Planting seeds in depleted soil is something like trying to paint a masterpiece on a dusty canvas, or hoping to cook up a delicious soup made from a tasteless stock. Before you do anything else in your garden, you want to determine the quality of your soil so that you can build a thriving foundation for your garden. Meanwhile, you can pat yourself on the back for your contributions to your backyard ecosystem - cultivating your own fertile soil from year to year is a gift to the land and to the environment.
It's also easy. Contact your local county extension office to locate a soil test lab in your area. A standard soil test to determine pH levels and nutrient content is around $9. You can also run tests that will provide you with broader results, such as biological activity and soil structure. As an alternative, affordable test-kits can be purchased at garden stores or online (note that there is a margin of error with the do-it-yourself kits). When using either method, simply follow the instructions, making sure to sample different areas of your garden plot. Standard results provide you with helpful information, including:
- Nutritional information: Think “balanced diet” – plants also require an array of nutrients to maintain good health. The main ingredients in well-balanced soil are phosphorus, nitrogen, potassium, calcium, and magnesium.
- pH: All soil can be applied to a pH scale – the measurement of acidity or alkalinity. A pH of zero is highly acidic (battery acid), and a pH of 14 is highly alkaline (lye). Neutral soil, at a pH of 7 and the equivalent pH of distilled water, is ideal for most plants in your garden. Once you know what you’re working with, you may add in some soil amendments. Note that compost is a great supplement for any soil.
Troubleshooting. If your garden is in an urban area or adjacent to an old building and you plan to plant directly in the ground, it is required to test your soil for lead and other metals. Contact your local county extension office for more information – they can tell you where to send the sample to be tested. Otherwise, purchase soil for use in containers and/or raised beds instead.