In real estate, it’s all about three things: location, location, location. In the plant-growth field, it’s all about soil sampling, soil sampling, soil sampling!

Soil samples with trowel

A plastic bucket and garden trowel are the basic tools you need to collect soil samples.

Photo Credit: Daniel Overcash

Soil sample probe

Flags and a soil probe are optional, but beneficial, tools for collecting soil samples.

Photo Credit: Daniel Overcash

No one in their right mind would leave on a long road trip without looking at a map, so why would we plant and fertilize our gardens without taking a look at what’s already available in the soil? How do you know if there’s enough phosphorus in the soil? What if there’s a lack of nitrogen? These questions (and many more) can be answered with a quick and easy soil test, which will provide that map to maximizing season-long plant growth.

Collecting a soil sample is easy. Most homeowners can get a good sample by using a standard garden trowel. I like to use a soil probe. This special tool goes 8 inches deep and takes ½-inch-diameter soil cores. It makes collecting samples fast and easy. (If you commit to soil sampling, it’s a worthwhile investment.)

Since most fertilizing is done in the spring, there may be a backlog of soil samples at the lab around that time. To avoid getting your sample caught up in a line, try to send it in a little earlier than when you actually need the results. (Collecting samples in late fall will also provide adequate time for analysis and still provide accurate results.) To collect the sample with a trowel, dig a small hole 2 inches across and 6 inches deep. As you dig, place the soil you remove into a plastic bucket or cardboard box (don’t include vegetation such as grass). Keep in mind that the results of a soil test are only as good as the sample submitted. If you only dig one hole, the results will only represent that small area, not your entire yard or garden. (I like to take samples from at least a dozen evenly spaced random spots across the growing area.) After collecting 12 samples, mix the soil together in the bucket or box to get a true reflection of the soil in your area.

When collecting soil samples, stay away from unusual areas that would contaminate the true nutrient in the sample. (Remember, bad input will result in inaccurate recommendations.) For example, in summer, when almost all my yard is yellow from the heat and lack of rain, I have three long bright green strips about 3 feet wide and 100 feet long above my septic lines. If I would take a soil sample from that area, it would change the results of my soil test. Another unique area that would throw off an accurate reading would be a place where you burn a leaf pile in the fall. This area will be higher in nutrients and will skew the results of your soil test.

Now that you’ve collected the soil, you need to submit it to the soil lab. Your state Department of Agriculture or county Cooperative Extension Service is usually responsible for testing soil. Often, this is a free service; however, some states do charge a minimal fee to cover cost. (Either way, it’s a great deal compared with commercial testing facilities.) Check your state’s Department of Agriculture Website or contact your local cooperative extension agent for any submission requirements. Soil labs may require special boxes for submitting soil samples, along with a form to determine what crops to provide recommendations for. (These boxes, forms and shipping instructions are generally available at your county Cooperative Extension Service.)

Taking a soil sample of your yard is an easy and excellent way to help get you started on the right gardening foot (or green thumb). Knowing what nutrients you need to add to your soil before planting is the first big step to helping your garden thrive.