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Not All Soil is the Same
All lawn soils pose their own unique challenges, so the first step to a healthy lawn routine is understanding what your lawn soil is made of. A soil test will also indicate your soil’s current pH, macronutrients, and micronutrients that naturally exist in your lawn. Having this unique baseline data will tell you what to add to achieve the correct pH and nutrient levels with strategies like soil amendments, as well as help you choose the proper fertilizer.
pH is the amount of amount of acidity or alkalinity in your soil on a scale from 0-14 (0 being the most acidic, 14 being the most alkaline). The pH closely affects the availability of some of the macro and micronutrients and plant growth. An unbalanced pH can play a part in pests, such as weeds, gaining a foothold.
Macronutrients are nutrients that plants need in greater quantities, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Macronutrients have the most impact on turf health and vigor.
Micronutrients are just as important to plant health. They are just needed in smaller quantities, like iron and zinc.
Sending Your Soil for Testing
The best way to test your soil is to send a sample to a Cooperative Extension Service (CSREES) (usually located at or affiliated with a state university) or commercial soil laboratory (search online for commercial soil-testing labs).
Kits from soil labs provide instructions for collecting soil samples and a mailing container for returning the soil. The best time to test soil is in the spring, before you add any compost or other amendments, although you can test soil any time.
How to Collect a Soil Sample
- Use a clean, rust-free trowel to take samples from up to 10 areas of your lawn.
- Dig several holes in the lawn 6 to 8-inches deep.
- Take a slice of soil from one side of each hole, save 1 to 2-inches from the middle of the slice, and discard the sides, top, and bottom.
- Mix the samples, allow them to dry at room temperature, enclose a small fee, and send it all to the lab.
If your lawn has areas that range over various types of terrain (i.e., near water, rocky ledge, or imported topsoil), you should request a separate sampling kit for each area. Otherwise, the lab may recommend doses of fertilizer or soil amendments suitable for one area but not for another.
Test results will tell you what you need to add to your soil. If you have an acceptable lawn but are looking to improve it, you may spread the recommended materials over the lawn surface. If your lawn requires restoration, you should aerate the turf with a core cultivator after you have applied the amendments to the surface.
Do-It-Yourself Soil Test Kits
The costs for multiple lab tests, even at nominal lab fees, will add up quickly. If you need to make more than four or five tests on your property, you will probably want to buy your own soil test kit. Kits are available at most garden-supply or hardware stores and range from about $7 for a pH tester capable of doing 10 separate tests to about $20 for a kit that also lets you test basic nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potash). There are also more expensive kits also available; however, no kit is a substitute for professional soil testing. A kit will not tell you how much soil amendment to add to achieve desired pH or nutrient levels.
A kit is a great way to test several areas quickly to give you a general idea of your soil’s deficiencies. Once you have professional soil test results, a kit allows you to monitor the progress of the soil improvements you make.
Test Your Own Soil
- To test your soil, add the appropriate solution from the kit to a measured amount of the soil sample per the manufacturer’s instructions.
- Shake the solution well and allow the particles to settle.
- Match the color of the resulting solution with the color chart provided with the kit to determine pH or nutrient levels. The chart here suggests a pH of slightly more than 5 indicates acidic soil and the need for an application of lime.
Sample Test Report
Lab test reports can be confusing. Do not hesitate to call the source for help. The report will include maintenance recommendations, pH and nutrient readings, and indicates the amount of fertilizer to apply.