10 Simple Soil Tests to Get your Garden in Shape

Your garden soil is your greatest asset. If it’s kept healthy and alive then growing plants won’t be a problem. But, if you ignore it, abuse it, or work it too hard you will find that your plants aren’t going to stick around.

Organic Gardening came up with this great list of tests that you can perform in your own garden to bring your soil up to speed.

  1. Soil structure & tilth
    Dig a hole to the depth of a shovel and crumble the soil in your hand. It will either be cloddy, powdery, or granular. Granular is the ideal as it allows better movement of air and water.
  2. Compaction
    Drive a piece of thin wire into the soil. The point at which it bends displays where the soil is becoming too compact. A foot or more of easily penetrable soil is ideal as compacted soil inhibits root growth.
  3. Workability
    Simply judge the effort necessary to prepare beds for planting. If it’s too hard to work with your soil then you will have many problems with your plants.
  4. Soil Organisms
    Dig a hole about 6 inches deep and inspect the animal life present. This includes earthworms, centipedes, spiders and other insects. If you count less than 10, your soil does not have enough active players in the food chain. The reason why this is so important is that the more active life beneath the surface of your soil, the less chance of disease and other pests.
  5. Earthworms
    As with the last test, dig another hole and count the number of wriggling earthworms. Three worms are good, five are better. No worms = low quality organic soil.
  6. Plant residue
    One month after turning over your cover crop, re-dig the area and inspect the decomposition. If you can still recognise plant parts as well as plant fibers and darkly colored humus this demonstrates that the soil activity is good.
  7. Plant vigor
    All factors being equal (no adverse climate problems or seed timing issues) then your plants should be healthy. They should also be relatively uniform in their growing stages, size and colour.
  8. Root development
    Dig up a growing weed and inspect its root development. The roots should have white, fine strands that appear healthy. Brown roots indicate drainage problems and stunted roots may show that disease has set in.
  9. Water infiltration
    Remove the bottom from a tin can and insert it into the soil leaving 3 inches above the surface. Fill with water and time how long it takes for the water to dissipate. Repeat this several times until the rate of absorption slows and your times become consistent. Anything slower than 1/2 to 1 inch per hour is an indication of compacted soil.
  10. Water availability
    After a soaking rain record how long it takes for your plants to show signs of thirst. The basic lesson is that if plants require more frequent watering than typical for your region, your soil is probably the culprit.
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