Fall is one of the best times to get your soil sampled. Gardening tasks this time of year tend to be less burdensome, and with cooler weather, roaming about the yard or garden collecting dirt is much more enjoyable than in the heat of the summer. Many people take soil samples from their landscape and send them to the lab, but some people stop there. It is not enough to just take the samples; that is only the first step. When the email comes that your soil sample report is ready, take some time to sit down and really read what it says, even if you are not quite sure what it means. The sampling data is only as good as the actions you take.
We said that fall is one of the best times to test your soil, but it is not just about the cooler weather and fewer garden tasks. Testing in fall gives you, the gardener, enough time to make changes for the next growing season. From raising the pH to increasing organic matter, by testing and making changes in fall and early winter, you are setting the stage for a great spring and summer season. As an Extension Agent, the first number I look at for every soil report is the pH reading. If the soil is too acidic (low) or too basic (high), it can significantly hinder the uptake of nutrients.
The second section I look at shows the nutrient levels. Homeowners will have ranges of nutrient levels from low to excessive. Anything in the sufficient range is ideal, but medium or high is not terrible for most nutrients. Following the nutrient bar graphs, you will have a recommendation section where lime and/or fertilizer recommendations are given as well as important comments that pertain to those recommendations. It is extremely important that you read those comments. There are many other readings on the soil sample test report that provide a wealth of information about your soil, but for someone who might be intimidated or overwhelmed by the graphs and numbers, start with the basics, pH, nutrient levels, recommendations, and comments. For more help, call the HGIC or your local county Extension office.
For more information on soil testing and understanding your test results, see HGIC 1652, Soil Testing, HGIC 1658, How to Complete a Soil Form for Sample Submission to the Agricultural Service Laboratory, and HGIC Video How to Take a Soil Sample.