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Testing soil Ph. Photo: <a href="">London Permaculture</a>, CC <a href="">some rights reserved</a>
Testing soil Ph. Photo: London Permaculture, CC some rights reserved

Taking stock of garden soil

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You've planned, planted, watered and weeded. Now, with frost and freeze warnings this past weekend, it's about time to tuck the garden in for the winter. Tidying away the spent tomatoes and bean plants, prepping to plant garlic, whatever your fall list includes, Cornell Cooperative Extension horticulturist Amy Ivy has another important entry. She tells Martha Foley about why soil should be tested every few years, and how to do it.

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Martha Foley
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Amy Ivy said, “Fall is the traditional time to test soil so that then, if you do need to make any changes, especially to the PH, it has time to work over the winter, so that when the plants, you know, are planted in the spring, it’ll be as adjusted as possible.

“PH is the acidity of the soil so that is only one reading. A lot of people get confused about what the different things are. PH is handy to check and it makes sense for us to check up in Northern New York because a lot of our soils tend to be low in PH. But before you go adding lime or wood ashes, you really want to know what your reading is so you know how much to add.

“When the PH is in the right range, the microorganisms that are so beneficial are working at their best capacity. So it’s a tune up kind of thing. It won’t make-or-break, it won’t kill your garden or kill your plants to have it too far out of whack, it’s a way to make things run even better. But it’s not a nutrient; it’s the acidity.”

In regards to the nutrients, what should we test for?

Ivy said, “You can have just the straight PH test done, or you can have the package done. And all of the extension offices do PH tests right in the office. If you want the package done, then it goes to a lab in Ithaca. And being a package, you get the whole range of tests in the package. And that will test primarily what gardeners are looking for: phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium. And then a few other things, too--Iron and aluminum and they throw some other things in there, as well. But it’s those first four that are the critical ones for performance.

“There is one more number, too. It’s the percent organic matter, which is a really interesting one to keep track of in your own garden.   And there’s one additional test you have to pay extra for but it’s soluble salt. So people who are worried about road salt getting into their yard or garden, or if they use a lot of manure—manure does tend to have salt in it. So that’s an option, as well.

“So what the numbers tell you--it helps you know if you need to add additional nutrients each year. And the vast majority of home gardens that get tested—if someone’s been adding nutrients every year in a home garden setting, chances are really good you’ve been adding too much.”

The best method to use when trying to figure out how to test and treat your garden is to consult with a Cooperative Extension Service (home tests can be vague and confusing). And afterwards, your garden will be ready for winter.

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