Soil Testing: a Surprise Pop-Quiz for the Garden

March 11, 2010

Today’s article focusing on soil testing is a guest post written by Annie Spiegelman aka the Dirt Diva, author of “TALKING DIRT: The Dirt Diva’s Down-to-Earth Guide to Organic Gardening.”

“I’m really mystified by homeowners who will plop down $30,000 dollars to a landscape designer who will come up with a plant palette without ever thinking to take a spoonful of soil to test first. One of the criteria for selecting a landscape architect is to give them a soil quiz!”

Soil-Scientist-Stephen-Andr“Ask them what kind of soil test they’ll be providing. Be an informed consumer,” says Professor Stephen Andrews, soil scientist at UC Berkeley. Early spring is an excellent time to do your own backyard soil test and Professor Andrews, a.k.a. The Dirt Dude, and I, will show you how.

Dirty Little Questions to Ask About Your Soil

Here are some preliminary questions to ask yourself (and anyone else remotely interested) about your soil:

1.    Is the soil worked easily?
2.    Is the soil full of living organisms?
3.    Are earthworms abundant in the soil?
4.    Is water and air available for plant growth?
5.    Does my garden make ME look good?

After you’re done hating your compacted soil and admiring yourself in front of the mirror in your new garden hat, it’s time to get scientific. Why? Because us compost-spinning-tree-huggers believe all home gardeners who are cultivating a small or huge plot of land, have been handed a gift from Mother Nature and can easily become superb stewards of that land.

What’s it Going to Cost for a Garden Soil Test?

“If you’re going to do any type of landscaping project, make sure to test your soil first to understand what kind of a baseline you have. There are a few different routes,” says Andrews.

“If you’re changing a large backyard area, doing drainage work or you’ve just purchased a new home, go get a ‘commercial’ soil test done. It may cost you a few hundred dollars but you’ll have a thorough analysis and interpretation of your land. The soil scientists at the testing company will give you specific advice on how to proceed.”

For the rest of us, who don’t have the green to spend right now, on the brown, it’s perfectly fine to take the mom and pop route. Head on down to your local plant nursery to purchase a home garden test kit. A good soil test will run about $20.00.

Taking the Do-It-Yourself Soil Test Route

“I like Mosser Lee’s “Soil Master” kit because of the educational information included. It’s also a simple test. It’s color-coated and it’s idiot-proof, I promise. Do it with the kids or grandkids,” recommends Andrews.

“Or, get the entire neighborhood and have a soil testing Bar-b-que! One test kit will have enough tubes to do 10 soil tests. You may be the diva who does everything organic, but next door you’re living next to Charlie Chevron who uses every petrochemical on the planet! Get together and literally talk dirt.”

Now that you’ve seen the importance of testing your garden’s soil, tomorrow the “Dirt Diva” will return to share the things you’ll want to know in order to get the most benefit by analyzing your soil test.

Annie Spiegelman is a California Master Gardener and the garden columnist for the Bay Area’s Pacific Sun Talking-Dirt-Book-Covernewspaper, where she writes the “Dirt Diva” organic gardening column. She is also a frequent contributor to Organic Style Magazine, New York Spirit, the Marin Independent Journal, Creative Home,, and

She’s passionate about sustainable gardening and can often be heard lawn-bashing or talking dirt about the excessive use of chemical pesticides. Visit her website at (where critics will be composted).

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