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Saving Money on Garden Soil Testing

Timothy Boyer Ph.D.'s picture
Soil testing money saver

Do you know the health of your soil? Do you know what your options are for testing your soil and how much it costs? Before running to Home Depot or Amazon for a soil testing kit, here is some advice on saving money with garden soil testing.

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What You Need to Know About Your Soil’s Health

Basically, healthy soil for growing plants requires adequate levels of three primary nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. However, aside from these basic nutrients, there is much more that needs to be considered. For example:

What is the soil pH and the exchangeable acidity of your soil? Only an accurate measure of these factors can really determine how much lime may need to be added to balance your soil pH. If your soil has low pH, meaning it’s acidic, it will require lime. If the pH is high, then it is alkaline soil, and will need elemental sulfur.

Is your soil actually too fertilized? Over-fertilizing your soil can cause suboptimal plant growth, and might lead to polluting your local waterways during heavy rains.

Do you religiously spend a lot of money every Spring with amendments to your garden believing that more is needed to start off the new growing season? Soil analysis may in fact reveal that you are needlessly spending money on a plot that is already optimized.

What assurances do you have that you are not planting over a waste site or a spot where someone did some illegal dumping years ago? Knowing the levels of toxic heavy metals in your soil can insure that your organic produce is actually safe to eat.

The Most Accurate Go-To Source for Soil Health Analysis

The reason for making these points is that it is unlikely any commercial home soil testing kit sold online or in your local gardening store is going to address all of these considerations…and, to a degree of accuracy that is meaningful.

In fact, a search of past Consumer Reports ratings of DIY home test kits, meters and soil probes reveals that their consumer testing labs found that many of the soil-test kit products they examined ranging in price from $4 to $68 yielded inaccurate or inconsistent results. Their recommendation is that instead of using a home test kit, have your soil analyzed by a lawn service, a private lab, or your local cooperative extension services where the cost can be less (both initially and in the long run), and the results much more useful in determining the health of your garden soil.

Your Tax Dollars Working For You

So, what is a local cooperative extension service? Unfortunately, it probably the least-utilized governmental-university based service available to everyone ranging from the mega-agriculture grower to the youngest child with a packet of seeds and a grow pot. Because our tax dollars go to supporting many colleges and universities actively engaged in research and teaching, one of the benefits to us is that a part of a critical mission they must provide in return are extension services that bring vital and practical information to the public so that they can grow produce, raise livestock and enhance their daily living based on the fruits of knowledge gained by others. Think of it as a type of “open source code” for education.

Where to Find Your Local Agricultural Extension Service

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Locating an extension service that offers soil testing is as simple as google-searching using keywords that include “University,” “agriculture extension,” “state name,” and “soil testing.” While a state-by-state listing may seem preferable, lists often go out of date fairly rapidly. If you cannot find one in your home state, a neighboring state may offer the services you need.

The cost of the testing varies some state-by-state, but most appear to have about a $25 basic soil nutrient test analysis. Furthermore, others offer additional tests such as for other specific elements, heavy metals, carbon composition, and particle size analysis (such as percentage of sand, silt and clay), at a cost of a few to several dollars more per test analysis. Some services actually provide an easy home testing/collection kit with instructions and a special mailer-box to mail the samples back with for analysis in their lab.

Moreover, as part of the testing service you will receive recommendations on the best way to work your soil to regain optimal health.

Tips on Soil Testing

1. Soil testing can be done at any time of the year; but ideally, garden soil is sampled between crops so that corrective fertilizer and lime applications can be made before the next season.

2. Carefully follow the explicit instructions given with the testing services order form—especially when it comes to soil sample collecting. To ensure accuracy in analysis, soil must be collected at a specific depth and per recommended methods. For example, you do not want to just scrape a spade full of dirt from the surface and store it in a metal bucket. Both practices will likely result in an inaccurate analysis.

3. Also, be sure to follow their shipping instructions precisely to avoid illegal mailing and to present the testing facility with the best sample(s) possible. Soil sample boxes are typically free and may be obtained from your local University County Extension Office.

4. Place a stick or some sort of marker at each spot you remove a sample from, just in case a need arises with an aberrant finding that needs retesting.

5. Make sure that you clarify what use the soil is intended for whether it is for gardening, maintaining a lawn, growing fruit trees, etc.

6. If you are unsure about any of the steps in the process of sending a sample, just give the extension office a phone call and they will be glad to clarify what needs to be done.

If you have ever used an Agriculture Extensions Service for analyzing your soil; or, a commercial soil test kit, please leave a comment below and tell us how it worked out for you.

Timothy Boyer has a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Arizona. For 20+ years he has been employed as a freelance health and science writer. Today, with a background in farming and an avid home gardener, Timothy continues writing about science with a focus on the connection between plant biology and gardening for healthy living. For continual updates about plants and health, you can also follow Timothy on Twitter at TimBoyerWrites.

Image courtesy of Pixabay

Reference: A representative example of a University-based Agricultural Extension Service: University of Missouri Soil and Plant Testing Laboratory

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