dirt

Don't Guess, Soil Test

So, you’re tomato vines are 10 foot tall, but aren’t producing tomatoes. Or, you’re blueberries just keep croaking. Perhaps, leaf margins on your favorite ornamental tree are pale yellow, while the veins are dark green. In the world of Ag, we have a saying, “Don’t Guess, Soil Test.”

When people ask me what’s wrong with their plant, my typical response is, “have you had your soil tested?” The answer is “no” nine out of ten times. While I will be glad to take a look even without a soil test, I highly encourage every agriculturist or plant struggling landowner to get their soil tested.

After doing the urban ag thing for a decade now, I’ve learned that many nutrient deficiency issues are actually pH issues. In Cleveland, every soil test that I’ve ever seen has reported a soil with a pH in the alkaline range of 7.2-8.1. At these pH’s, some nutrients aren’t available to some plants. In general, ag plants like a pH in the slightly acidic range of 6.2-6.8 (that being said, there are always exceptions to generalizations with blueberries and asparagus coming to mind specifically).

So, you may be wondering, “who/how/where do I get one of these soil test thingees?” Soil testing is a straight forward process. In a nutshell, you the landowner or agriculturist take several samples from the area that you are working on or have questions about. From there, you dry the soil and sort out rocks and plant debris. Finally, you send a cup’s worth of material to a soil testing lab via a mail carrier.

In Cleveland, farmers have consistently said they use one of three soil labs for their testing needs. For the sake of record, this is not an endorsement; rather, this is feedback from people who get their soils tested regularly. The first two labs are connected to universities. They are the University of Massachusetts and Pennsylvania State College of Agricultural Sciences. The third is a private company out of Ohio, Logan Labs. Prices range from $15-$50, as do turnaround times from several days to several weeks. When it comes to picking a company, seasoned soil testers say pick a company and stick with them.

All of these labs will provide a basic report with nutrients, micronutrients, and pH. University of Massachusetts has become popular because they include lead in their report. That being said for a nominal fee, Pennsylvania State and Logan Labs can both test for lead. Additional services that these labs provide (again for additional fees) can be for a whole spectrum of heavy metals and organic matter. In my opinion, the organic matter tests are only important if you’re tracking changes to organic matter over time. Otherwise, the general rule is you always want more organic matter.

Below are the links to the labs themselves:

https://ag.umass.edu/services/soil-plant-nutrient-testing-laboratory

https://agsci.psu.edu/aasl/soil-testing

https://www.loganlabs.com/

One of the services that we (specifically me) provide at Cuyahoga Soil & Water Conservation District is soil test interpretations and recommendations. So once you get a report back, feel free to send it to me at jhusher@cuyahogaswcd.org.

Blog Author: Justin Husher, Horticulture Specialist

Leave a comment