Soil Sampling – Part One

To hit my goal of producing more food this year, I need a much better understanding of our soil fertility. In most years I have added compost to the beds, rotated crops, particularly tomatoes and potatoes, and have never added fertilizers or pesticides. I generally find earthworms as I am digging so I think it is reasonably fertile. But, that said, I have also never had my soil tested. So I don’t know, with any level of certainty, just how healthy our growing soil is and what it may need to grow more bountiful crops. In the past I have tried to test my soil with the little colored vials sold in garden shops, but I have never had any luck using them.

This year, though, I am sending soil samples from all of my growing beds off to a lab to be tested. Nine samples in all. This is probably overkill. I’ve generally used the same amendments each year and grown similar crops from year to year. That said, if I really want to up my growing game, understanding this critical resource is a fundamental first step. My goal with this effort is to get a baseline of the soil health in our growing beds. This knowledge will allow me to make better crop growing decisions this year and moving forward.

In addition to the growing beds, I am having my back lawn tested. I’ve always had a difficult time growing a lawn up there and I am hoping that this can help me understand why. And I am also testing a pile of compost that has been sitting in our driveway so long that I’m not quite sure what it is given all of the mulch and compost and bark chips I’ve had delivered to our home. I’m having that tested to see where it can be best used. Also I am also testing the compost in my cold frame.  I filled my cold frame with compost made from the ladies poop and fallen oak leaves.  I’m wondering how fertile that stuff is.

My state university, the University of Maryland, does not provide soil testing, so I am sending my samples to the University of Delaware. I ordered kits from their website here: http://extension.udel.edu/dstp/  About a week later, I got these:

University of Delaware Soil Sampling Envelope/Bag
Weird Soil Sampling Bag – Envelope thing from University of Delaware Lab

 They look odd with the envelope on one end and a cloth bag on the other. Included with these envelopes are green forms that ask a bunch of questions about where the soil is from and what I want to use it for. Once I filled these out, I placed this green sheet into the envelope side.

University of Delaware Soil Sample form and envelope/bag
University of Delaware Green Soil Sampling form

Also included with the kits was a handy brochure that explains how to take the samples. During a recent weekend between two snow storms I was able to collect soil samples from three beds. First I needed to take ten samples from each bed. And there is a specific depth and amount recommended for different types of sample (growing bed or lawn).

How to Take a Soil Sample Guide from the University of Delaware
Handy Soil Sample Guide from the University of Delaware
Inside of Handy Soil Sample Guide from University of Delaware
U of D Guide showing how to choose where to take soil samples from to make a composite for sampling

I placed each sample into a clean pail and then mixed the samples together with a clean spade.

Bucket of soil
Bucket of soil – the spade was clean when I started 🙂

Once mixed well, I scooped about a cup into the plastic bag that came inside the cloth bag. Then I closed the plastic bag with a rubber band and placed it into the cloth bag, attached to the end of the envelope and sent to the U of D lab.

Adding Sample to Soil Test Bag
Adding Soil Sample to Soil Test Bag

And although the envelope/bags seem to be designed so you could mail them as is, I chose not to risk a tear during delivery and instead put three into a single padded shipping bag and shipped them together.

I am hoping to finish taking samples in the next week or so and hopefully learn my results soon. March seems to be a very busy time for the lab so I’m not quite sure how long it will take.  Probably at least a couple of weeks.   I will post again when I get some results.  

Wondering if you all have done this.  And how useful it was to you?

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