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Do I need a soil test?

If you’ve never had one, the answer is yes.

As the ground warms from winter to spring, we begin to get that itch to plant. It’s ok at this point to start thinking about what you what to plant and start the design process. However, if you wish for your plants to survive, before you go buying plants and putting them in the ground, when the ground is warm enough to dig but not plant, you should do a soil test. Plants have the capacity to survive many things, but if the soil does not meet their specific needs, they will struggle and possibly die. It’s relatively easy to get a soil test done, you can contact your local extension agent, a simple search online can find where you should call and inquire, some states require a small fee, but finding out this information is imperative to the success of your garden.

When you get a soil test, it will ask you what you intend to plant there before you send it off, whether it is grass for a lawn, vegetables, trees, etc. when they do the test, they will include how much of each element you need to add to your soil to bring it to the point your plants will need to grow.

The soil test will generally include the following:

Soil texture

The overall structure of your soil consists of sand, silt, and clay. Sand is the largest particle, while clay is the smallest, silt being somewhere in between. The texture determines the water holding capacity of the soil, or drainage as it were. The sandier the soil the better the drainage, the more clay, the wetter. Fixing the texture can quite tricky and require an immense amount of work.


the pH of the soil is the measure of acidity/alkalinity. Most plants tend to like a slightly acidic soil, however there are things like rhododendrons, azaleas, blueberries, they prefer a more acidic soil, and there are some that like alkaline, knowing what your plant prefers and preparing the soil ahead of time, will make sure they don’t just up and die on you.


The primary nutrients that plants need are nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). A soil test will show you approximately where your soil is regarding what you intend to plant.

Nitrogen is volatile, meaning it metabolizes rapidly in the soil, if you put nitrogen fertilizer down it will dissipate much more rapidly than the other nutrients.

Phosphorus however will stay in the soil until the plants process it. In fact, many people apply a lot of manure which is heavy in phosphorus every season, and since it doesn’t dissipate back into the atmosphere you can have an over abundance which can become a problem as the plants will try to absorb that before it attempts to absorb the plethora of micronutrients that they also need to ensure good health. Phosphorus is important for fruiting and flowers, this is what will make the blooms and vegetables grow so big, however too much of a good thing can be bad. The test will tell you how much you need and if you have too much, you might not need to add any if you’ve been heavily fertilizing for years.

Potassium helps photosynthesis and water movement throughout the plant, it is responsible for the overall health of the plant. If your plants are stunted or not looking too good, you may have a deficiency.


There are many other micronutrients plants need, although typically in much smaller quantities, however if you don’t have them, they will most often have what is called a chlorotic appearance, which means they will turn yellow instead of green. There are many reasons a plant can turn chlorotic however, the roots could be compacted, where the soil has been compressed so much they can’t absorb what they need, the plants can be overwatered or standing in water in which case they can’t exchange the gases or breathe as they need through their roots, so when diagnosing what is wrong with your plants a soil test will tell you whether or not it is the nutrients or a physical problem with the location of the plant, or you may just be watering them entirely too much.

You have two choices when you do a soil test on when is the best time, and to be fair the best time would most likely be in the early fall, so you can apply the fertilizers you need in the soil and give them time to break down and process for spring, if you haven’t done it in fall, you still can do it in early spring, so you know what you are getting yourself into, but in general it can take the microbes in your soil a few months to break down the chemicals into what your plants can process.

Remember a little bit of knowledge ahead of time can save you loads of hassle and money in the long run. Get that soil test if you haven’t ever done it, your plants will thank you for it.

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