Not only did having our soil tested but it helped me narrowly miss creating another huge problem in my garden by adding too much compost. Soil Testing means now knowing exactly how to amend my soil (no guessing games) for the upcoming growing season. Also. I’m rather proud of myself for being proactive instead of flying by the seat of my pants (now to just master that concept in all the other areas of my life…)
Ready to get your soil tested? Buy your Redmond’s Soil Kit here.
Have you ever had your garden soil tested? Comment below and share what you learned in the process!
Other Posts to Help Your Spring Gardening:
- 7 Ways to Improve Your Garden Soil
- How Much to Plant for Your Family
- Where I Buy Heirloom Seeds
- How to Test Seeds for Viability