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Soil Sample Tools and Timing

Fall is a Great Time to Test Your Soil

For many garden enthusiasts in the Northern Hemisphere, the arrival of Fall means the growing season is on the wane. It’s a perfect time to assess the performance of your crops and examine ways you might improve next growing season. It’s also prime time to perform soil tests for a number of reasons.

  • The soil may have been depleted of nutrients, minerals, and organic matter
  • The pH may have shifted
  • Many amendments take time to be effective (such as calcium)
  • The state soil testing agencies may charge less during the September through November months
  • A quicker turn around in receiving results from the state tests


Using Your State’s Agricultural Testing Services

A basic soil test “kit” along with our soil sampling tool

At our GardensAll gardens, we took advantage of free literature, forms, soil boxes, and (best of all) a free soil analysis by the state’s Agronomic Soil Testing service. This offer closes at the end of November and then goes to $4 a sample. We saved about $40 and the turn around was less than two weeks. It can be a digital report and/or a hard copy. We only paid for the one-way postage.

It took us about an hour using our handy dandy soil sampling tool and a clean plastic bucket in which to mix the samples from the area. We also used rubber coated gloves to keep our bare hands from contaminating the samples.

The results are a thorough “snapshot” analysis of your soil conditions. They also include specific recommendations on how to adjust your soil to optimum growing conditions for your particular crop. Organic growers may need to modify the instructions to add so much 10-10-10 or 3-9-9, sulfur, and the like because these agencies still work off the ag-farm model.

Here are a few tips about sampling soil for sending to a state lab

  • Determine the crops you intend to grow
  • Determine the area where you’ll grow them
  • Fill out the Soil Service’s form, be sure you properly enter area numbers and the codes for each crop
  • Draw these areas on a map, label what crop you’ll grow, and number them
  • Number your sample boxes
  • Take random samples from each growing area (refer to the agency’s instructions)
  • We line the mailing box with plastic before sealing to keep in any leaking dirt.
  • Make a copy of the Soil Service’s form and be sure to put one in the box being mailed.
  • Do not, repeat, do not lose track of your map (ours was temporarily “misplaced”)


DIY Methods of Soil Testing

According to the tried and true handbook, The Soul of Soil, by learning a few simple DIY tests with your garden’s soil you can connect directly to nature’s systems.

“By observing your soil, counting your earthworms, measuring drainage, feeling texture, smelling the forest earth smell, and knowing what these indicators mean empower you to be a steward of the soil and the bounty it yields.” By Joseph Smillie and Grace Gershuny

We’ve written an article on how to know your soil by the weeds that grow, which you may find interesting as well, and you can find those links in the footnotes.1)

Meanwhile, there are several simple tests to do to identify your soil type(s) such as clay and silt so you can build your soil into that rich loam – Gardeners Black Gold! Here are a few.

How to Test Your Soil

Excerpted from article by Kelly Roberson on

Step-by-Step Soil Test

  • Clean a pint or quart mason jar and lid
  • Fill the jar about halfway with soil. I like to do several different tests, isolating spots in the garden—a jar from each flower bed, for example. That’s because the soil may differ from spot to spot
  • Fill up the rest of the jar with water, leaving a bit of top space in order to shake up the contents
  • Tighten the lid and give the jar a good shake for two to three minutes
  • Put the jar down and let it rest for four to five hours. As the jar is resting, you might notice the soil doing something interesting: It’s separating into distinct layers: sand at the bottom, silt in the middle, and clay at the top.

The proportions of the layers indicate the type of soil you’re cultivating. For more specifics, you may enjoy the diagrams in this informative article on knowing your soil.3)

Soil pH Testing

Now we are going to look at another important aspect of knowing your soil–knowing the pH level.

The pH is like the good doctor giving a quick check-up. Sampling and sending your soil off for testing is highly recommended. Your local Ag Extension folks should be able to help you.

But if you’re a staunch DIYer, this video shows how to test your soil pH soil yourself.

  • Your soil is alkaline if: your dirt placed in apple cider vinegar fizzes.
  • Your soil is acidic if: your dirt placed in baking soda and water fizzes.
  • Your soil is neutral if there’s no reaction in either baking soda or vinegar.

For those who like gadgets, there are DIY soil pH testers out there in a range of prices ($15.00 on up into the $100’s). Check your local home store, or you can find them on Amazon.

Just remember to check the reviews and remember, the soil labs can do a much more thorough analysis and offer recommendations on what specifics are needed to optimize your soil according to what you’re planting.

This is especially important if your plants are struggling, or you’re planning on planting on a larger scale.

Become Your Own Expert

A fuller holistic approach is to make a study of your soil. Observe what native plants are growing there and what they might indicate as to its nature. Look at the weeds. The Soul of Soil authors dedicate an entire section to types of weeds and what soils they take to.

Your weeds can reveal the secrets of your soil.

They also mention grabbing a handful of earth, wetting it down a bit if dry, and then squeezing. Open your hand, if it falls apart you have sandy soil, if you can roll it into a rope shape you have clay, and if it remains in the basic ball form, it’s likely you have loam.

Other DIY tests are for grittiness, smoothness, moisture, and permeability. Another great award-winning book, Teaming with Microbes, delves deeply into what inhabitants make your growing medium resilient and productive. These include, bacteria, fungi, earthworms, and gastropods (snails and slugs that actually contribute to good growing conditions). A single teaspoon of healthy garden soil contains a billion invisible bacteria, several yards of equally invisible fungi, several thousand protozoa, and a few dozen nematodes. We also wrote more on composting microbes in this article.

Perhaps the importance of knowing one’s soil and how to care for it can be summed up in this way:

So goes the soil, so Grows the garden!

Soil Testing Kits

You can obtain simple DIY soil testing kits at your local home store or on Amazon.

The one we’ve used most is the Rapitest soil test kit. Another popular tester is a soil sample probe.

For more on soil, microbes and biochar, you may enjoy perusing these articles.4)

And… if you don’t want to buy and testers, you can determine the state of your soil simply by observing the plants and weeds that grow there! Read more on that here.

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