Grab a handful of medium-dry soil and look at its texture. A soil with good structure will simply crumble when you squeeze it in your hand. If you can squeeze it into a ball, it contains a high content of clay. If you can leave scratches on the surface of the clod, it contains a significant amount of sand. If, on the other hand, it feels greasy in your hands, your soil contains a fair amount of silt.
Dig a hole two feet in depth next to some plants in your garden so you can examine the development of their roots. Good workable soil will allow roots to develop straight down into the soil. If the roots of your plants start to run laterally at some point along their development, they have reached a hardpan or plow pan layer-a layer of compact soil that needs to be broken up.
To test the your soil's drainage performance, dig a 2 ft deep hole in your garden and fill it with water. If the water remains pooled after a reasonable amount of time, you need to improve your soil's drainage.
There are a couple of ways to determine if there are high quantities of rich, organic matter in your soil.
Worms: Because earthworms naturally gravitate to areas high in organic nutrients, you can tell a lot about your soil's health by the number of worms present in your garden. Sift through a cubic foot of soil from your garden (1ft x 1ft x 1ft hole) and count the number of worms you find. Soil healthy in organic matter will have at least 10 worms in a cubic foot-a good barometer of the overall life present in your soil. Fewer worms mean less life is present and you need to increase the nutrients available in your soil.
Tomatoes: If you garden is lacking in nutrients, your plants will be usually your best indicators. Tomatoes, for example, respond to a variety of soil deficiencies:
Nitrogen Fixing Plants: Dig up and examine the nodules of nitrogen fixing plants, like peas, beans, alfalfa and clover. When broken open, the nodules should be pink if they are fixing and storing nitrogen like they are supposed to be.
Look no further than the native weeds growing in and around your garden to get an idea of your soil's pH levels. Hawkweed, horsetail, lady's thumb, dock and sorrel, for example, all prefer to grow in acidic soil. You can find inexpensive, do-it-yourself pH test kits available at most garden centers.
Unlike the weather, soil is one of the few aspects of gardening over which we have total control. If we have a basic understanding of what type of soil we're starting with, we can amend the soil as needed and achieve the best balance for our plants. If after these simple tests you still feel the need to have you soil tested professionally, contact your local extension service for advice specific to your area.
About The Author: Ellen Brown is an environmental writer and photographer and the owner of Sustainable Media, an environmental media company that specializes in helping businesses and organizations promote eco-friendly products and services. Contact her on the web at http://www.sustainable-media.com
Testing Your Own Garden Soil
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