The soil in my yard is very hard to grow plants in–it’s very compacted and full of tree rootlets as I live beside a medium-sized plot of Norway maples. My husband and I are constantly finding things that have been buried in the yard–evidence of the abuse, neglect, and hard living in our neighborhood, which is a 200-year-old former mill village.
Though we’ve lived here for almost 3 years and know that the soil is bad, we continue to attempt to grow different things in the yard with varying degrees of success. We should’ve had a soil test before we planted anything. A basic soil test can tell you the pH of the soil (whether it’s acidic or alkaline), and what levels of nutrients the soil carries. Knowing this helps you make decisions about what to plant and if (and how much) you need to fertilize.
For example, if a pH test shows that your soil is very alkaline and you want to plant an acid-loving plant such as a holly tree or a hydrangea bush, you’ll need to amend your soil to make it more acidic.
A soil test also shows whether your soil has the proper balance of nutrients. The most important nutrients are nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). This will keep you from wasting money on fertilizers that you don’t need. If your soil is deficient, you’ll know what nutrient it’s lacking. This will help you buy the right kind of fertilizer and prevent you from adding too much of one thing or too little of something else.
It makes sense to get your soil tested instead of second-guessing your yard or garden, and I feel dumb that we haven’t done it yet! UMass Amherst’s Dep’t of Plant & Soil Sciences offers a soil testing program through its Soil & Plant Tissue Testing Lab. Download the order form and follow the directions they provide for sampling soil in your garden or yard. Their standard soil test is only $9.00; it includes a test for the major nutrients, pH, and metals such as lead. They also provide recommendations for adjusting pH and nutrient levels.
Rumor has it that it takes longer to get the results back if you wait until spring–no one thinks of soil testing ’til the weather is nice. So do it now and be prepared for the planting season.