For any meal to make it to amazing status, it needs amazing ingredients. Amazing ingredients start with pretty great soil. So how do you know what kind of soil you're dealing with? That was just the question I set out to answer. We had a bit of land that was overgrown and entirely forgotten. Rumor had it that at some point it was used as a garden. Staring at the growth, the gravel, the mess—we were skeptical. However, I've wanted a full on garden for years and years, so I wasn't about to be stopped. We mowed everything down and hand tilled the space. Hand tilled it, actually, about 4 different times. Slowly but surely, the soil has turned into something rich and beautiful. What I still wanted to know was, what exactly were we dealing with?
As I've mentioned before, I'm pretty frugal. The idea of going out to buy all kinds gadgets for the purpose of testing the soil seemed nuts to me. For hundreds of years people have relied on instincts and sense to know what they're dealing with. I really didn't want to forgo gaining that knowledge for a kit at Lowe's. During my research I read that some people can taste the soil and know what's up. And while that's super impressive, I'm just not there yet. So I settled for a bit of chemistry and using up some pantry goods.
There are a few things to know before you get started, and I learned this through trial and error. I'll help you out a bit and give you the down and dirty (literally) details. First of all, your soil sample needs to be diverse. Don't grab from the top of your bed. Dig down a bit, grab samples from both ends and the middle of your garden bed. You want to test the quality as a whole, not in parts. Now, again, this isn't 100% perfect, but this test does give you a pretty general idea of what you've got. If you're all about perfect science and data driven results, you may want to head to Lowe's. If you're frugal and a bit organic-around-the-edges like myself, then hang in there, because it's about to get super cool.
Now that you've gathered your soil sample, it's time to setup the laboratory. So, using a pint sized mason jar, fill up half the jar with soil. Then, pour your white vinegar into the jar and let it sit. You're looking for a bubbling, foaming response. If it bubbles or foams even slightly (and it generally increases in intensity as time goes on), you're soil is alkaline. Alkaline means your PH is high, anywhere above 7. Most plants want a PH range of 5.5–7, so anything over could mean nutrient challenges await your plants. However, many plants can adapt and deal. The first time I tested my soil (after the first till), it was extremely bubbly and foaming over the edge. We kept working the soil, watering the soil, and turning the soil. The next time I tested, I barely got a foam reaction. Our garden area had quite a bit of gravel mixed into it from the years of abandonment, so potentially my first sample could have had more gravel than the second. Alkaline soil can be treated by adding organic sulfur, peat moss, or pine needles.
So what if you get no reaction? Then you'll need to go to the second phase of the testing, checking the acidity. Using a clean mason jar, gather a new soil sample. Add 1 cup of your soil sample to the mason jar. Then add 1 cup of water and 1 cup of baking soda. Again, you're looking for bubbling and fizzing. If your soil reacts this time, it means you've got acidic soil. Treatment options would include adding wood ash or lime.
No treatment option is going to result in a quick fix. In our case, of having a slightly alkaline soil, I've opted to take my chances and see how the plants handle the soil this year. Nature has a pretty beautiful way of handling things, and nothing in nature is ever without challenge. Obviously, I don't want to waste my time and effort to start seeds, nurture seedlings, plant, and protect, all for it to go to the garbage because of my soil. Again, our soil tested ever so slightly, so I feel confident in opting for no treatment. If the soil had continued to test with raging bubbles and foam, I would have at least started to treat the soil.
My point is this, use your test results as a base of knowledge. You'll know a little more about your soil than what you knew before testing it. Take that knowledge and adapt. If adaption for you means amending the soil, then do so, but know it happens gradually overtime. Another option is to grow plants that love the soil you have. Acidic? Go for blueberries, potatoes, beans, squash, or peppers. There are many other plants that prefer an acidic soil. Alkaline? Try cabbage, broccoli, beets, lettuce, and many others as well. Organic gardens grow best with an organic mindset. Happy planting, folks!
DIY Soil Testing Without a Kit
- Mason jar (or two if both tests are required)
- Baking Soda
- White Vinegar
- Gather 1 cup of soil sample from various points in your garden
- Add 1 cup of white vinegar
- Note response:
- Bubbles/foams: Your soil is alkaline
- No response? Move to next test.
- Gather another cup of soil from various points in your garden
- Add 1 cup of water and 1 cup of baking soda
- Note response:
- Bubbles/Foams: Your soil is acidic
- No response? You have a neutral PH and should count your lucky stars.