Test the garden soil

How well did your plants perform in the garden this year? Over time soil fertility and pH levels can change, leading to changes in plant health and vigor. Now that the growing season is winding down, this is a good time to do a soil test to get a better understanding of your garden’s overall well-being.

Sarah Vogel is an extension horticulture educator at the University of Illinois. She says the test will tell you a lot about your soil. 

"A basic soil test is going to measure your soil pH, the organic matter content as well as macro nutrients like phosphorous, potassium, sulfur. So that would be a basic one. You can also get soil tests that are going to measure micronutrients like boron and copper, things that plants need in very, very small amounts," says Vogel. "And then sometimes we’re in areas where soil contaminants might be an issue."

Vogel doesn’t recommend using home soil test kits because the results are widely variable. It’s best to send your soil samples to a certified testing lab. Your local extension office can help you find one. Unless there is a specific issue being worked on, she recommends testing your soil every 3-5 years. Understanding soil nutrient concentrations before applying fertilizer is important.

"The soil’s natural fertility, depending on what’s being grown in it, plants can often perform for some time, you know, for years without needing fertilizer. And though we turn to fertilizer to help with plants’ vigor and vitality, it’s really important for gardeners to first establish that need and a purpose for fertilizer," she says. "If fertilizer isn’t necessary, we don’t want to waste product, or time, or money applying it."