Can you dig it? Start gardening right with a soil test

By Pamela A. Keene
The soil’s the thing that can ensure your plants and landscape flourish and thrive. After all, plants rely on the nutrients in the soil to grow.
“A number of factors are at play for plants to grow well,” says Don Linke, Hall County Master Gardener and former president of the 150-member organization, “without getting too technical, different plants need different combinations of nutrients, elements and minerals, and most people may not realize that soil is the starting point in traditional gardening.”

The University of Georgia’s Cooperative Extension conducts soil tests in the laboratories at the College of Agriculture and Environmental Studies in Athens. You can either pick up test sample bags at your local extension office or  go to the website, http://aesl.ces.uga.edu/soiltest123/Georgia.htm, to order a soil test kit. The official brown-paper sample bags have a place for your name, address and the type of planting for the area.
“If you order the soil test kit online, the price includes the postage-paid mailer,” Linke says. “It’s really very convenient. Either way, your results will be sent back to you after a couple of weeks. Then you’ll know what to add to your soil to make your tomatoes flourish or to have the healthiest lawn in your neighborhood.”

Here’s how to prepare your samples, using one bag for each growing area or type of plant:
n Pick areas that you’d like to test, say for vegetable plantings, annuals or shrubs.
n Take a sample from the area by scraping off any mulch, grass or weeds, then digging your shovel about four inches into the ground.
n Take a vertical sample from the side of the hole, getting soil from top to bottom.
n Put the sample into a plastic, not metal, bucket and repeat in the same area, eventually collecting four to six separate samples.
n Mix them well in the bucket, spread soil on clean white paper to dry overnight, then remove approximately one cup of soil, placing it in a clean plastic bag or your brown-paper soil test bag.
Repeat in other planting areas, such as lawns, flower beds or vegetable gardens, keeping the samples separate. Different plants require different nutrients and soil acidity to flourish, so it’s important to know how to prepare your soil before you plant. Label each bag with the type of plants you plan to grow. This is very important.  If you include your email address, the results will be emailed to you.
Take your bagged samples to your local County Extension Office or send them to the lab in Athens, if you’ve ordered the online kit. If you have multiple samples, it will be less expensive to take them to the office because each test will be billed separately. You can ask for recommendations for different crops, but the sample used must be from the same bag.
“Once you receive the report, you’ll have a wealth of information to make your garden more productive and rewarding,” he says.
For instance, knowing the pH of the soil, whether it’s more alkaline or acidic, can be the difference in blueberries that produce much fruit and those that yield bushelsful. “Georgia’s soil is generally fairly acidic, but that doesn’t mean you should automatically try to adjust the pH by adding lime,” Linke says. “But when you take the time to do a soil test, you’ll know exactly how to amend the soil in your yard for the types of things you’re growing.”
Some plants – like azaleas, camellias and gardenias, plus blueberries and some other fruits and vegetables – prefer a more acidic soil to help them absorb nutrients. However, many plants (and this is where marking the bags of samples with the type of plants you want to grow comes in) need more alkaline soil. This will require adding lime and the test will tell you how much per 1,000 square feet.
Other amendments and nutrients may be needed as well. The report will let you know. Then, if you have questions, you can call the Hall County Extension office and talk with volunteer Master Gardener who mans the phones Monday through Friday to help the public with their gardening questions.
“Now is the best time to do soil testing,” he says. “That will give you enough lead time to get the reports back and amend your soil accordingly and still have several weeks before you plan to plant. It’s a very affordable way to get it right the first time and not waste money on unnecessary soil amendments and fertilizers.”
For more information about soil testing and your test results, contact your local University of Georgia Cooperative Extension office at 1-800-ASK-UGA1 or visit http://aesl.ces.uga.edu.

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