For many people, gardening is a spring and summer hobby. But beautiful spring and summer gardens start with fall preparation.
“The best place to begin is with soil testing your garden,” said Dr. Audrey Gamble, an Alabama Extension soil scientist. Gamble said soil tests provide valuable information for gardeners and farmers alike.
The soil test is a simple process that estimates the nutrients available in the soil. Auburn University’s Soil Testing Laboratory has established recommendations and criteria for interpreting soil samples.
Test recommendations ensure the gardener is applying nutrients actually needed rather than guessing at them. Some nutrients can be over applied, which leads to water quality and other environmental issues. Additionally, a test will indicate if lime is needed to adjust soil pH.
“Soil testing can be done any time, but sampling in the fall is a good idea,” she said. “It gives you time to plan for next year’s garden and to lime, if needed. Fall samples may get quicker lab results because it’s not as busy.”
Gamble offers several tips on how to take the best soil samples for a test.
Sample soils that differ in appearance, plant growth or past treatments separately. Even when the area is small, if plants are growing well in most of the area but poorly in a spot, collect a sample from the poor spot and another from the good area so lime and fertilizer recommendations may be made for both areas.
· Avoid taking samples that include organic residue or recently applied fertilizer. Scrape selected spots clean before sampling.
· Combine subsamples from at least 10 or more places in each area to create one large sample. Areas treated differently should be sampled separately.
· Sample as deeply as the soil is tilled, usually 6 to 8 inches. Sample established lawns at 2 to 3 inches deep.
Pick up soil test forms and sample boxes from the county Extension office. Fill out sample boxes and information sheets as completely as possible. Indicate what plants will be grown so correct fertilizer recommendations can be made.
There is a $7 charge for each sample. Mail samples in a shipping box and enclose the filled soil boxes, information sheets and a check or money order to cover charges. Mail to: Soil Testing Laboratory, ALFA Agricultural Services and Research Building, 961 S. Donahue Drive, Auburn University, AL 36849-5411.
“After your samples are analyzed, you will get a report with the type and amount of fertilizer you need as well as information on whether you need to lime your soil,” Gamble said.