Soil testing is key to a successful, healthy garden and plant life!
Soil testing tells you about nutrient and organic matter content, and what the soil can provide in terms of nutrients prior to fertilization. You want to feed the soil, not the plant. It's important to get that 5 percent organic matter into your soil where roots are beginning to establish, and keep providing the living organisms with more organic matter so they can break it down for plants in a helpful way.
Soil tests are conducted by public and private laboratories. The Virginia Cooperative Extension lab at Virginia Tech is a public lab available for those of us living in Virginia.
To collect your own soil sample, first obtain a Soil Sample Information Sheet and Soil Sample Box from your area VCE office. You must indicate which plants or crops you plan to grow and immediately mail to the VCE lab at Virginia Tech via Priority Mail with the U.S. Postal Service. Click here for detailed instructions.
A soil analysis costs about $15 per sample, plus postage. Test results take about a week. VCE will mail a copy of the report to you, your designer, horticulturist or landscaper and county extension agent. A flat rate box is now just over $5 and holds up to four samples.
The lab will:
- conduct a routine analysis of the major and minor nutrients
- measure percentage of organic matter
- analyze pH (whether it's acidic or alkaline or neutral/in between)
There are also reputable private laboratories available through certified nutrient management planners. The clients of private labs are primarily farmers who have long been required by their conservation plans to do nutrient planning to keep streams healthy. Planners take samples, send to the lab, analyze results for what you intend to grow, map the tested fields using Geographic Information Systems, compare with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Soil Survey. They can tell you exactly what to do and use, how much, and when, precisely by field, area or crop to be grown. Golf courses in Virginia and public lands are now required to adhere to nutrient plans.