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High Mowing Organic Seeds
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The Seed Bin - March 2011

A Soil Sample Primer- Megen Hall

The first and most important step in nutrient management is getting to know your soil.  Taking a soil sample is a simple and inexpensive procedure that will help you to determine appropriate amendments specific to your garden.  Many gardeners apply lime or sulfur and an all-purpose type fertilizer with a predetermined measurement of nutrients as a catch-all way of amending their soil, but this can cause nutrient imbalances in the soil.  The best way to confirm your soil amendment needs is to determine your existing nutrients and pH by taking a soil sample and having it tested by your county extension service.

Soil tests are usually performed in the fall or spring, but should be done at the same time each year.  This will allow you to observe the general nutrient and pH trends in your garden and can give you insight as to whether you are under or over fertilizing.  And if you base your soil amendments on the results of the test, then you can more accurately maintain a proper nutrient balance.  

When collecting a soil sample, you want to be sure that the tools and bucket that you use are clean and free of any soap, chemical residues, or any other foreign substances which can skew the test results.  For greatest accuracy, randomly gather soil from eight to ten spots in your garden, avoiding areas that are irregular, such as areas that accumulate standing water, etc.  This will help to ensure that your sample is representative of your whole garden.  It is also helpful to take your cores when the soil is relatively dry, but if this is not possible then you can allow your sample to dry at room temperature.  

Soil probes and augers are ideal tools for taking a soil sample, but if you do not have access to such tools, a spade or a trowel can be used.  The important thing is that you sample the same amount of soil at the same depth (sample from the surface to a depth of 6-8 inches) in each of your sampling locations.  Combine all your soil cores in a bucket and mix well, being sure to break up lumps and remove any debris or stones.  

Most testing services require approximately one pint of soil and will usually provide a mailer or specific container to send your sample in.  It is equally important to accurately fill out the sample information sheet which contains all the information needed for your agent to provide you with your recommended soil amendments. Many agricultural extension agencies have their sample information sheets available online, but you can also contact your agent directly to obtain the proper paperwork and mailer needed to complete your test.  Locate the extension service in your region: http://www.csrees.usda.gov/Extension/

You can also contact your local garden supply store, as they will often offer to send in samples as a service to their customers.  Test results are usually available within 2 weeks.

Good luck getting to know your soil!

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