Assessing Your Garden Soil: Providing an Optimum Chance for Good Plant Growth

Many garden articles recommend assessing your garden soil, but few of them explain how to go about it. There are several methods gardeners can use to determine the fertility, tilth of soil and pH balance. The first and easiest is to look at the type of plants that are growing on the soil section before it is dug up for tilling; the second is to dig up a handful of dirt and look at it; the third, is to do a chemical analysis. Your chemical analysis can be done in one of three ways: using DIY home methods, by purchasing a soil test kit, or by taking a soil sample to a professional analyst. We will take a look at each of these in turn.

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Plant cover can tell an experienced gardener a great deal about a patch of land. For example, a lush patch of grass with a thick root system is likely to be growing on good soil. Not only is the plant growth good, but the grass, through seasonal growth and periodic die-back, has fertilized itself to some degree. On the other hand, if the plants that are growing on a patch of land are sparse, woody or even stunted, then the probability is that the soil is poor. There is a good possibility that you will see stones, sand, or parched earth in between the plants. The presence of plantain, dandelions, and lamb’s quarters – particularly if these plants are stunted – is another indicator of poor soil. The condition of the plants can also suggest the amount of rainfall that you can expect, or even the direction of the prevailing winds. Lush plant growth often indicates plentiful rainfall. If the wind blows consistently in one direction, plants tend to bend away from it – sometimes permanently.

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Tilth refers to the texture of the soil. It is one of the things that you can learn about your garden soil by digging up a spadeful of it. When you close your hand around it, good garden soil that is moderately damp should hold its shape for a minute, then fall apart. If it fails to make a shape at all, or if it clumps into something that resembles a permanent sculpture, then your soil will probably need some amendment. Soil that falls apart is too sandy. When you water it, or apply liquid fertilizer, the liquids will quickly seep away, doing very little good for your plants. Furthermore, fertilizer from such a soil can quickly enter groundwater, and cause problems there. Soil that holds a shape firmly has a high clay content. It can become hard, allowing water to run off. When cultivated, it can become a fine dust that will blow away in the first wind. Fortunately, the cure for both conditions is to add organic matter – usually in the form of a good compost.

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DIY Soil Testing, according to Preparedness Mama, can be easily done without a soil testing kit just by using your basic kitchen chemistry. For this process you will need:

  • Four tablespoons of your garden soil
  • Two containers
  • Approximately 1/4 cup distilled water
  • Vinegar
  • Baking soda

Place two tablespoons of soil in each cup. In the first cup, add about ½ cup vinegar. If it bubbles and fizzes, then you have alkaline soil with a pH of about 7.0 to 8.0. If your soil does not react to the vinegar, then there is a good chance that it is acid. To test for acid soil, sprinkle ¼ teaspoon baking soda on the soil and add about ¼ cup distilled water. If it fizzles and pops, your soil is acidic, with a pH between 5 and 6. If neither cup reacts, your soil is in the neutral pH range between 6 & 7, which is ideal for most garden plants. As a gardener, you can either amend the soil, or you can select plants that are happy with your soil type.

Another DIY soil test is the cabbage water method. For this you will need:

  • 2 tablespoons garden soil
  • A clear glass or jar
  • 2 cups distilled water
  • 1 cup chopped red cabbage
  • A small saucepan
  • Heat source

Place the chopped cabbage in the 2 cups of distilled water in a small saucepan. Cook until the cabbage is tender. Pour off about ¼ cup of the water in which the cabbage was cooked, and let it cool slightly. (Pouring hot water into a glass will sometimes cause the glass to break.) Pour the water into the glass that is holding the two tablespoons of garden soil. Stir, and then let is set for about 30 minutes. If the water turns pink, your soil is acid. If it turns a blue/green color, it is alkaline.

A soil test kit will include supplies that will deliver essentially the same information as the DIY tests.

If you simply decide to grow plants that are happy in your soil type – and there will be plenty to choose from, you are now home free. However, some plants are seriously picky about their soil conditions, and some soil types are resistant to amendment. If you need to amend your soil, a professional analysis will not only tell you whether your soil is acid or alkaline, it will tell you about other trace elements as well. Often a professional analysis will even recommend specific amendments.

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A final method of assessing your soil is to look for insect life in it. The presence of earth worms is a good indicator that your soil is fertile and welcoming to plants. Earth worms aerate the soil, and their castings add to its fertility. If there are plants blooming on the surface of the soil before you start your garden, look for honey bees. They are also an indicator of soil and vegetation health. Think of your garden as a living organism, a miniature ecoculture where plants and insects work together for their mutual health.

James G. Craig
 

James G. Craig is a gardening enthusiast who splits his spare time between growing vegetables, preening his flower gardens, and blogging about his experiences at the Gardener Corner.

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