Tests You Can Do To Learn About Your Soil
One of the first things many garden experts will tell you before you plant a garden is, you need to test your soil. This makes sense because you want to be sure your soil is healthy and able to support the nutritional needs of the plants that you hope to grow. But sending a soil sample off to a far away lab for testing by men with chemistry degrees isn’t the only way to determine the health of your soil. You can do it, even without a degree.
A quick way to determine the existing health of your soil is to look at what is already growing there – whether that be weeds or lawn. Is the current vegetation robust and healthy, or is it sickly and sparse?
Robust vegetation, even if it is just dandelions, tells you that the soil is healthy, too. It has the nutrients and microorganisms needed to support plant life. However, if even the weeds are suffering, you may need to give the soil some TLC before it can support life properly. While you’re looking around, select a plant that you don’t mind digging up. Now look carefully at the structure of the roots. If they look white and well developed with lots of fine “hairs” all over, they are healthy roots. Brown mushy roots, stunted roots, or roots that look like something has been snacking on them are not a good sign.
One of the first things you’ll want to test is how well the soil drains. General observation is a logical initial test. If you notice water pooling after a heavy rain, the area doesn’t drain well and you should probably think about plants that do well in wet soils. Sometimes though, a soil’s ability to drain, or not drain, isn’t quite so obvious.
Another way to test drainage is to dig a hole that is about a foot deep. Fill the hole with water and allow it to drain out. Then refill it and measure the water’s depth. In 15 minutes, measure it again and multiply by four. This tells you how much water drains per hour. If you are calculating less than an inch of drainage per hour, you don’t have very good drainage. Ideally, you should see water draining at a rate of one to six inches per hour.
As long as you were just digging, take a look at the soil you just dug up while you are waiting for the water to drain out of the hole. Look at a section of soil about the size of a soup can and break it up. Does the soil seem sandy and granular? Powdery? Clumpy? Sticky? Does it crumble fairly easily or do you have to work at it?
Good soil should hold together if you press it together gently, but should still break apart without much effort. Soil that is hard to break apart with your fingers is really tough on tender roots, as well as water and oxygen that need to get to those roots.
Another way to check this is to poke a thin wire into the soil and see how far you can go before it bends. If the wire can’t go very far, neither can the delicate roots of your plants.
How hard was it to dig that hole, anyhow? Did you have to recruit a friend to help you jump up and down on the shovel? Were you able to dig fairly deep with minimal effort? If you used this area as a garden spot previously, how difficult was it to get the spot ready for planting?
If you are struggling to work the soil, and dig up heavy clumps of clay and rock, imagine how hard it is going to be for seedlings that don’t have tools and strong friends to help them out!
Signs of Life
Back to that hole again (you had no idea you could learn so much from a hole, did you?). Spend some time observing the soil you removed from it. Notice anything crawling around in it? No, don’t stomp on it! All those creepy-crawlies are a good thing!
Dig around a bit and see how many different critters you can find, including worms. Ideally, you will find a wide variety of beetles, spiders, centipedes, worms and all kinds of other creatures. If you see at least 10 different critters (and at least five earthworms if you’re lucky), consider that to be a good thing. It means your soil is a thriving, living community, and that’s exactly what you want. If you don’t see much, you will need to make improvements before you put out the welcome mat.
The Smell Test
It may sound odd, but you can also tell how healthy your soil is by smelling it. To describe the ideal smell as “earthy” may seem silly, but you will know it when you smell it. On the other hand, if it smells sour, like something decaying, or if it has some other off smell, something is out of balance. Whatever type of soil you have, you can add amendments to get your soil back to the healthy thriving community it was meant to be.