Soil testing is the key to having the best garden possible
When Ashley Hyer was planning her garden about 10 years ago, something was missing from her to-do list. Hyer, whose West Ashley garden would easily win prizes in any neighborhood, omitted a step.
“I did not have a soil test done, but I should have,” says Hyer. “Some things that died might have lived if I’d had one.”
Despite the fact that the garden, which includes a variety of healthy plants, is maturing well, there always is room for improvement, Hyer says. She’s promised herself that before next year’s planting, her soil will be tested.
Those not as fortunate as Hyer frequently call the Master Gardeners at the Clemson Extension Service in Charleston about plants that just aren’t behaving as anticipated, says Jenion Tyson, a tri-county Master Gardener. Most of them have not begun by having the soil tested, he says.
A soil test would determine whether it was ready to support the planting they intended to do, Tyson says. The extension office also can recommend ways to improve the soil for plants a gardener wants to grow.
“I really think people don’t think about it,” Tyson says. “I think people just think, ‘It’s just dirt. If it does not work, I’ll fertilize it.’ ”
Unfortunately, when gardeners have a problem, they sometimes fertilize too much.
“One guy said the flowers on his tomato plants were dropping off before they grew tomatoes,” Tyson says. “They were nearly 6 feet tall, and he had hardly gotten any tomatoes.”
Most local gardeners have one undesirable combination of sand and clay soils or another, he says. They either have too much clay, which holds too much water, or they have too much sand, which drains too much.
There are remedies.
“You are not going to change the soil, but you can add organic matter to improve it,” says Roger Francis, senior Clemson Extension agent. “Composting with both green matter and manure will help. You can do that for any type of garden, ornamental or vegetable. As long as you keep adding organic matter, the soil will improve.”
But, Francis says, it would be difficult to add organic material to an entire yard. In that case, a gardener probably would need to use regular fertilizer, such as 10-10-10 (the numbers denote percentage of nitrogen, phosphate and potash). But before adding fertilizer, do a soil test.
Tyson says more people are becoming wise to the benefits of soil testing. Those who don’t test, he says, often waste a lot of money trying to grow their gardens.
Those who have skipped soil testing and are having problems need one to find out what they are fighting, Tyson says. Those who feel like they just can’t wait to do something about their situation can add compost without causing a problem.
While home kits are available for around $10, Tyson says that Clemson’s test is more thorough and costs $6.
Clemson tests for pH, phosphorous, potassium, calcium, magnesium, zinc and manganese. Most home kits test only for pH, nitrogen, phorphorus and potassium.
To have soil tested by Clemson: Take six soil samples in the proposed growing area, at a depth of 2 inches. Collect at least 2 cups of soil. Then, mix it up and put it in a plastic bag. Take the bag and information on what you want to grow in the soil to the extension office at 259 Meeting St.