A simple soil test can save you time, money, and a lot of frustration.
Why Test Your Soil
Whether it’s for your lawn, or garden, a soil test will give you valuable information regarding your soils nutrient levels, as well as pH. Without a soil test, there’s no real way to know how healthy your soil is.
What Do Soil Tests Test For?
Different soil tests test for different things. But almost all tests will test for pH. The correct pH is important and plays a big role in the soils ability to absorb nutrients.
Most tests will also test for the 3 main macro nutrients which are nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. These 3 nutrients are necessary for healthy lawns, plants, and vegetables.
Types of Soil Test Kits
There are many different kinds of soil tests to choose from.
Some tests require you to mail in your soil sample where it gets tested in a lab. A great mail in test is the one by Yard Mastery.
They send you everything you need along with easy to follow instructions. They also have a quick turnaround time and provide you with an analysis as well as recommendations on how to fix any nutrient or pH issues.
If you’re looking to keep things really simple then another option is to use a test such as the RapiTest by Luster Leaf. It’s inexpensive, gives you instant results, and is easy to interpret.
Some of the more advanced tests, while very informative, can overwhelm do it yourselfers with too much information. Don’t be afraid to keep it simple.
How to Test Your Soil
I like using the RapiTest by Luster Leaf:
1. Use a small shovel to take several soil samples of your lawn or garden beds. Take the samples in different locations and mix them together to get an average. If you have sections that are separated such as a front lawn vs back lawn, then consider testing them separately, but still using several samples within that section.
2. Thoroughly mix all the soil samples together in a bag or bucket.
3. Mix one cup of the mixed soil and add it to 5 cups of water, preferably distilled, and shake. Leave this mixture to sit. The directions that come with the RapiTest say to wait at least 30 minutes but waiting several hours or even 24 hours is better since the soil can completely settle.
Make sure you leave some soil in the bag or bucket since you will need some for the pH test.
4. While your mixture is settling, test your pH. The pH test is slightly different since you will be putting a little bit of soil directly in the test chamber.
Once your soil is filled to the correct line of your pH test, add water to the water line.
Take one of the green pH capsules and hold it above the test chamber. Gently twist the capsule, separating the two parts, and pour the powder into the water. Shake the test thoroughly and let sit for 10 minutes.
After 10 minutes you should be able to see the color on in the test chamber and compare it to the provided color chart.
5. After several hours, or whenever your 5 cups of water to 1 cup of soil mixture has settled, you are ready to test your nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium levels. To do this, fill both the test chambers and reference chambers on the remaining 3 tests using the eyedropper.
6. Hold the correct color capsule over your test chamber, twist apart, and pour in the contents. Shake thoroughly and let settle for 10 minutes.
7. After 10 minutes you should be able to analyze your 3 tests using the provided color chart.
How to Fix PH Balance
Most grass types and plants grow best in a pH of 6.5-7. If your pH test comes back low (meaning too acidic) then lime your lawn or garden beds to make it more alkaline.
If your soils pH is too high (meaning too alkaline) make it more acidic by adding sulfur or iron sulfate.
How to Fix Nitrogen Deficiency
Nitrogen is the first number on a fertilizer label. If you have low nitrogen consider using a fertilizer with a high first number. For lawns, make your first two applications with fertilizers high in nitrogen.
Once your nitrogen levels have been giving the boost they need, transition to a slow release organic fertilizer for future applications.
If your test comes back showing you have too much nitrogen, use a fertilizer with a low first number, or cut back on application rates.
For lawns, instead of applying at a rate of 1lb per 1000 s/f, apply at half a pound. For a better understanding of application rates check out: Fertilizer Application Rates.
How to Fix Phosphorus Deficiency
Phosphorus is the middle number on a fertilizer label. If your soil is low in phosphorus then using a starter fertilizer is a good option. Starter fertilizers contain a higher amount of phosphorus since the focus is on establishing and developing roots.
If your phosphorus is high then look for fertilizers with a very low middle number (or 0) to help phase it out.
How to Fix Potassium Deficiency
Potassium is the last number on a fertilizer label. Potassium is necessary to help protect your lawn and plants during stressful conditions such as winter cold and summer heat.
Most late fall or winter fertilizers have higher levels of potassium.
If your lawn or garden has low potassium levels then apply a late fall and/or winter fertilizer.
Another option for adding potassium to your lawn or garden is to purchase a liquid potassium product that you apply with either a hose end sprayer, or tank sprayer. This is a good way to boost potassium levels before the hot summer months, since potassium helps protect against fungus.
For an organic alternative, you can add compost that is derived from food scraps. These composts are higher in potassium and are great for both lawns and gardens.
If you have high levels of potassium then just phase it out by choosing fertilizers with a very low third number.
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