What’s Up With Your Soil?

San Antonio Express News
November 14, 2004

By Lynn Rawe

Mary, Mary, quite contrary…how does your garden grow? Since childhood, gardeners are reminded of how plants SHOULD grow. Good soil is the secret to superior plants!

If your garden performed below expectations last year, or if plants just did not grow quite right, a few dollars invested in a soil test may be just the solution. A properly prepared and fertilized garden soil is the real key to successful gardening in most areas of Texas. Do you have good soil? It is impossible to look at the soil, taste it, smell it, or feel it to tell whether your soil is low in nitrogen, high in phosphates, or maybe just right. However, when it comes time to purchase fertilizers and soil amendments, there is one sure way to overcome the mystery and avoid confusion. Have your garden soil tested.

Why is it important to know how much nitrogen or phosphorus is in the soil, or what the pH of the soil is? The answer is simple. Plants, especially vegetables, do not thrive in improperly fertilized soil, whether it is too fertile or not fertile enough. If you have noticed leaf or blossom color to be faded, misshaped, or smaller in size, the problem is most likely a lack of soil nutrients. Remember that the foundation for any successful garden and/or landscape is going to be the condition of soil.

The soil test report will tell you the level of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, and magnesium available to your garden plants. It will also indicate the pH (acidity or alkalinity) of your garden soil. For the most part, this is all you need to know to properly prepare and fertilize your garden soil, to insure a bountiful harvest. If your soil is deficient in micronutrients, it will show itself in the plant’s overall appearance.

To take a soil sample, make a hole about a foot deep in the flower garden, vegetable garden or lawn with a spade or sharpshooter. Throw out the first spadeful of soil. Then, from the back of the hole, cut a slice of the soil 1/2 inch to 1 inch thick. Be sure the slice is at least 6 to 7 inches in depth (at root level); with fairly even width and thickness. Place the soil slice in a bucket or tub. Repeat this procedure 4 to 6 times in different areas in your yard or garden, depending primarily on the overall size of the plot. Thoroughly mix the composite of the soil samples you have collected, let it air dry on newspaper, and mail the sample to the Soil, Water and Forage Testing Laboratory at Texas A&M University, 2474 TAMU, College Station, TX 77843-2474.

Costs range from $10 for a basic routine analysis per sample, to $30 per sample. The price varies with the degree of detail you desire. You can request the Routine Analysis (R); R plus Micronutrients; R plus Micro and Boron; R plus Detailed Salinity; R plus Micro and Salinity; R plus Micro and Detailed Lime Requirement; R plus Micro, B, Lime, Organic Matter, and Sal; R plus Texture Analysis; and finally R plus Organic Matter. Your local County Extension Agent has “Soil Test” kits with instructions, price list and an envelope for containing your soil sample. Call the Extension office at 210/ 467-6575 to request a “Soil Test” kit.
If you take a soil sample in late winter or very early spring, you should expect to get your results back within 2 to 3 weeks. Should you procrastinate until spring, the waiting time will be considerably longer, as spring gardening fever brings a deluge of requests to the laboratory from all over the state. An accurate soil test, properly collected and interpreted, will go a long way toward insuring a bountiful harvest from next spring’s garden as well as provide you with a more attractive landscape.

This article was written by Lynn Rawe, County Extension Agent-Horticulture, with Texas Cooperative Extension in Bexar County.


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