Adding beauty and joy to any homestead begins with understanding the soil surrounding your home and outbuildings.
Whether you’re raising flowers, fruits or vegetables or adding shrubbery or trees, the soil serves as the foundation and food source for healthy plants.
Soil tests are a good investment for any homestead. It’s exciting and fun to learn about soil textures and fertility. Once you know what your soil may be lacking, or if you have an abundance of any nutrients, you can make good choices for beautifying your home!
We recently asked Julie Weisenhorn, University of Minnesota Extension educator in Horticulture, about soil testing for the yard and garden. Here’s what we learned:
Q: Is it too late to soil test your yard or garden for 2020, and with the frost in the ground, how deep do you need to take your sample for accuracy?
A: Well, it’s not too late. In fact, people should be thinking about doing this soon as the soil is thawing out. You only need to dig down about 6 inches or so.
One of the things about the Soil Testing Lab at the University of Minnesota, is they have a very good website. They have a form for home gardeners for testing soil in lawns and garden spaces. It has excellent instructions on how to take the sample so you can follow that guide and get a good quality sample to submit.
Q: Do you need a soil sample bag?
A: You can simply use a plastic bag with a zipper.
Q: If you happen to live in another state, what are the resources available for getting your soil tested?
A: Most state universities provide soil testing services through Extension. I’d start there. You can also search online for soil testing locations. There are a number of commercial soil labs.
Q: How do you collect an accurate soil sample?
A: Let’s say you’re going to convert a lawn in your backyard to a garden space. You take several samples from all across the space that’s going to be converted, mix it in a 5-gallon bucket, then you take a cup of that for your submitted sample.
Q: How about if you want to know more about the soil all around your home? Would you combine scoops of soil from the north, south, east and west sides into a bucket and then take out a cup for a soil test sample?
A: Much of our soil is disturbed due to construction, roads, traffic, etc., so a homestead can have different types of soil on the same property. A sample should be collected and submitted for each area being planted. What you’re planning to plant – a lawn, fruit trees, vegetable garden, and flowers – is requested on the soil test form, so the lab can provide specific fertilizer recommendations.
Q: Once you have the results back, what’s the best way to add nutrients – if you are short of any nutrients?
A: It’s ideal to add nutrients before you start planting.
So if you’re going to be planting a new vegetable garden, get your soil test results and then add the recommended nutrients before planting.
If you’re amending the soil in an existing planting bed with compost, manure, etc., you can turn the amendments into the soil around the roots, trying to disturb them as little as possible.
Q: Any other recommendations on fertilizing?
A: If you need to fertilize trees and shrubs or perennials, you could pound in fertilizer spikes for trees into the soil or turn a slow-release fertilizer into the top few inches of soil around perennials. As it rains or as you water, the fertilizer will be released slowly into the root zone.
A good resource for plant care including fertilizing is the University of Minnesota Extension Yard and Garden website: www.extension.umn.edu/yard-and-garden.
Q: Excellent points. It’s sometimes easy to overlook the soil on the homestead.
A: Soil is the foundation of any garden or lawn. It’s important that a homeowner understand the types of soil they are working with on their property.
Q: Anything else you want to let us know about?
A: I’ve been recommending leaving leaf mulch on the soil and allowing it to break down over the summer. That will add carbon to the soil, and we have a lot of carbon-poor soils in Minnesota. Leaf mulch also provides good habitat for overwintering insect pollinators.
Q: Thanks for the great information! Where can readers learn more about soil testing?
A: Contact your local Extension office or visit soiltest.cfans.umn.edu. Information about commercial soil testing companies can also be found online.