The Part-time Gardener #3: How to take a soil test for your home garden

  • Materials Needed: 
    • Spade
    • Clean bucket
    • Clean paper
    • Ziploc bags
    • Package for shipping
  • Cost: $92.15 ($85 soil tests+ $7.15 shipping)
  • Time: 30 mins collecting soil + time for soil to dry + visit to USPS for shipping!
  • Notes:  UMass Extension’s Soil and Plant Nutriet Testing Laboratory is often recommended for home garden soil tests due to its affordability. I’ll be following UMass’s soil sampling instructions.

STEP 1: DECIDE WHICH OF THE TESTS TO GET

Based on our needs (described in an earlier blog, I decided on these two. Each test requires its own sample, so I need to prepare two samples:

  • Routine Soil Analysis
    Cost: $15
    Includes: pH, acidity, Modified Morgan extractable nutrients, lead, aluminum, cation exchange capacity, and percent base saturation
  • Total Sorbed Metals Test
    Cost: $70
    Includes:  Lead, Nickel, Cadmium, Chromium, Zinc, Copper ($55)
    Arsenic, Selenium and Molybdenum ($5/each)

I recommend printing out the forms and reviewing the instructions before you get to work. However, I waited until the end to fill them in.

STEP 2: SELECT THE SAMPLE AREA

  • Take note of the total square footage of the area to be represented, as this information will be needed later.  For example, I am installing two new raised vegetable beds in a 60 sq ft area.

STEP 3: COLLECT THE SAMPLES 

  • Using a clean bucket and clean spade, collect 12 or more samples from random spots within the specified area.
  • Aggregate the samples in the bucket.
  • For vegetable gardens, the sample should be taken at a depth of 6 to 8 inches.
  • Avoid sampling when wet or within 6 to 8 weeks of fertilizer application.
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Sample collection hole

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Take 12+ samples from around the selected area

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Soil as extracted in clean bucket

STEP 3: MIX AND BREAK

  • Break up any clumps of soil and remove rocks, roots, etc. I used an old strainer to help remove some of the debris.
  • After removing the extras, thoroughly mix the sample.
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Hand pick or filter out small rocks, leaves, roots, etc.

STEP 4:  ALLOW TO DRY

  • Do not submit wet samples to the lab!
  • Once the sample is mixed, take out appromixately one cup of soil and spread it out on a clean sheet of paper to dry. In our case, it hadn’t rained in weeks, and I don’t water near this area. But I let it sit out on our porch for about 6 hours in the sun just in case.
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Allow the soil to dry

STEP 5: ZIP IT UP/FILL OUT SUBMISSION FORM

  • Pack about one cup into your Ziploc bag(s) and label accordingly. In my case, since I am submitting two samples – “POPPY1” refers to the Routine Soil Analysis sample while “POPPY2” is refers to the Total Sorbed Metals Test sample.
  • Fill out the forms. You will need to:
    • Select your desired tests.
    • Specify details like total square footage of the area and crop code, which you choose from a given list (home garden, flowers, etc).
    • Provide your contact information and preferred method of result delivery – via email or regular mail.
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Label the samples

STEP 7: MAIL

  • I stuffed the samples, check and paperwork into the Priority Mail Small Flat Rate Box ($7.15). I assume this is a most secure (since it comes with tracking) and affordable option for bags of soil, but if you know differently please leave a comment below!

With hands to soil,

Erin

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