Garden Soil Testing Using Soil Testing Kits or a Soil Testing Lab – or Both

Need to test your garden soil?

There are two garden soil testing methods: Using a soil testing lab, or using soil testing kits.

Both soil testing methods can yield reliable results.

Unfortunately, both soil testing methods can also yield unreliable results.

In spite of the potential drawbacks, learning how to test your soil isn’t difficult or terribly expensive. And the information you gain from your soil tests can be quite valuable.  

Garden Soil Testing is Important…

Why do you have to test your soil? Well, you don’t absolutely have to, of course.

But it’s really a good idea.

Developing a familiarity with your soil, and knowing your garden soil pH and the nutrient levels of your soil can help you to prevent or avoid problems before they occur.

It will increase your chances of success no matter what you plan to grow in your garden.

Let's consider a specific example...

Let's Imagine That You'd Like to Grow Blueberries

Just as an example, let's imagine that you’re interested in growing blueberries in your garden. (As you may well be!)

Blueberries require a very low soil pH. If your soil does not have a pH that’s in the comfort range for blueberries, your blueberry growing efforts are doomed to fail.

Your blueberry plants might cling to life for a couple of years, but they won’t be productive. In the end, all the money and effort you invest in your blueberry plants will be wasted.

And your dreams of picking buckets of plump, delicious and nutritious blueberries right from your own garden will have been dashed. 

On the other hand, if you’ve tested your soil, and know the pH, you can modify your soil’s pH to a blueberry-friendly level. Alternatively, you might decide not to grow blueberries after all, feeling that your soil is just too far off from what the plants need.

Either way, you'll have saved yourself some heartache and lots of wasted effort by testing your soil first.

But if you don’t even know your soil’s pH, you may be doomed to fail from the very beginning.   

Garden Soil Testing Using a Soil Testing Lab

Arguably the most accurate method of garden soil testing is to use a soil testing lab. Your extension service can recommend a soil testing lab in your area.

Or you can use a commercial soil test lab such as the Texas Plant and Soil Lab.

You’ll simply follow the soil lab’s instructions for taking and mailing your soil samples, and then usually within a couple of weeks you’ll get back your results.

One of the great advantages of using a soil test lab is that most of them will give you recommendations for modifying your soil according to what you wish to grow. So you won’t be left with just a print-out of raw data that has you scratching your head wondering what to do.

When using a lab, though, be very careful to accurately follow their instructions for gathering and handling your soil samples; failure to do so could result in badly skewed results.  

Garden Soil Testing Using a Soil Test Kit

Contents of the Luster Leaf soil test kit

There are also a number of soil test kits on the market that you can use to test your soil yourself.

One example is the Luster Leaf Rapitest Soil Test Kit (link opens to Amazon.com).

Kits of this type provide measurements for soil pH, as well as soil levels of elements such as nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and others (depending upon the kit).

When using a soil test kit of this type, you generally mix your soil samples with water and the provided chemicals (a different chemical for each element being tested).

Then you compare the color of your sample solution to the color chart provided to determine the level of the element in your soil (or the pH level).  

Are Do-It-Yourself Kits Accurate?

Testing my soil's potassium level

Are these kits accurate? Well, that’s a point of contention.

Some swear by them. Others believe they are all but useless.

But I performed a bit of an experiment with this kit.

For a new plot of ground I was opening for gardening, I sent off a soil sample to a testing lab. Once I got the results back, I tested with the Luster Leaf kit.

The results? Very similar.

The Luster Leaf kit closely echoed the results from the lab. (Of course, it could be that they were both wrong!)

I think the DIY kits are worth having, particularly given the modest cost for most of them. But I'm most comfortable using them in conjunction with an occasional lab test.

And if I Were to Choose Just One Soil Testing Method…

I'd go with the soil testing lab.

Though the accuracy of a lab’s results isn’t iron-clad certain, it’s probably more trustworthy overall than a do-it-yourself kit. And remember, most labs will give you specific recommendations for adjustments to your soil based upon what you want to grow.

But since most DIY kits are fairly inexpensive, the best option might be to do both initially. That way you can compare the results.

Then, if the kit seems reasonably accurate, you can use it to do much of your future testing. And over time, that will save you money in comparison to using a lab every time you want a check-up test. (A lot more convenient, too.) 

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