Because a recent passer-by asked me how long I’d been gardening I gave it some thought. I think I planted my first plot in Austin in around 1995. Since then I learn new things about plants and growing plants constantly. I’ve also learned to be humble both before nature and my own ignorance.

For several years if I googled myself (not a sin if you are a pastafarian), one of the first hits was a posting I made on a gardening listserve in the mid-nineties. Somebody asked a question and I spouted off as if I knew everything there was to know. The questioner had probably been gardening for years and realized I was talking through my hat. It always embarasses me to see that.

One manifestation of this ignorance is that I didn’t get my soil tested. Instead I just followed general guidelines for the appliation of manure, compost and lime. Worse, I often convinced myself that if a little is good, more is better. Generally this worked OK, but I too often had to diagnose nutrient deficiencies.

A few years ago I began checking my soil and have seen real results in yields and plant health. I use the UMass extension service’s soil testing lab (click). A standard soil test costs 10 bucks and a test that includes organic matter is an extra five. You also have to mail it to them (or drop it off). You can find lots of places that offer bigger, better, harder tests for more, but the UMass extension does a pretty good job.

Despite being warned that my results would take three weeks, they took a bit less than two. I was unsurprised by most of the results. My Phosphorus and Potassium are very high as are Calcium and Magnesium. My Nitrate is a bit low so I need to add some nitrogen (for organic sources you can’t beat dried blood).

They also tested my lead, nickel, cadmium and chromium — all baddies. I don’t have detectable levels of any (that’s a relief).

Unfortunetly the pH came in at 7.8. The soil pH determines the availability of nutrients to the plants. Different plants like different pH’s, but few like one this high. I suspect it will come down over time as soils in New England tend to go acidic. I think I might have been a little heavy handed on the lime in the fall.

The results also came with a great deal of information regarding what each measuremnt means and what to do about each value. Very helpful stuff.

In sum, there’s no reason for you to care about my soil, but I got an excellent report from UMass for a reasonable price. I highly recommend you try it.

As a public service I bought a five dollar kit at a local farm supply store to compare.

I also performed a test with this. The directions were easy to follow and it just took a few minutes.

The results were a bit less useful. First, one must compare the color of solutions to a chart on a card. I’m not particularly good at this sort of thing, so I asked the boss to help out. She felt a few of the colors were far too close. Our best guess is that it says we have a neutral pH, low nitrogen, very low phosphorous and medium level of potassium. It’s close to right on the nitrogen, but off base with the rest. If I were to add fertilizer based on this test, I’d waste a lot more money than a good test costs.

The test is not sold by a fertilizer company as I at first suspected.

moral: spring for the good soil test, it’s a little bit of trouble but wuite worth it.