Testing your soil is the best way to know what to do for your garden or lawn. There are many different kinds of soil tests, and most extension offices will vary in what they offer. However, most places will offer tests that analyze soil pH, density, nutrient levels, etc. Although prices can vary by state and county, most tests are affordable. Simpler tests are usually about $10-30, while more advanced tests can cost up to $95.

Do I Need to Test My Soil? Testing your soil is the best way to know what to do for your garden or lawn

Where Can You Test Your Soil?

The most popular way to test soil is by purchasing a test through your county’s extension office. These tests are also usually the most economical, but you also may find a good deal online for at-home tests. The results of many of these at-home tests have been shown to be very accurate, but that does vary by brand. Also, be sure to note that most at-home tests do not come with the same recommendations as lab ones do. 

How Often Should You Test Your Soil?

You should consider testing your soil every three to five years. After this time, your soil will have changed enough that you can get another test. You can continue using the test’s recommendations for three to five years, after which they will become no longer relevant. However, if you wish to test more often, there is no harm in doing so. You may want to test more often if you are planting new crops or if you see a significant change in your soil.

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Getting Your Soil Test Results

After you get your soil test results back, you will need to analyze them so that you can work on getting the best soil possible for your lawn or garden. For all the tests you purchased, the lab with label the results as ‘Below Optimum’, “Optimum’, or “Above Optimum”. The perfect soil will look different depending on what you plan to grow. For instance, blueberries grow very well in acidic soil while asparagus prefers alkaline soil. Other crops may have high nitrogen or phosphorus needs; if you wish to plant said crops, your soil will need to meet these high needs.

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Test Your Soil pH

For most gardens or lawns, an ideal pH ranges from 6.0-7.0. Although there are specific crops or plants that prefer slightly acidic or alkaline soils, this is a general idea. If you wish to raise your soil’s pH, powered limestone would be a gone option for you. Crushed eggshells are made of the same compound as lime and can also be used. Alternatively, if you wish to lower your soil pH, elements that include sulfur, such as aluminum sulfate, will do just that.

Test Your Soil Nitrogen Content

Nitrogen is one of the most important elements for plants, but you may notice that it is missing from your soil’s analysis. Testing the nitrogen in your soil can be unreliable because the levels differ depending on the season and crops growing in the soil. Some counties do not offer nitrogen level tests. However, there are easy ways to tell if your soil has too much or too little nitrogen. Low levels of nitrogen, for instance, causes stunted plant growth. If you notice this stunt, apply a nitrogen-rich fertilizer. Alternatively, too much nitrogen will cause what is called ‘nitrogen burn’ or ‘fertilizer burn’. This will cause the vegetation to dry out, curl, and turn a bright yellow or brown color. To help crops with nitrogen burn, cease all use of fertilizers and rinse the vegetation with water.

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Test Your Soil Potassium Content

Potassium is another important macronutrient for plant growth. It plays a role in water absorption, so not enough of it can cause plants to wilt or shrivel. To fix this problem, simply purchase a fertilizer that is high in or is exclusively potassium. If you compost foods high in potassium like banana peels or potato skins, spreading the mature compost can also help. Unlike nitrogen, an excess of potassium does not cause as many problems as excess nitrogen. It simply can prevent crops from absorbing other nutrients. If your test shows that your soil has ‘Above Optimum’ levels of potassium, you may need to fertilizer with one that does not contain it.

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Test Your Soil for Phosphorus

Phosphorus, another macronutrient, is essential for root growth. If your soil is lacking in phosphorus, then your soil is also likely too acidic. Increasing your soil’s pH with an amendment like lime will also help improve its phosphorus levels. However, you can also apply phosphorus-rich fertilizers or bone meal. If instead, you have too much phosphorus, your soil is likely too alkaline. Like potassium, an excess of phosphorus simply inhibits plants from absorbing other nutrients. You can decrease your phosphorus levels by lowering your soil’s pH and avoiding adding any phosphorus-rich fertilizers.

Test Your Soil for Organic Material

The carbon in your soil is also a building block for plant life. This is called ‘organic’ matter and results from the decomposition process. It is made of plant and animal detritus as well as soil microbes like fungi and bacteria. The ideal amount of organic material in soil is about 5%. Although that may not seem like a lot, soil is mostly made up of water, air, and inorganic material like sand or clay. If you are lacking in organic material, then you will need to amend with some. A soil amendment like compost is more than 50% organic matter. Incorporating it into your soil or topdressing with it is a great way to increase the organic matter in your soil while also improving its texture.

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