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Do it yourself soil test

Soil is just dirt right?  Sorry, although all soils share certain characteristics, they display tremendous diversity. When planning any type of garden, the first step is to determine what soil type you will be working with. The inputs you will need to make are dependent on the soil you have to work with.
What you really need to know can be distilled down to four fundamental considerations, all of which are closely interrelated.
Soil texture: This feature of soil is related to particle size and is directly correlated with soil moisture, aeration, and fertility. Texture is defined on the basis of relative quantities of sand, silt, and clay as each has a distinctive range of particle sizes (0.05-2mm, 0.002-0.05 mm, and < 0.002 mm respectively).
Take a dry, broken up  sample of your soil ( obtained from a depth of approximately 6 inches- plant root zone) and place in a 1 litre mason jar to about 4 inches in depth; fill the rest of the volume with water and agitate and shake vigorously for at least one minute or until clumps are no longer visible. Set the jar down and allow to stand for 24 hours, after which time you can measure the layers that have settled. The bottom layer will be sand, the middle silt, followed by clay and finally organic matter (some of which may be floating on top).  A good loam will be represented by 1 ¾ inches of sand on the bottom (45%), 1 inch of silt (25%), 1 inch of clay (25 %), and approximately ¼ inch (5%) of organic material on the top. Many will be fortunate to observe this structure, however, many will not. If your layering indicates a skewed distribution of particle size you may need to amend your soil accordingly.
Soil pH: If your soil pH is outside the range of 6.0 to 7.0 you are likely to encounter problems in your garden. These could manifest as pest issues, low or failed flower production, poor leaf development, or mortality. Fairly accurate and reasonably inexpensive kits are available for use by home gardeners. Another way to check and obtain a general understanding of your soil is easy to undertake with products already in your kitchen. To determine if you are dealing with alkaline soil, add a ¼ cup of dry soil to ½ cup of white vinegar and stir gently but well. If you notice any fizzing, you have a high pH soil. You can amend this slowly and gently in the spring with a sulphate product or with the addition of ericaceous compost and conifer needles. Similarly, take a ¼ cup of dry soil and add it to a ½ cup of baking soda and ½ cup water, fizzing indicates an acid soil, but not exactly how acid. Remember, a pH of 6-7 is fine for most plants. If you get an acid indication you may want to invest in a kit and determine if your acidity is below 6. Amend an acid soil with the addition of a lime product in the fall.
Soil drainage: Almost everyone is aware of the fact that plants need water but exactly how much and when can be difficult to manage.  Knowledge related to how much water your soil can retain and for how long is essential for a productive garden.  Understanding your soils texture is a good start but nothing beats a hands-on percolation analysis. This is a simple matter involving you, a shovel, water, and time. Look at your garden and determine whether it is uniform or varied, is it all one bed, was part of it created where large cedars once lived, is there a depression etc. You may need to conduct this test in several areas.  Point the business end of your shovel and get digging.  A hole 12 inches deep and as wide as your shovel will suffice. Fill the hole to the top with water and leave it. After it has drained, fill it once more and note the time. Return at frequent intervals to determine whether water is still present. If water is still present after 3 to 4 hours you have poor drainage. Poor drainage not only means water logged plants, it means your soil aeration is also poor; plants don’t just produce oxygen, they consume it through respiration. Soil oxygen also goes a long way towards limiting the bad organisms in your soil.  Poor aeration will cause serious problems and your success will require soil amendment. Alternatively, if your soil drains rapidly it is likely very sandy and will also require amendment. Poorly draining soil will benefit from the addition of sand and organic material to break up the dense clay. Rapidly draining soil will benefit from the addition of clay and organic material to slow the percolation of water.
Soil nutrition, NPK and micronutrients: A soil with a well balanced texture has all of the architecture required to facilitate plant nutrition, but it may still be deficient in macro (NPK) or micro ( copper, chlorine, selenium etc) nutrients. Although a home gardener cannot themselves accurately determine what levels of these nutrients are present in their soil, we can conduct an analysis that provides strong inference. As indicated above, a good soil texture is represented by balanced amounts of mineral and organic material. When present, these components provide all of the fundamental requirements for soil organisms to thrive. The relative presence and abundance of soil organisms can tell us much about what is going on within the soil. In the natural sciences we often employ the use of indicator species to provide baseline information. The home gardener can employ this same methodology. Pick a representative spot in your garden on a reasonably warm day (not hot) when it has not rained hard for least two days. Place a tarp or similar material on the ground and dig a hole about 12 inches deep and 12 inches wide, place the soil from the hole on the tarp. Now here is the fun part, get down on your knees and begin to carefully crumble the soil, observing any wiggling and scurrying that goes on.  Within the sample you took (approximately 1 cubic foot) you want to see a dozen or so worms, and evidence of other critters too, these would include sow bugs, springtails, larvae and so on. You don’t need to identify them; you are interested in presence and absence. If you do not detect a soil organism population, you have a problem which could be related to organic matter, soil moisture, or skewed soil nutrients. Heavy application of chemical fertilizers may be the culprit; they always lead to soil ecosystem collapse and should be avoided or used very sparingly.
Soil is just dirt right?  Sorry, although all soils share certain characteristics, they display tremendous diversity. When planning any type of garden, the first step is to determine what soil type you will be working with. The inputs you will need to make are dependent on the soil you have to work with.
What you really need to know can be distilled down to four fundamental considerations, all of which are closely interrelated.
Soil texture: This feature of soil is related to particle size and is directly correlated with soil moisture, aeration, and fertility. Texture is defined on the basis of relative quantities of sand, silt, and clay as each has a distinctive range of particle sizes (0.05-2mm, 0.002-0.05 mm, and < 0.002 mm respectively).
Take a dry, broken up  sample of your soil ( obtained from a depth of approximately 6 inches- plant root zone) and place in a 1 litre mason jar to about 4 inches in depth; fill the rest of the volume with water and agitate and shake vigorously for at least one minute or until clumps are no longer visible. Set the jar down and allow to stand for 24 hours, after which time you can measure the layers that have settled. The bottom layer will be sand, the middle silt, followed by clay and finally organic matter (some of which may be floating on top).  A good loam will be represented by 1 ¾ inches of sand on the bottom (45%), 1 inch of silt (25%), 1 inch of clay (25 %), and approximately ¼ inch (5%) of organic material on the top. Many will be fortunate to observe this structure, however, many will not. If your layering indicates a skewed distribution of particle size you may need to amend your soil accordingly.
Soil pH: If your soil pH is outside the range of 6.0 to 7.0 you are likely to encounter problems in your garden. These could manifest as pest issues, low or failed flower production, poor leaf development, or mortality. Fairly accurate and reasonably inexpensive kits are available for use by home gardeners. Another way to check and obtain a general understanding of your soil is easy to undertake with products already in your kitchen. To determine if you are dealing with alkaline soil, add a ¼ cup of dry soil to ½ cup of white vinegar and stir gently but well. If you notice any fizzing, you have a high pH soil. You can amend this slowly and gently in the spring with a sulphate product or with the addition of ericaceous compost and conifer needles. Similarly, take a ¼ cup of dry soil and add it to a ½ cup of baking soda and ½ cup water, fizzing indicates an acid soil, but not exactly how acid. Remember, a pH of 6-7 is fine for most plants. If you get an acid indication you may want to invest in a kit and determine if your acidity is below 6. Amend an acid soil with the addition of a lime product in the fall.
Soil drainage: Almost everyone is aware of the fact that plants need water but exactly how much and when can be difficult to manage.  Knowledge related to how much water your soil can retain and for how long is essential for a productive garden.  Understanding your soils texture is a good start but nothing beats a hands-on percolation analysis. This is a simple matter involving you, a shovel, water, and time. Look at your garden and determine whether it is uniform or varied, is it all one bed, was part of it created where large cedars once lived, is there a depression etc. You may need to conduct this test in several areas.  Point the business end of your shovel and get digging.  A hole 12 inches deep and as wide as your shovel will suffice. Fill the hole to the top with water and leave it. After it has drained, fill it once more and note the time. Return at frequent intervals to determine whether water is still present. If water is still present after 3 to 4 hours you have poor drainage. Poor drainage not only means water logged plants, it means your soil aeration is also poor; plants don’t just produce oxygen, they consume it through respiration. Soil oxygen also goes a long way towards limiting the bad organisms in your soil.  Poor aeration will cause serious problems and your success will require soil amendment. Alternatively, if your soil drains rapidly it is likely very sandy and will also require amendment. Poorly draining soil will benefit from the addition of sand and organic material to break up the dense clay. Rapidly draining soil will benefit from the addition of clay and organic material to slow the percolation of water.
Soil nutrition, NPK and micronutrients: A soil with a well balanced texture has all of the architecture required to facilitate plant nutrition, but it may still be deficient in macro (NPK) or micro ( copper, chlorine, selenium etc) nutrients. Although a home gardener cannot themselves accurately determine what levels of these nutrients are present in their soil, we can conduct an analysis that provides strong inference. As indicated above, a good soil texture is represented by balanced amounts of mineral and organic material. When present, these components provide all of the fundamental requirements for soil organisms to thrive. The relative presence and abundance of soil organisms can tell us much about what is going on within the soil. In the natural sciences we often employ the use of indicator species to provide baseline information. The home gardener can employ this same methodology. Pick a representative spot in your garden on a reasonably warm day (not hot) when it has not rained hard for least two days. Place a tarp or similar material on the ground and dig a hole about 12 inches deep and 12 inches wide, place the soil from the hole on the tarp. Now here is the fun part, get down on your knees and begin to carefully crumble the soil, observing any wiggling and scurrying that goes on.  Within the sample you took (approximately 1 cubic foot) you want to see a dozen or so worms, and evidence of other critters too, these would include sow bugs, springtails, larvae and so on. You don’t need to identify them; you are interested in presence and absence. If you do not detect a soil organism population, you have a problem which could be related to organic matter, soil moisture, or skewed soil nutrients. Heavy application of chemical fertilizers may be the culprit; they always lead to soil ecosystem collapse and should be avoided or used very sparingly.