Soil Testing

Posted Thursday, January 28th, 2010 at 12:17 pm

Now that I have an actual plot of land to plant in, a whole new list of concerns and challenges have popped up.  The first one being – what the hell am I planting in?

Soil testing is a good idea for many reasons.  First, it can tell you if there is any toxic sludge stinking up the joint.  Kinda important if you intend to grow food that isn’t lethal. Beyond that, a soil test can tell you many important characteristics of the land before you harvest, so you and your soil can become really good friends.

Think of it as a Facebook Profile for your yard, letting you know what kind of micro-organic crowd your soil hangs out with.  You will be able to learn things like the soil’s balance of minerals, the water absorption rate, and the soil pH (more on pH in a coming post).  Using this information, you can figure out how much organic fertilizer to add and what other soil amendments will help your garden realize its maximum potential.

I chose Timberleaf Labs because it was recommended in my new favorite book: “How To Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible On Less Land Than You Can Imagine,” by John Jeavons.

With a holistic approach, Timberleaf specializes in organic mini-farms.  They take into consideration not only the soil, but the entire gardening environment and individual cultivating practices.  I’m not sure what other labs do, but these guys even wanted me to draw a diagram of my farm, being sure to indicate all significant landmarks.


Well, on Purdue Avenue Farms (which is what I’ve come to call my little plot), the  most significant landmark would be the 10 freeway.  That’s right.  The yard is almost right underneath a massive overpass, towering hundreds of feet above the trees. Though this fits nicely with my Urban Farming aesthetic, I can’t help wondering how the thousands of cars that zoom overhead on any given day have affected the soil.

So, like Sigourney Weaver taking samples from Pandora, I followed Timberleaf’s detailed instructions and collected a composite of dirt from seven random places in the yard.  At each spot I stuck a spade in about 8 inches deep and pulled up a section of the soil that I dumped into a clean bucket.  Then I mixed the soil together and filled up a one-quart bag.

Afterward, when I  sat down to fill out the Soil Sample form, I realized I didn’t have answers to a lot of their questions.  The labs wanted to know how much chemical fertilizer had been used, the last application of lime, what kind of pests the garden was subject to. Being totally new to this land, I was at a loss to its history. So, I did the best I could and will depend on science to do the rest. I packed up my dirt cozily in a leftover Amazon box and shipped it off.

Most soil samples are between $60-$85 depending on how detailed you want to get.  But it seems worth the expense.  It will take a lot of the guesswork out of gardening, and could save a bundle on unnecessary or incorrect soil amendments.

It’s really the only way to get the nitty-gritty on your dirt.

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One Comment

  1. Sally

    I couldn’t get a shovel in the ground now without breaking it, but you’ve inspired me to do this in a few months. I’m usually winging it, and the results in our poor and depleted soil have not been very stellar. Hope it can make a difference this year That’s the great thing about gardening–hope is always on the horizon!!



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