As I type this, it’s one of those rare mid summer mornings with bright blue skies, a “Cool Cape May” type of breeze and low humidity! This weather reminds of the coming crisp fall mornings. For me, fall means planting… whether it be grass, mums, pansies, trees, shrubs or perennials. If I am planting, I am creating or enhancing a beautiful landscape which is why I was put on this earth!
Enough about the weather, let’s get back to business…
A week or so ago, I reopened a series that I published last year on MY 10 steps to creating the perfect lawn. I feel that I left a few important facts out of last years equation so I decided to reinvent the entire 10 part series. In step 1, we got a little dirty, went out in the yard and identified a few basic things about the soil in your yard. Step 2 involves details on buying a Soil Sample Test Kit, collecting the soil sample and sending our sample off to the lab.
Remember, I’m holding you accountable this time, get your butt out of the chair and actually do what I am preaching. I am not doing this for my health, I’m doing it for you and your sanity. For now, this information is FREE, but in the very near future, that’s going to change.
Here WE go, let’s talk about Soil Testing!!!
Yesterday we took a handful of our dirt from our yards and identified our basic soil texture. We then spoke briefly about soil pH(Potential of Hydrogen) and the importance of a soil test to determine the pH of the soil and the quantity and quality of available nutrients.
When it comes to soil pH, I can sum it up in 2 sentences…
When your soil’s pH level is too high, your grass won’t grow and your plants could die! When your soil’s pH level is too low, your grass won’t grow and your plants could die!
That’s about as simple as I can say it. Some of you may have never even thought about(or even heard of) soil pH. It’s ok! That is exactly why I am typing and you are reading. I’m the PRO, you’re the homeowner! I’m here to educate and help!!
Is that all is soil test does is test pH, you ask???
Not even close!
The other main advantage to soil testing, other than determining Ph level, is testing for the presence of valuable nutrients and micro-nutrients that plants and turf need to thrive. The soil test provides detailed information on the amount of Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potash, Manganese, Iron, Calcium, Sulfur, Copper and Zinc presently in your soil. It’s important to test for these nutrients so not to over fertilize . Over fertilization and over liming are common ways to throw off your pH… not to mention waste money and put unnecessary strain on our environment.
To make things very simple, lets attack this on a Who, What, Where, When and Why…
Who Conducts a Soil Test?
For starters, YOU!!
If you don’t feel like getting dirty, call your nursery professional or any landscape contractor. If hiring a landscape contractor, make sure the contractor has done soil testing in the past. Newbies may neglect a few important steps that could cross contaminate your sample.
The process requires a little digging, elbow grease and tools that most gardeners already own. The only item that needs to be purchased is a “Soil Sample Kit” which includes detailed instructions on taking the soil sample and a mailing bag. Soil test kits are available at Cooperative Extension Service Offices all over the country. Cooperative Extension Services are offered at Federal, State and County levels and aid residents with informal education services relating to farm, home and community problems. You may have never seen or heard from your local Cooperative Extension Service, but believe me, they are there! These are government offices and a branch of the United States Department of Agriculture(USDA). The labs that collect and analyze your samples are always associated with a state university lab.
I recommend starting with the basic soil test which usually costs $20.00. Once you become an expert, feel free to get as fancy as you would like in testing your soil. To find the Cooperative Extension Service in your area, visit this link…
When visiting your local Cooperative Extension Service, feel free to ask questions, poke around and get to know them. They will be your best friend should you ever have a lawn and garden problem. There are independent companies that do soil testing. Should you prefer to use one of these independent companies, please do research and make sure you are sending your soil to a reputable, legitimate company.
When working with a private lab, watch for expensive up sells and aggressive sales pitches.
Never, never, never buy or trust a do it yourself soil test kit or any type of soil testing gadget!
DIY test kits and gadgetry can be purchased anywhere. The results are not accurate, there are no controls and way too many variables involved. If you want to do a home soil test at the same time that you do the Extension Center soil testing, that is fine. Some home gardeners will do this to check the accuracy of the DIY test kits should they need a quick reading in the future. I’ll say it again! Do not trust a DIY soil test kit. THEY ARE NOT ACCURATE!!!
What is Soil Testing?
In home gardening, a soil test is defined as the analysis of a soil sample to determine the general make up of soils, nutrient content as well as identify any contaminants or deficiencies. Soil testing is a simple process and, by far,one of the most important things a home gardener or professional can do to insure a great foundation for lawns and gardens. I recommend soil testing every year for a properly performing lawn or garden. In areas where problems persist or where a correction process is in the works, more frequent testing will be necessary.
Where do I soil testing?
I recommend testing your soil in several areas of the lawn and garden. For best results, I advise taking samples from at least 15 different points in your lawn and garden.
The most effective way to get a good cross section of your property is to divide your lawn and garden into quadrants, then take equal number of samples from each quadrant. In the event that you are having problems in a single section of your property, buy a separate test kit for that area. Should you decide to do separate tests for problem areas, be sure to properly identify soil samples and make sure your tools are sterilized with 3 parts bleach and 2 parts water(see “How to Test Soil” for complete instructions on sterilizing tools) to avoid cross contamination.
When Do I Test My Soil?
Ask 10 experts, expect 10 different answers!
My personal opinion is to test soil during the late winter months, if possible in your area of the country.
Should you live in a climate where the ground is frozen or covered with snow in the winter, wait until the ground thaws and collect your sample prior to apply any spring fertilizers or pre-emergent weed control. Regardless of when you collect your soil sample, make sure there is no fertilizer residue and that fertilizer or chemicals have not been applied in the last 45 days.
If there are deficiencies or problems that need to be corrected, adjustments and corrections can be made during the growing season. Once problems are corrected during the growing season, the road is paved for establishing a new lawn, creating a new planting area or planting cold season crops in the garden during the early fall months. Planting in the early fall allows lawns and plantings to become established prior to going dormant for the winter. When spring arrives, your new plantings will have a full head of steam and be ready for anything that the spring and summer months have to throw at them!!
If you have a professional that you know and trust and he/she recommends testing your soil at another time of the year, please follow their advice. This is only my professional opinion. I, personally, have had a great deal of success testing soil over the late winter months. I live, and work, in the Middle Atlantic Region and experience hot summers and cold windy winters. If unsure, consult your local nursery, landscape professional or the Extension Service.
How Do I Test My Soil?
As mentioned in a previous paragraph, soil testing is relatively easy… a lot like planting a small shrub. When testing soil, we take several samples from several locations throughout your property.
This provides the best cross section of actual soil conditions and simplifies any remediation that needs to take place. For best results, collect the soil sample a few days after a heavy rain. Should you be fortunate enough to have an irrigation system, run a complete watering cycle twice the day before.
I recommend having a plan in place before you start. Know where you plan to start and where you plan to finish. Set aside twice as much time as you think you will need, take your time and enjoy yourself. This could be the start of something BIG!
For effective soil testing, use the following tools.
-Stainless Steel or Chrome Spade type shovel or Coring Tool(avoid Brass, Bronze or Galvanized)
-Clean Plastic 1 Gallon Bucket
-Table Spoon or Large Serving Spoon
-Soil Test Kit
Step 1. The day before you plan to take the samples, take time to sterilize your tools in the following manner. In a 5 gallon bucket, mix 3 parts bleach and 2 parts water. You shouldn’t need more than a gallon or two. Don’t stress about it if your mixture is not perfect, there is leeway in my formula. Grab a sturdy scrub brush and have a garden hose handy to wash off the tools after sterilizing.
Step 2. Wash any dirt, sludge or sediment from your tools and rinse thoroughly. Soak the head of your shovel or coring tool(see recommended tools),table spoon and scrub brush in the bleach/water solution for 15 to 20 minutes.
Step 3. Thoroughly scrub each tool with the scrub brush for 2-3 minutes. Rinse thoroughly and set on a hard surface overnight to dry. The reason that sterilization of tools is important is because we want the purest, most accurate sample possible. Shovels can hold contaminants that may affect the results of your soil test. We can never be too careful.
Step 4. Now that our tools are sterilized, we have a plan and our lawn and garden have had a thorough soaking, it’s time to get down to business. This report will illustrate the soil collection process using a shovel. In the event that you are using a coring tool, the process is as easy as driving the tool into the ground, removing the plug from the tool and placing it in the bucket. Using the sterilized spade, dig a shallow, circular hole in the ground measuring 6 to 8 inches in depth. At this depth, using the Spoon, scrape 2 or 3 spoonfuls in the 1 gallon bucket. Be careful not to put any stones, root pieces or grass blades in the soil bucket. Carefully fill in the hole by placing the dirt and grass back into place and move on the the next spot. Continue until you have removed samples from all of your pre-determined locations.
Step 5. At this point, the 1 gallon bucket should be half full of dirt. Take a minute to sift through the bucket and remove any pebbles, root fragments or stray blades of grass which could contaminate results. Using the spoon, thoroughly mix the soil together in the bucket for 2-3 minutes. Carefully spoon the soil into the collection bag making sure to pack as much soil as possible. Tightly seal the bag full of soil and place it in the mailing bag. Complete all paperwork associated with the test package, take to the local post office and mail. If you have any questions regarding filling out the paperwork included with the soil test kit, contact your extension service. In two to four weeks, you will receive a detailed summary of test results. Included will be your Ph, soil type, actual components and detailed instructions on correcting deficiencies.
If you are wondering what my fee is for doing a soil test, I charge $125.00 This included picking up the test kit, collecting the sample, mailing the sample, then a sit down with you to analyze the results and generate a plan, if needed.
I know this is a lot of information to digest. If you have never heard of any of this information, I apologize but you have been brainwashed! Large fertilizer and chemical companies rarely encourage homeowners to do anything more than buy 6 bags of their fertilizer every year and keep dumping chemicals into the ground. As we progress, we will learn that the way to build a truly healthy, sustaining lawn is quite the opposite.
At this point, I am very proud of you for making it this far. This information may seem dull and dry, but it’s very important.
I hope you are beginning to understand that a good lawn starts with good soil. Check back in the next few days for Step 3 which will involve reviewing your soil test report, analyzing the results and formulating a plan.
If you want the remaining 7 steps automatically sent to your email inbox, simply click on the link to the right titled “Landscaping Tips Delivered” which subscribes you to my blog and wealth of landscaping/gardening knowledge.
Should you have any further questions or want a kick ass landscape installed at your home, contact me in any of the following ways.
Lundholm Landscaping, LLC
P.O. Box 1066
Cape May, NJ 088204