Attention all gardeners planning vegetable gardens or even those of you who are reworking your ornamental beds: this spring take the opportunity to test your soil before putting new plants in the ground!
One of the most fundamental, but often overlooked, aspects to any successful vegetable garden, flower bed, landscape or lawn is fertile soil. Getting your soil tested by a laboratory is the best and most accurate way to assess your nutrient and pH levels, which are vital components of maintaining your soil.
The University of Georgia Soil, Plant and Water Lab offers such services. When you send a soil sample to a lab, you will receive a detailed report of soil-nutrient levels along with crop-based recommendations on how to fix any potential deficiencies.
The steps required to submit a soil sample are simple and can be achieved using a few commonly found household items. You can start by contacting your local county UGA Cooperative Extension office to acquire soil bags and to get information on how to submit samples. Keep reading to learn about the ins and outs of soil sampling:
When to soil test?
Soils can be tested any time during the year, although Soil, Plant, and Water Laboratory Coordinator, Dr. Lessel, is quick to remind us that “it is typically best to take samples in the fall or winter.” This is because fall is the time of year when most plants are dormant and the soil is most accessible. If pH adjustments are necessary, it is also the best time to apply amendments, as it can take several months for them to take effect. Lime (to raise pH) and sulfur (to lower pH) react slowly and should ideally be mixed with the soil at least two to three months before planting.
How often do I test my soil?
For intensely cultivated soils, like vegetable gardens, UGA Extension recommends testing your soil annually. Otherwise, for lawns and ornamental areas, sampling should be done every two to three years after initially establishing medium to high fertility levels and the appropriate pH.
Steps in soil sampling:
Recommendations on when and how to apply nutrients are only as good as the soil sample submitted for analysis. To obtain a representative soil sample, the following steps are useful:
•Divide areas so that each soil sample represents one general plant type. For example, take separate soil samples for vegetable gardens, blueberry bushes, ornamentals, fruit trees, lawns, etc. If you have specific problem spots, sample those areas separately as well.
•Use clean sampling tools and containers to avoid contaminating the soil sample. For example, don’t use your fertilizer bucket for mix your soil samples! That will greatly skew the results and make you think you have nutrients in your soil that you really don’t.
•Collect your samples with any digging tool you have available, such as a hand trowel, shovel, soil probe, etc. Slightly damp soil is the easiest to work with.
•Clear the ground surface of grass, thatch or mulch. Push the handle forward in the soil to make an opening, then cut a thin slice of soil of uniform thickness from the side of the opening, extending from the top of the ground to the depth of the cut. Repeat this process in a zigzag pattern across your defined area, collecting eight to twelve samples to mix together.
•The depth of sampling depends on the type of plants being grown. For lawns, sample to a depth of 4 inches. For gardens, ornamentals, mixed fruit trees and wildlife plots, sample to a depth of 6 inches. For trees, take soil samples from six to eight spots around their dripline.
•Take about a pint (around 2 cups) of the mixed soil (after removing large rocks, mulch, sticks and roots) and fill the UGA soil sample bag to the dotted line.
•Be sure to label the sample clearly on the bag! If the samples are wet, spread the soil out over clean paper and let them air dry. You can take your samples to your local Extension office for submission.
•The analysis takes two to three working days from the time the lab receives the samples. In general, it takes 7 to 10 days from the time your Extension office receives the samples to the time you get your test reports back.
If you get your soil tested and need further information about your test results, feel free to come by our office in the Historic Courthouse at 100 Main Street in Hinesville, give us a call at 912-876-2133 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.