This article appeared in the November-December 2001 issue of Horticulture Update,
edited by Dr. William C. Welch, and produced by Extension Horticulture,
Texas Cooperative Extension, The Texas A&M University System, College Station, Texas.

It's A Great Time To Have Your Soil Tested

By Dr. Samuel D. Cotner
Professor, Department of Horticulture

If your garden performed below expectations last year, or maybe things just didn't 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. You can't 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. One sure way to overcome the mystery, and avoid confusion when it comes time to purchase fertilizers, is to have your garden soil tested.

Why is it important to know how much phosphorus or nitrogen is in the soil, or what the pH of the soil is? The answer is simple. Vegetables don't do well in improperly fertilized soil, whether it be too fertile or not fertile enough.

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 fertilize your garden soil, and insure a bountiful harvest.

To take a soil sample, make a hole about a foot deep in the garden with a spade or sharpshooter. Throw out the first spade-full 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, with fairly even width and thickness. Then place the soil slice in a bucket or tub. Repeat this procedure 4 to 6 times in different spots in the garden, depending primarily on the size of the garden. Thoroughly mix the composite of the soil, and mail it to the Soils Testing Laboratory here at Texas A&M University. Soil testing is a service provided by the University; soil test kits, with instructions, can also be obtained from your local county Extension agent.

If a soil sample is taken in late winter or very early spring, you should expect to get your results back within 2 to 3 weeks. If you wait until spring, then it may take considerably longer to get your results back. An adequate soil test, properly done and properly interpreted, will go a long way toward insuring a bountiful harvest from this spring's garden.