Start with a soil test for garden success

Soil testing services offered by Michigan State University Extension can benefit your garden, your wallet and the environment.

Planning to grow some of your own Michigan Fresh food at home or in a community garden this year? Starting with a soil test will help to get your garden on the path to success. Just as humans require a variety of nutrients for healthy bodies, garden plants require 18 different nutrients for optimum health and production. Your soil may be rich in nutrients, or it may need to be supplemented with fertilizers to provide the optimum levels of nutrients for plant growth. Knowing the pH of your soil is also important, as most garden vegetable plants cannot tolerate acidic soil conditions. As a best practice for healthy, happy and productive plants, Michigan State University Extension recommends testing your soil every three years.

Growers in urban areas may also consider testing their soil for lead. Until the late 1970s, gasoline and paint contained lead that remains in the soil today especially in sites near busy roads or demolished homes. If lead contamination is found, urban growers can use strategies such as plastic-lined raised beds filled with uncontaminated soil to avoid lead exposure to humans.

Michigan State University offers easy-to-use mail-in soil test that can be purchased for $25 from your local MSU Extension office or from the MSU Extension Bookstore. Lead testing is also available through MSU for an additional fee.

Performing a soil test can benefit your garden, your wallet and the environment. A soil test will not only tell you which nutrients are lacking in your garden, but it will also indicate which ones are plentiful and do not need to be added leading to savings in fertilizer expenses. If you use MSU Extension’s soil test, you will receive a specific recommendation as to how much and what kind of fertilizer to add. This takes the guesswork out of applying fertilizer and avoids unnecessary purchases of nutrients that are not needed.

Applying fertilizer only to places where it is needed and in precise amount helps to protect our lakes, rivers, ponds and groundwater by avoiding contamination caused by over-application of phosphorus or nitrogen fertilizers. A soil test will also advise you of the pH of your soil so that you can make adjustments if needed.

Soil testing is easy! You will need:

  • A garden trowel, spade or shovel
  • A clean plastic bucket

You will take several small soil samples within your garden and mix them together. The soil testing kit from MSU will contain complete instructions for taking soil samples, but you can also find it on the MSU Soil Test website. The MSU Extension Smart Gardening YouTube video “Smart Gardening: Soil Tests” also provides information on sampling soil and interpreting soil test results:

In approximately two weeks after mailing your soil samples to MSU, you can expect to receive the results of your soil test via email. Whether you test your soil through MSU or another lab, MSU Soil provides resources to help interpret and apply your test results.

MSU Extension’s Michigan Fresh program encourages the purchase and use of locally-grown foods. You can download free fact sheets on soil testing, garden planning, starting seeds and more on their website.

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