Tag Archives: soil testing

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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Worms (in the garden) something to brag about!

Worms (in the garden) something to brag about!

March 16, 2012

Not long ago, I was attending a conference and overheard someone say, “Yeah, I’ve got worms.”

Now, most folks might find that a bit disconcerting. After all, having worms is something that one normally doesn’t brag about. Unless you’re an organic farmer!

Properly, raising worms is called vermiculture. It is the process of using worms to decompose organic food waste and turn it into a nutrient-rich material for a garden.

Turns out, vermicompost is not only some of the best fertilizer that can be produced – having the proper pH and essential nutrients for healthy plant growth – but it’s easy to produce.

You can grow worms without muss or fuss in your apartment, by using common plastic bins found at Walmart, Target and other discount stores. Gaining Ground – Mississippi Sustainability Institute has an article and video explaining how: http://www.ggsim.org/volunteer/projects/o-gardens-occupy-your-lawn/lesson-three.

Essentially, you start with your bin and add bedding material: shredded paper, peat moss, coconut fiber, wood chips or manure. Add a couple handfuls of soil to add “grit,” helping the worms break down food particles. Add one pound of worms (red wigglers preferred) that you obtain online or from a bait shop. Then, start feeding them food scraps (about one pound per day). Don’t feed them: garlic, onions, citrus, meat, dairy or bones.

After four to six months, collect the castings and fertilize your plants. If you end up with too many worms, you can give them away or release them in your garden. You can also keep your worm bin outside when it’s warm.

Worm science: For more on the science of vermicompost, see: http://www.news.cornell. edu/stories/Dec11/Vermicompost.html

Soil testing: If you haven’t already sent it off, now is a good time to get your soil tested. By testing soil fertility, pH, etc., you can determine exactly which amendments are needed to produce the food you want to grow.

For example, in our little farm, we have red clay soil at the top of the hill, rather compacted “played out” soil at the middle, and dense clay soil at the bottom of the hill. I take a sample from each. In response, we’ve calculated strategies for each: lots of mulch, compost and vegetative matter for the hill; growing soil building cover crops for the middle; allowing buffer areas to soak up moisture at the bottom.

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

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.

Weeds Whisper Secrets …

February 4, 2011

Weeds whisper soil secrets to organic farmers (and CSAs!)

An online reader wrote from Italy asking what to do about weeds. After discussing various options, I told her that a good book that explains why weeds grow where they do and what to do about them is Weeds: Control Without Poisons by Charles Walters (Acres USA, 1999; $25).

There is a whole movement on this principle: that all creatures grow from the ground up, and their health can be determined from the health of the soil. It’s similar to the Slow Food movement, as a return to healthy basics, but mostly followed by people who label themselves as “grass farmers,” organically raising grass-fed cattle, sheep an goats. (See: http://www.stockmangrassfarmer.net/. Also, for those interested in raising grass-fed beef using this principle and avoiding chemicals of any kind, see the book: Natural Cattle Care by Pat Coleby, Acres USA, $20.)

The Walters book is an eye-opener in that it teaches that the weeds in any field are themselves telling us what’s deficient in the soil. Every weed has a niche for certain soil imbalances where it thrives. When it decays, it actually is returning the missing nutrient to the soil. These facts can be monitored by soil testing each year.

You’ve heard the saying that a “weed” is only a misplaced plant? Moreso, weeds are our allies in returning balance to the earth!

Reader response: I’ve been getting a lot of response from readers near and far about the Jan. 7 article suggesting people consider starting their own backyard micro-farms and selling their produce via a CSA (community supported agriculture):

“I wish to start a CSA for my neighbors and grow organic veggies to share. Any suggestions as to where I can start? I live in north central Louisiana and have 2 acres.”

A couple of suggestions: First, a caution: I’m not sure that just starting out learning by doing is the best way to begin a CSA, per se, unless it is with family and really supportive friends who will forgive you if your crops don’t pan out. Otherwise, folks who pay $400 or more for a season will expect a fair return and may not be so open-minded if plans go awry.

With that in mind, it might be best to consider your first year an experiment and allow for a learning curve (and lots of mistakes). Having neighbors chip in without a fixed pay schedule while you learn the ropes could do that.

Second, you might want to check with people operating CSAs and learn from their experiences, and ask them questions. It could be, if there are any in your area, they are looking to “go in with” others even part time to complete their offerings while you learn.

Third, there are a couple of books you might want to read, first: Eliot Coleman’s classic: The New Organic Grower: A Master’s Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener (Chelsea Green, 1995, $24.95); and, second, though it’s a bit dated, but chock full of practical advice and lessons learned the hard way: Rebirth of the Small Family Farm by Bob and Bonnie Gregson; Acres USA, 2004, $12.)

There are some CSAs in North Mississippi to look into (and they write blogs sharing their experiences):

Doug Davis operates Yokna(patawpha) Bottoms Farm, see: http://yoknabottoms.com/. Or write: 26 County Road 471, Oxford, MS 38655;

Horton Nash and Genevieve Yeakel operate Isis Gardens CSA: http://isisgardens.blog.com/. Or write: 955 Mt. Vernon Rd., Tupelo, MS 38801

For a scientific approach, see the GGSIM CSA test, at The Fireant Farm at Starkville: http://fireantfarm.wordpress.com/

Upcoming:

The Mississippi Urban Forest Council is holding a conference, “Sustainable Choices for Today, Planting for Tomorrow” Wednesday and Thursday at the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science in Jackson. For more information, see: http://www.msurbanforest.com/

The Northeast Mississippi Fruit and Vegetable Producers Association Conference and Trade Show will be held Friday in Verona. For more information: http://msucares.com/counties/chickasaw_9/veg_brochure11.pdf or contact Scott Cagle at (662) 456-4269 or scottc@ext.msstate.edu.

News alert: Last week, the USDA OK’d unrestricted use of genetically modified alfalfa in a stunning decision that threatens organic and non-GMO farmers, food safety and the environment. Lawsuits are in the works, but now, the only recourse consumers have to make informed choices about the food they eat is to press for better labeling to show when GMO is present. For more, see: http://bit.ly/fsH9eD

Five reasons why it matters: http://bit.ly/h0z2J5

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.