Tag Archives: tilth

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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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.

Soil’s Voracious Appetite

February 11, 2011

Soil with voracious appetite key to organic garden

How’s your 4×8-foot organic “Jim’s Plot” doing? If your garden is like ours, most of the plants have played out their life cycle or succumbed to the cold weather, even using Agribon or some type of frost-prevention row covers.

It’s a mixed lot; and a pretty ragged one! This winter has not been kind, but it should pay off with fewer bugs in summer.

Some of these plants, like the chard and carrots, will spring to life in spring. So, don’t be too quick to pull up old plants if they appear to have good roots.

Pretty soon it will be time to plant again. I know, looking at seed catalogs has you champing at the bit, but it’s not time yet.

Look ahead on the calendar. When do you intend to plant?

Here in central Mississippi, the old folks used to plant seeds on Good Friday, which this year is April 22. To be cautious, I’ve always planted a week after Easter, as we sometimes have a frost that week; Easter this year is April 24. That’s kind of late.

We’ll probably set out plants in March, relying on Agribon to protect them from frost; but that’s a gamble. According to the temperature tables, there’s a 50 percent chance of 28 degree weather where we are on March 9, and warms thereafter.

Here’s a pdf frost chart for Miss.: http://bit.ly/f8QSAb.

For all states, see: http://bit.ly/i5SmsT.

Most of our neighbors set out summer crop plants the first week in May. But there’s a caveat: They use pesticides, herbicides, etc. For organic growing, if you want to beat the bugs, plant as early as you can after the last frost date. We don’t have the luxury of spraying bugs.

So, to set your planting timetable, count back at least 60 days (and possibly 90 days), which should be now: Time to work your soil to make sure that it will have digested all the old plant material from your cover crops and any other green amendments so you are not robbing your new plants in spring from nitrogen being used in the decomposition process.

Why the variation in time? You want your soil to be hungry and healthy.

Healthy soil with lots of microorganisms in it is hungry and will digest vegetable matter quickly, turning it into rich, moist earth with lots of “loft” in it, to hold moisture and combat compaction; unhealthy soil will take time.

You know that smell of freshly turned earth? That’s actually the odor of actinomycetes, fungi-like bacteria. Soil repeatedly dosed with chemicals lacks that odor and the moist, crumbly texture of living soils.

Chemically laced soils can still grow crops when more chemicals are added, even when all the naturally occurring fungi that act to feed plants are killed off by them. But we want a full organic symphony of nutrients for full flavors with our food crops.

You can quicken the soil digestion process, if needed, by adding micro-organisms used for compost (such as actinomycetes, rhizobial bacteria and mycorrhizal fungi, Azolla, yeast and others, as long as they are not genetically modified organisms, GMO, which are forbidden in organic products) available from garden supply stores or online. Healthy micro-organisms with lots of vegetable mass for them to eat create robust soils for healthier, bountiful crops.

You might also consider buying a screw-in chlorine filter for your garden hose (available from pool or spa supply stores) to use when watering to keep from stunting the soil micro-organisms.

Keep dumping composted compost in your plot; and stir it around some. If you have some leaves, put them in; keep turning them. It may not appear that much is happening in your garden, but it’s busy. The soil is repairing itself from the growing season, with a little help from you, to make it ready for spring.

We want soil for planting with good “tilth,” crumbly and loose, that smells alive like fresh-turned earth!

Homesteaders, have you ordered your chickens yet?

If you plan on backyard chickens, the major suppliers generally ship from February to July.

Some online sites:

Video – PallenSmith Choosing the Right Chicken Breed for You: http://ow.ly/2Pmzf.

Catalog: Murray McMurray Hatchery: http://www.mcmurrayhatchery.com. Or write: Murray McMurray Hatchery, PO BOX 458, 191 Closz Drive, Webster City Iowa 50595. Phone: (515) 832-3280.

Upcoming events:

Annette and I will be at the Gaining Ground-Sustainability Institute of Mississippi conference on “Sustainable Living” Feb. 19-20 in Hattiesburg (Note: Felder Rushing was scheduled to speak, but he is unable to attend). For additional information, visit http://www.ggsim.org.

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.