Tag Archives: Mississippi State University Cooperative Extension Service

Taking a Soil Sample for Testing Step by Step

Following up on my previous post about testing for soil fertility: For those who don’t know how to take a soil sample, it’s real easy. Here’s a step-by-step walk-through with photos.

The process: Tale a shovel, small trowel or just a spoon and collect a soil sample, send it off with your payment to the soil laboratory you select, and in a few weeks, you’ll get your results. If you don’t have an “official” box, that’s fine. Just use any clean container. For example, I used a box that held cans of catfood.

To obtain a soil sample for testing, take a shovel or implement of some kind and put small amounts of soil in a clean box. Make sure it's not covered in turf grass; but only an inch or so below the roots, so the sample includes only topsoil, not subsoil. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

To obtain a soil sample for testing, take a shovel or implement of some kind and put small amounts of soil in a clean box. Make sure it’s not covered in turf grass; but only an inch or so below the roots, so the sample includes only topsoil, not subsoil. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Go around your garden and take a small amount and put it in the box. Dig below the rootline; you don’t want grass or turf or weeds in it; but just an inch or so deep, so you are getting topsoil and not the harder, more compact subsoil.
Go to another area and do the same.

Once you have put a few spades of soil from various places in the garden, mix them up, so the soil is uniform; pick out any rocks or grass or other debris. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Once you have put a few spades of soil from various places in the garden, mix them up, so the soil is uniform; pick out any rocks or grass or other debris. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Crumble it all up and mix it up and either take it to your local extension service office or send it off. Most states have a testing facility, usually affiliated with a university, university cooperative extension service, or a state department of agriculture or natural resources.

In Mississippi, the Mississippi State University Cooperative Extension Service Soil Testing Laboratory analyzes soil. It only costs $6 for a routine analysis. For additional information, see http://msucares.com/crops/soils/testing.html, visit your local county extension service office or write: Soil Testing Laboratory, Box 9610, Mississippi State MS 39762; or call (662) 325-3313.

Land grant universities nationally are dropping soil testing programs. So, if you are reading this in a state where it is no longer available, here is a list of commonly used private labs compiled by Colorado State University: http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/crops/00520.html

Collecting a soil sample is required annually for certified organic growers; but if you’re not organic, it’s still a good idea to see what’s going on with your soil. As stated in my earlier blog, when I first started sending off samples in Lena, because we lived in a terrain with red clay and sandy soils basically only good for growing pine trees, the tests came back showing high acid in the soil, in the 5.0 range.

Over several years, amending the soil with tons of composted horse manure and growing cover crops year round to build up vegetative matter (called “green manure”) and balance out the acid soil, we managed to bring the soil to a neutral level: 6.6 pH. That was a huge success.

Additionally, by digging a soil sample each year before you plant, you also get a good idea of how your topsoil is doing. Each year, your topsoil should be thicker, the consistency of the soil showing better tilth, and the fertility of the soil greater. If it’s not, then you should address that with more soil amendments and crop rotation.

You want to add humus and composted material to hold moisture and build tilth, increase fertility and provide optimum conditions for microbial life.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, and former organic farmer now teaching natural, sustainable and organic agricultural practices. His latest book is Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press). Find Jim on Facebook, follow him @EdiblePrayers or @OrganicWriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

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Garden Update: Soil Sample Back, Second Tilling

My garden is coming along as it should – even better than I had hoped.

I was able to do my second tilling, which puts me about halfway toward planting a crop of some kind this spring.

This is my new garden tilled for a second time. At present, I'm just trying to break up roots and spread a little compost. It won't be ready to plant for at least one more tilling. If this were an established garden, it wouldn't require such work. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

This is my new garden tilled for a second time. At present, I’m just trying to break up roots and spread a little compost. It won’t be ready to plant for at least one more tilling. If this were an established garden, it wouldn’t require such work. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Yesterday, before the cold rains and sleet came, the weather was beautiful with sunny skies and balmy temps — up to the 80s, in fact!

It was so warm, I was able to ride my bike down to the post office, to the grocery and around town before coming home, stripping off my shirt and tilling the garden bare chested to the warm, gentle, caressing breezes.

There’s nothing like getting your hands in the soft, moist soil and working vigorously in the garden! It’s a whole body affair. After wrestling the tiller, and spreading compost, my whole body is sore today. Quite a workout!

I had last tilled my new garden on Jan. 31, with the intention of coming back for a second tilling a couple of weeks later. But the weather has been so strange — ice storms, sleet, snow accumulations and heavy rains — that it didn’t dry out enough to till until yesterday.

You never want to till your garden when it’s soggy. Some people might say, why not? It’s because, if muddy, the soil will create clods that are difficult to break down. Sure, you could go over it repeatedly later, but that’s inefficient and, besides, human nature being what it is, one might be tempted to just overlook some clumping. If so, you are dooming your garden to failure or at least subpar production before you started. Gardening is all about patience.

The goal of the natural, sustainable or organic garden is to provide good tilth. That means soil that crumbles easily, has consistency and some vegetative matter in it. The reason you want light, airy, crumbly soil is so that the roots of the plant and the microorganisms that serve the plant can breathe easily.

Wet, hard or clumping soils suffocate plants or prevent them from easily accessing nutrients they need to thrive.

‘Conventional’ is a Killing Cocktail of Chemicals

The greatest threat to farmland today is not so much its infertility, but the fact that the chemical soups being used on them kill all the microorganisms and collapse the soil, so that roots struggle, plants are anemic and the soil turns to hardpan. Infertility comes form neglected soil health and no amount of artificial chemical means can reverse that.

If you talk to “conventional” (read: chemical) farmers today, most will tell you a major problem they have is with the composition of their soils. They don’t hold moisture, making them susceptible to drought; they are hard, with topsoil that blows away. That’s why so many farmers are now interested in growing tillage radishes as cover crops – to break up the subsoil and create aeration in the soil.

If they didn’t use so many chemicals that kill all life except the GMO seed varieties bred to withstand such poisons, they wouldn’t have such soil problems to start with. But the big chemical/seed manufacturers have sold farmers on the idea that the soil is simply an inconsequential growing medium for a killing cocktail of chemicals.

Natural, organic and sustainable farmers know that the opposite is true. If you have good healthy soil (read: tilth) then you’ll have good healthy plants.

Soil Sample

If you are certified organic, then you know that the first step each year is to take a soil sample and send it off for analysis. Last month, it just so happened that I was going to attend a national forum on cover crops sponsored by the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SSARE) program, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Mississippi State University’s Cooperative Extension Service at the local county extension office. So, I took my soil sample with me in order to drop it off while I was there.

They all kidded me when I arrived; the only guy at a soil conference who brought his own soil! (And, yes, they know me as “the organic guy.”)

The local Rankin County office was just great in packaging it up (I had brought it in an empty cat food box) and sending it off. And last week I received the report.

My soil sample report from Mississippi State University Cooperative Extension Service shows a high fertile, slightly acidic soil. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

My soil sample report from Mississippi State University Cooperative Extension Service shows a highly fertile, slightly acidic soil. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

The report was actually better than I had hoped. It just so happened that one of the participants in the forum was the state agronomist and he took one look at my soil and identified it at Black Prairie. I told him that I thought Black Prairie was only around Meridian, extending east into Alabama, and north into Monroe County in Mississippi. He said there were pockets of it in the state, as well, including the Pelahatchie area.

The soil is distinctive for being black in color and sandy. Really nice soil.

The report showed that my soil is high in phosphorus, which is good, and slightly acidic at pH 6.3. For comparison, neutral is 6.6 to 7.3; where I used to live in Lena, an area covered in red clay soil and pine trees, the soil was highly acidic in the 5.5 to 5.7 range. After years of dumping literally tons of horse manure and growing cover crops year round, I was very pleased to have my fields test out at 6.6.

So, I’m thrilled with 6.3!

I’m still mulling over what I’m going to plant. But I’ve got a good start!

More later …

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, and former organic farmer now teaching natural, sustainable and organic agricultural practices. His latest book is Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press). Find Jim on Facebook, follow him @EdiblePrayers or @OrganicWriter or visit blueskywaters.com.