Soil testing is the most widely known service offered by extension offices. There are two good reasons why we recommend this quick and simple process: It can save you time and money.
Soil fertility changes over time. Some nutrients are leached away by irrigating or rainfall. Some common fertilizer materials change the pH or acidify the soil over time. Vegetable gardens are harvested, grass clippings are bagged and leaves are raked, removing nutrients that must be replaced.
“Big deal,” you might say. “I’ll just put out a little fertilizer.”
Well, that is good, but it leads to the question of what fertilizer you should buy and how much of it to apply.
So you ask the sales clerk at the garden center which fertilizer you should buy. That is like walking into the pharmacy and asking the druggist, “What is your best pill?” The answer, of course, is that it depends on what is wrong with you.
The recommendation for the right fertilizer depends on the current fertility level of your soil and the nutrients that will be needed by the plants you plan to grow.
Most of our soils tend to be acidic by nature. If you put out fertilizer year after year, that tends to make many of our soils even more acidic. You can add a little lime periodically, but how much is enough? Many plant roots cannot take up the nutrients they need when there are acidic soil conditions. Some plants, however, actually need acidic soil conditions to perform their best. It can be confusing for the novice gardener.
Sometimes plants will show nutrient deficiency symptoms due to growing conditions, not because they lack fertilizer. “Wet feet,” root rots and some plant diseases can create symptoms in the plant that resemble a lack of fertilizer.
The solution to all of these problems is to take a simple soil sample for analysis. Take a clean plastic bucket and a garden trowel in hand. Go to eight to 12 random locations within the area that you want to sample, collecting a scoop of soil from the top 4-6 inches at each spot. Then, thoroughly mix all the soil you have collected so that you have a good representative sample. Bring one pint or about a pound of this mixture to the extension office for analysis.
We would need to know what you are planning to grow. For example, do you want the soil tested for a centipede or Bermuda grass lawn? Is the site a home vegetable garden or a bed of azaleas?
We also would need to collect a lab fee of $10.50, either in cash or check. The samples are sent to the University of Georgia Agricultural Services Laboratory for analysis. In about one week, you would receive the test results in the mail, or email if you prefer.
The soil test report has two parts. The first is a graph that shows the current fertility level and the pH level of the soil. The second part contains fertilizer and lime recommendations for the specific site. The report indicates how many pounds of a specific fertilizer you would need to spread and how much lime is needed.
The soil test report takes the guesswork out of caring for your plants. You could take the report to your garden center and shop for exactly what you need.
You don’t have to waste money buying the wrong fertilizer or overlooking a critical need.
Fall is a great time to get this chore done. It allows you to apply lime if needed in plenty of time to affect the garden soil before the next growing season.
So what are you waiting for? Get a soil test!
For more information, call your local county extension office at 876-2133.