Tag Archives: soil fertility

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.

Re-energize Your Soil For A Better Garden Next Year

Sept. 26, 2012
Re-energize Your Soil For A Better Garden Next Year

Now that fall is officially here, a lot of gardeners think their work is done. Well, not quite. That is, not if you expect bountiful harvests next year.

The reason? Soil fertility. The big agribusinesses talk a lot about “inputs” when producing crops because there are a lot of “outputs.” The “outputs,” simply put, are the fresh fruit and vegetables (and weeds) that your garden produces. When you pull these plants out of the garden, you are removing nutrients in the soil contained in the plant.

If enough of these “outputs” occur, without any new “inputs” of new nutrients, the soil becomes exhausted. That means, unless you work to keep your soil fertile, you may only have stunted plants, puny produce and lots of disease and insects.

Big industrial farms dump synthetic fertilizers as “inputs” to boost production, but without soil-building practices, future yields suffer, and farmers have to use more chemicals on the soil to fight diseases and insects, while the nutrient value of the crops declines.

Organic growing, however, is holistic: The soil is as important as the crop, so we want to ensure that our soil is healthy, so that our produce is healthy, what we eat is healthy, and we are healthy.

The easiest way is to simply keep a compost pile and add compost periodically to the garden. That way, you are at least putting back into the garden what you take out.

Another easy way is to use “green manure.” That is, don’t throw away the weeds you pick out of the garden; instead, compost and return them. You can also plow under any plants that you don’t harvest.

Now is the best time for this method: Plant a cover crop that will actually add fertility to the soil over the winter. Clover is a great winter cover crop, adding nitrogen at the rate of 60 pounds or more per acre.

Another suggestion: Why not use a cover crop you can eat?

Fava beans (which actually are a type of vetch) are filled with essential nutrients, especially phosphorus, potassium, vitamin K, vitamin A and iron. They are low in sodium and high in fiber and, for women, contain phyto-estrogens that herbalists say ease menopause. Fava beans are routinely listed as among the top 10 anti-cancer foods, as they contain herein, which research has shown to block carcinogens in the digestive tract.

The best news for your garden is that they can produce a whopping 200 to 300 pounds per acre of nitrogen. They can withstand temperatures down to 10 degrees, so they make a great cover crop in Mississippi.

Cover crops are often called the keystone of organic agriculture because they do so much while the farmer does so little. They crowd out weeds, provide habitat for beneficial insects, return fertility to the soil by fixing nitrogen from the air into the soil and they help the planet’s climate change by sequestering carbon. Not only that, but when they finally succumb to winter or live out their cycle and are turned under as “green manure,” they improve the texture of the soil by adding organic matter as well as fertility.

Quite a lot for a little work, huh?

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

Soil fertility, humus, tilth

February 25, 2011

Test soil of gardens, lawns to ensure fertility, balance

In a previous column, we wrote about how one can look at the weeds growing in a field and determine soil deficiencies.

For example, dandelions tell us we have too much soil sedmentation; consider them natural tillers of your field; when they die back, the hollowed out root system is used by earthworms to travel and further break up and fertilize the soil, bringing calcium to the surface. So, far from being “just a weed,” they’re the gardener’s friend. (Thank Charles Walters of Acres USA for this good advice!)

But beyond what our “weed” friends are telling us, it’s a good idea, too, to take a soil sample and have it tested, not only for your organic garden (certified organic growers must test every year), but also for your lawn and flower beds. You might be surprised at what you find (that you’ve been overfertilizing or adding the wrong amendments).

The Mississippi State University 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 extension service office or write: Soil Testing Laboratory, Box 9610, Mississippi State MS 39762; or call (662) 325-3313.

As an example, while it’s not required, we sample three areas of our little ShooFly Farm because we’re on a hill, and we actually have three different types of soil; at the top of the hill, it’s red clay sandy soil, highly acidic; at the middle, halfway down, it’s loamy and high zinc presumably from previous owners using composted chicken manure as fertilizer; at the bottom, it’s dense clay soil.

Each has its own needs. For example, we’ve been steadily working to build humus and composted material in the top area, to hold moisture and build tilth, and provide optimum conditions for microbial life.

In the middle area, we’ve concentrated on building fertility through adding composted horse manure and high nitrogen cover crops.

At the bottom, we’ve just used standard crop rotation along with allowing natural weeds and brush as a “buffer” zone between the highway and our fields.

For your 4-by-8 “Jim’s plot,” of course, it’s a lot simpler. Just take a small trowel or spoon and fill the cardboard box that MSU provides for a soil sample, send it off with your payment, and in a few weeks, you’ll get your results.

Reader response: An online reader wrote from Hawaii about starting a backyard CSA (community supported agriculture) plot to share produce with friends and family:

“But alas, I can’t plant a garden. Military housing is strongly opposed to us digging a garden in our backyards. We can’t even compost in housing here.”

I suggested that perhaps there was a community garden somewhere that she could donate time to help tend in exchange for food, and she wrote back that, in fact, she shopped at a local farmer’s market at least once a week and would look into it.

People who live in urban areas might also consider “yard sharing.” That’s where they link up with people who have space to grow but not the inclination.

Yard sharing has grown in popularity nationwide. To find someone in your area, check out: http://hyperlocavore.ning.com/page/about-us.

It’s a free yardsharing service operated by Liz McLellan in Boise, Idaho.

There is good value in getting your hands dirty and thinking about things. Lately, I’ve been employed a good bit in farm work and, consequently, have had lots of time to mull things over.

One of the items that has long simmered just beneath my consciousness is the sorry state of rural America. I remember when I was a boy, small rural places were bustling. Now, they are like ghost towns. I remember local communities thriving, filled with the commerce of farms and farmers who came and shopped. What happened to those people? Those communities?

We can’t just blame it on the lure of cities. For, indeed, the ties that kept rural people rural were broken loose, over the decades from the 1950s, when I was a boy, to before now.

The economic, social, moral and spiritual collapse of rural America may ultimately prove not to be the result of America’s decline but the cause of it.

Let’s reverse this. Let’s renew rural America from the ground up! I think we can do it with just the same kind of initiative and self-reliance that I’ve been writing about here; with backyard farming, micro-farming, growing local food for neighbors, churches, friends, family, and creating markets for our goods.

We lost our roots because we let them go. But roots can grow again, if we plant our feet and try again.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.