Know your soil

by Caroline Brown

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.

7 Responses to “Know your soil”

  1. Cool idea about getting your soil tested, and for such as reasonable price, too! Do you know of any testing labs in California? Or will UMass accept soil from anywhere?

  2. hey Cindy! Anybody can send soil to UMass. But sometimes Master Gardener goups or garden clubs have garden fairs where you can bring in your soil & get it tested on the spot. You could contact the Alameda Cty. Master Gardeners, maybe they could tell you if you could get it done somewhere locally:

  3. Caroline, thanks for the info. I’ll be sure to look into it!

  4. The key thing is to get your soil biology correct. Composting and compost tea are two things that can help you greatly. There is also a soil testing lab that can help create the correct compost tea for you based on your soil samples. People trained in this field locally are called Soil FoodWed Advisors and can help you with your problems. Once you have the correct biology in the soil, only good things happen!

    Dr. Elaine Ingham started Soil Foodweb years ago and has pioneered the field. You can have a look at her site (she has global labs) at:

    Good luck and have fun with your soil.

  5. This is a great post yet again. I have been looking for some good resources on soil testing, especially ones with user feedback. Thanks for making a great site and adding the helpful information!

  6. Thanks Chris, glad you thought it was helpful!


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