This is such an important statement for gardeners. If you have worked in wet soil in the past, you know exactly what happens, especially in our compact clay soils. Dirt clods – what my brother and I used to throw at each other when we were kids and had forts in the woods behind the house.
These dirt clods are hard to break up and don’t allow for good air circulation and good drainage.
If your soil is not ready to work, you might consider doing a soil test. How many of you have ever done a soil test? When I ask this question of my audiences, typically I have very few hands raised.
Most home gardeners don’t soil test until there is a problem. Farmers on the other hand, test quite often, some test yearly, while some test every other year.
Here is how I look at soil testing. If your livelihood depends on minimizing inputs (fertilizer, lime) and maximizing outputs (crop production per acre) then you want to soil test frequently.
With the price of fertilizer doubling or even more than double last years’ prices, farmers are extremely conscientious of testing the soil. It doesn’t make sense to add nutrients if they are not needed.
Backyard gardeners, on the other hand, aren’t usually dependent on their vegetable garden for their livelihoods. Most gardeners have never done a soil test.
I recommend that you do it at least one time to know your soil better and to at least know your baseline numbers. What is your pH, cation exchange capacity, nutrient level, etc.? A soil test will help.
If you have clay soil, chances are you have pretty good phosphorus and potassium. Nitrogen is a limiting factor in plant growth as nitrogen doesn’t stay in the soil very long. It is either used up by the plant or leaches out.
Soil testing is specific to a crop. If you are planting a lawn, for instance, you would get your results back with specific recommendations on what is needed for turfgrass.
There are numerous soil test labs around the country; I like to use Penn State’s lab as you prepay for the soil test mailer, and they send understandable recommendations.
A final point, the store bought test kits are less accurate than a professional soil test. So, depending on what you are looking for in accuracy, you may want to choose a professional lab first to see the data and then get a home kit and see how they compare.
For more specific information on soil testing go to go.osu.edu/soil.
Pamela Corle-Bennett is the state master gardener volunteer coordinator and horticulture educator for Ohio State University Extension. Contact her by email at email@example.com.