Sure, it might just look like dirt, but your soil is actually a complex blend of air, water, minerals, and organic matter (both living and dead). It’s in this way that soil creates a growing opportunity for your lawn, plants, shrubs, and trees. If you can improve your soil quality, you can, by extension, improve the overall health of your lawn, plants, etc.
Why a Soil Test is Important
Some of you may remember the discussion of potential Hydrogen (pH) from your high school chemistry class. In short, pH is the measure of how acidic or alkaline something is. The pH of your soil is measured on a scale ranging from 1 to 14, with a number below 7 being considered acidic. A number above 7 is alkaline. A 7.0 is considered neutral. By and large, plants thrive in soil that registers a pH score between 6.2 and 7.2. There are, naturally, some exceptions. Azaleas, for example, grow best in soil that is a little more acidic than the norm.
Determining the pH level of your soil is just one function of a soil test. A good soil test can also show you which other elements (e.g., nutrients) are in short supply and how much to you need to replace to create a better growing environment. You can find simple soil tests at many local home improvement stores. These do an adequate job of analyzing the pH and general nutrient levels of your soil. Beyond that, you can also find testing meters that will measure your pH and other factors, like light exposure and moisture.
You can also take a soil sample to your local co-op extension office to have pH and nutrient levels tested. Depending upon where you live, there can be various fees for this service, so call ahead. Because this type of test is more in-depth than a home testing kit, it can take several weeks to get your results. In addition to very detailed results, this type of soil test will also offer amendments to address your particular area.
Testing Your Soil
There can be variation from test to test, so you’ll want to refer to the manufacturer’s instructions for your particular home-testing solution. That said, most function in very similar ways. A soil test kit comes with vials and tablets for the actual soil testing. It also comes with a handy chart to help you make sense of your test results. If you opt for a test meter, you will just stick the probe in the ground and read the results.
If you are preparing a soil sample to be tested elsewhere, the process is a little different. You will need a trowel, a clean bucket, and a plastic container. Note: It must be a plastic container, as a metal container could influence the test results.
Before your collect your sample, make sure you clean all of the tools you will be using. A clean sample is important. Next, dig five holes, all about 6-8 inches deep. Then, collect a “slice” of soil measuring about 1/2-inch from the side of the hole and put it in your plastic bucket. Keep doing this to get samples from each hole. If you have different parts of your yard where you plan to grow similar plants, you will want to grab samples from each location. After all the soil is collected, mix it all up in the bucket. Lay the mixed soil out on a newspaper to let it dry. Once it is dry, collect about a pint of it as your sample.
It’s important that the soil is dry before you collect it, as a wet sample can lead to a false reading. In fact, it might be a worthwhile endeavor to check your soil several times to ensure consistent readings.
Tip: While you can test your soil at any time, fall and early spring are the preferred times of year, as it allows you time to make soil adjustments before planting.
How to Improve Acidic Soil
Different parts of the country naturally have more acidic soil. These areas include much of the Eastern United States, Alaska, Hawaii, and select parts of the Pacific Northwest. The ill-effects of soil that is too acidic include diseases, weeds, thatch, and compromised effectiveness of herbicides and fertilizers.
To reduce soil acidity, garden lime (limestone) is usually the go-to solution. In addition to balancing the pH levels in acidic soil, garden lime is also rich in magnesium and calcium, both of which are needed for healthy plants. The ideal time to use garden lime is in the fall, but you can use it any time of year… and you may very well have to. Balancing acidic soil is a long-term project. Just applying the garden lime once is not going to be enough.
Note: Pay careful attention to manufacturer’s instructions regarding clothing, protective equipment, safety warnings, and proper application procedures when applying any type of lawn-care product, regardless of how harmless it may seem.
How to Improve Alkaline Soil
Just as acidic soil is prevalent in certain parts of the country, so too is alkaline soil, which is most common in the Central and Southwestern United States. Alkaline soil’s biggest threat to plant growth is in the way it cripples a plant’s ability to absorb nutrients.
To improve the pH balance of alkaline soil, conditioners that are loaded with gypsum or sulfur are the usual prescription. Another option is sphagnum peat moss, which is a naturally-acidic (and organic) choice. That said, sphagnum peat moss can become costly very quickly if you are looking at application to large areas. Yet another option to increase the acidity of the soil is the regular application of organic compost.
Box it Up
Trying to correct the pH balance of an entire yard at once can be large project. One alternative is to use raised flower beds or vegetable gardens. In this manner, you can actually customize the soil pH balance to best match the needs of whichever plants you have in each select bed.
If you are looking for commercial lawn care solutions, trust the professionals at E.P.M. of Michigan. Contact us online or give us a call at (517) 990-0110 today!