The Berkshires Blog

Let’s Talk Dirt

April 2014

By Brian Cruey

A great garden starts with inspiration and good soil. So start your prep work by visiting some gardens in the Berkshires such as the Berkshire Botanical Garden and the Trustees of the Reservation properties: Naumkeag, Mission House and Ashintully. Other locales that are bound to inspire are the Mount-Edith Wharton’s Home, Chesterwood and Hancock Shaker Village.

Once you have that taken care of its time to talk dirt! At the Berkshire Botanical Garden they get a lot of questions about plant health and almost without fail, the first thing we ask when trying to pinpoint problems is, “Have you had your soil tested?”  Whether you are putting in a new flower bed, trying to improve an existing garden, or just trying to get a greener lawn, the first place you should start is where it all begins: the soil.

Your soil has a lot going on down there.  It’s a combination of sand, silt (rock), clay particles, organic matter (poop and dead stuff), air and water.  The decaying organic matter is food for all of the creatures that live in healthy soil; earthworms, insects, beneficial nematodes, bacteria and other microorganisms.  If you took just one quarter of a teaspoon of soil you would find about a BILLION microorganisms.  All of those elements and creatures create a balance that is critical to your plant growth.

One of the most important conditions that affects the quality of plant growth is ph – the measure of soil acidity or alkalinity.  The soil ph impacts the release of minerals in to the soil.  When the ph is incorrect for the plant growing there, then the minerals needed for plant growth are not released to the plant even if all of the nutrients are present.  It’s like having a safety deposit box at the bank filled with gold but no key to open it.  We measure ph on a scale from 1-14 where 7 is neutral.  Below 7 and your soil is acidic, above 7 and your soil is alkaline.

When should I have my soil tested – If you can, test your soil BEFORE you put in that new flower bed or fence row of trees.  Most soils will probably need amending and that can take a lot of time if you are relying on those nutrients to move through the soil from the top down.  If you can mix in those amendments to the top 6-8 inches of the soil before planting, you can speed up the process. 

Its best to have your soil tested every 2-3 years.  Sample more frequently if you are monitoring you fertility levels or growing crops or plants that are known to use a lot of resources.

How to take a soil sample :

1. First, determine the area where you want to plant. Find a small spot in that area and remove any turf, debris, mulch, residue, etc. that may be covering the soil.
2. Take your trowel and make a cone-shaped hole that is 6-8 inches deep.
3. Now, remove a thin layer from the side of the hole with your trowel, a “slice” of soil if you will, and put it in a container.
4. Repeat this step 10 times. That’s right, 10 times and no cheating! It is important to get a good sampling of soil throughout your planting site for an accurate reading. For larger areas you may even want to do more.
5. Once you have all of your slices,” go ahead and mix them up really well, breaking up large clumps.
6. Now spread the mixture out on a paper towel and let that air dry overnight.
7. Once dry, take a ½ cup of the soil and put it in a plastic bag. Label the bag with your name, contact info, site location and what you intend on growing at the site.

Congratulations! You have got yourself one good soil sample that is ready for testing.

Where to get your soil sample tested:

There are lots of different places you can have your soil sampled. Most places charge just a small fee and can do sampling rather quickly.

• The Master Gardeners perform soil testing for ph levels here at the Berkshire Botanical Garden, every Monday from 9-12 for just $1. Bring a sample with your name, #, and what you wish to grow at the site.
• In Massachusetts mail your soil sample to UMASS for a complete soil analysis. Visit http://soiltest.umass.edu/.
• In Connecticut visit the UCONN website at: http://www.soiltest.uconn.edu/.
• In New York visit the Cornell website: http://cnal.cals.cornell.edu/
• You may also want to contact your local municipality to see if they provide soil testing. Often times, towns or counties will have free testing for residents or will do it locally.
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Brian Cruey is the Communications Director for Berkshire Botanical Garden.  An avid gardener, writer and pontoon boat enthusiast, he proudly resides in Otis, MA with his partner, dogs and chickens.