Testing Soil?

Hi,
I've been reading posts in the group about trying to get clay soil in a better condition.
Most people seem to be at the general consensus that you need to add gypsum, peat moss and sand, along with other organic material. But someone mentioned that before you go adding too much stuff to it, you should get the soil tested for ph balance, to make sure you don't make a bad problem worse! My question is...how do you test the soil? I'm fairly knew to gardening in general, I used to just potter around at home with my parents, however now I have my own place, with very very thick clay soil!
Cheers
Ben
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I just bought a detector this year for 30 usd. Not totally convinced of its accuracy. AAMOF I'm kinda confused by the whole concept: bitter is not the opposite of sour in my mind. I guess below 7 is sour; above 8 is bitter; but in the 7 range is sweet? I have slightly bitter Hawaiian soil, but have been composting of late. AIUI different plants have different values for ph. Post what you're likely to plant and I'll try and see the target range.
Sand is a good drainage system for thick soil, but I would be weary of adding it (atleast from the beach) as the salt would presumably drive up ph levels. I remember reading somewhere that they were doing that in Ireland right before the potato blight set in. Does 'thick' soil mean you have puddling? Composting is supposed to remedy that.
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Ben Blackmore wrote:

Testing is usually done by professionals from a sample (or better, multiple samples) you provide. The samples are generally small, less than a trowel-full. Ask about testing services at your local nursery. In some areas, the county or state agricultural services do this.
--

David E. Ross
<http://www.rossde.com/
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It's obvious from several of the replies in this thread that many do not know the purpose of soil testing. It's not merely to determine the pH. It's to determine the overall quality of the soil. Beyond pH, this includes the relative abundance of nutrients, not only the primary NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) but also trace elements such as iron, zinc, magnesium, etc. A good soil test will also determine salinity, which is important in the western U.S. where both soils and water supplies might contain excess sodium. Finally, a soil test should determine the structure (i.e., relative proportions of sand, silt, clay, and humus).
Since trees, shrubs, and even some perennials can send their roots well below the level where you have tilled amendments and nutrients, you should test the native soil before doing any improvements. (In deep soil, tomatoes can send their roots down 10 feet.) For example, adding gypsum before testing will definitely skew the results and prevent you from learning what the roots will eventually find. The results might indicate certain improvements are not necessary while others are indeed needed. Why spend money and effort before you know what needs to be done?
If you live in an area where government agricultural agencies do not do testing, there are likely to be commercial testing labs. Even in the U.S., not every county has an agricultural extension office; and in those that do, not every agricultural extension office does soil testing.
--

David E. Ross, President
Community Foundation for Oak Park
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There are many levels of soil testing out there. You have to choose the one that's most important for your particular situation. Of course, the more things you test for, the higher the price.
The home soil test kits can provide a good estimate of pH. (By a good estimate, I mean that it can tell you if the pH is 5 or 6 or 7. The laboratory test will get you down to a couple tenths of a pH point. However, for most home gardens this level of detail is not really important.) Phosphorous and Potassium are probably so-so. Nitrogen is probably not worth the effort.
The soil structure can be estimated by observing the soil and its response to large doses of water. High sand components drain quickly. High clay components don't drain. Assuming the soil is not really high in clay or sand, the loam content can be estimated by taking a handful of moist, but not wet, soil and squeezing it into a ball. If it forms a crumbly ball, it's probably moderate loam and sand. If it forms a hard ball there's probably heavier in loam and clay. This all takes some experience, but then knowing what to do about your soil structure also takes some experience. Observing your garden over a couple of years can give you some insight into this.
Of course, having a professional do the tests also allows you to get the advice on what to do with the results from the professional.
To do a soil test:
Take a small sample of soil from several different locations in your garden and mix them thoroughly. Take samples from the surface to at least 6" deep, and if you plant deep rooted crops, a foot wouldn't hurt. Don't be tempted to buy a soil testing probe for a home garden. They cost like $50. You can make your own. A 10' piece of 1" EMT conduit from Home Depot (about $3). Cut a reasonable length off so you can handle it. Jam it into the soil. You will get a core sample. You can get it out by shoving something through the conduit. If you know an electrician, (s)he might have a scrap piece. 3/4" conduit will work.
Dry them out. The testing lab needs them dry for the test and you don't need to pay the postage for the water that they are going to get rid of (not to mention that it increases their work load if they have to dry all the samples.) You can dry them out by just spreading a pile of soil on an old newspaper in the garage (fairly thin) for a day or two. Don't dry them with a lot of heat. That will alter the organic composition of the sample. The testing lab will let you know how much they need (It will depend on the number of tests), but it'll probably be on the order of a sandwich bag or so.
Tell the lab what you are planning to grow. This will enable them to make specific recommendations on addition of lime, fertilizer, other amendments.
David Ross wrote:

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Purchase a pH test kit from the garden department. Compost will help neutralize any soil, plus add nutrients. Gypsum is a good idea but I would not add sand nor peat moss.
On Wed, 16 Jun 2004 17:08:48 +0100, "Ben Blackmore"

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What are you trying to grow? If you just want flowers or vegetables, the easiest way to get good soil is with Square Foot Gardening. It's a proven system, and you can get all the info you need free at http://www.squarefootslo.com and see what it is all about.
If you want to grow shrubbery, etc., then you don't have to worry about the soil quality. Just dig out a larger area than the plant needs and fill the extra area with good soil. Then make some bricks with the excess clay and build a barbeque with it lol. GC Certified Square Foot Gardening Instructor http://www.squarefootslo.com Learn to be a freelance web designer http://www.howtofreelance.com
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You should get your soil worked up using the materials you mentioned before getting a soil test. You want to test the soil you are going to plant in, i.e. the finished product. For example, gypsum will probably change your soil's pH so you want to test it after the gypsum is in the soil. Don't waste your money on a DIY soil test kit! The agricultural professors at a local major college did a study of numerous different DIY kits from various retail outlets. Many soil samples were checked with the kits and then checked against their lab equipment. The results varied drastically, some not even in the same ballbark.
Here's what you need to do. In the garden to be tested, take a sample from 5 or 6 different places in the garden/yard. Take about a cup of soil 6 inches below the surface at these points. Mix all the samples together thoroughly - this gives you an average for the whole garden. Put about 2 cups of this mixed soil in a baggie and take it to your local Extension Service office. They should be listed listed on the phone book under County Government. Price usually runs from $5-$10. Tell them what you intend to grow in the spot -flowers, vegetables, grass, etc. They will send it to a lab for analysis. They will mail you a complete detailed analysis, not just pH level, with instructions on how to correct any deficiencies.
Good luck on your project.
Bob S.
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A good example of why people get aggravated when non-UK people post in uk.rec-gardening (and certainly without a disclaimer).
This advice isnt exactly going to work well in the UK!
--
Tumbleweed

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That's probably more my fault, as I cross posted to rec.gardens & uk.rec.gardening :-)
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What the bloody hell?? Sorry about that mate! The OP cross-posted to "your" group and I didn't notice when I replied. Have a pint of Guiness on me.
Bob S.
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Would it be an idea to test it twice, once before then once after, otherwise I won't know how much of each material to add. I could end up making a bad situation worse if I add too much of one and not enough of the other. If I were to test it 1st, and got an idea of what needed to be done, then I could test after as well and make sure it worked.
Ben
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Make sure you delay your second test by a few months at least.
Don't try and "correct" your soil. That is like bumping your head against a brick wall. Rather let the pH determine what you should and should not grow. Any mineral deficiencies may be made up by using a standard balanced fertiliser like "Growmore" regularly. Even though only the N,P,K concentrations are mentioned in the specifications given with the fertiliser, it will as a rule have been made from sufficiently impure materials to supply sufficient trace elements as well.
Franz
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I have used the chemical pH test sets available from garden centres on many occasions. I have compared the results with measurements using a professional pH meter. The results always agreed well enough for gardening purposes. The bad errors invariably arise from poorly chosen samples, bad preparation of the samples and the use of tap water or rain water instead of deionised or distilled water

What is a local Extension Service office?

There is no entry "County Government" in my phone book

The US Dollar is not legal tender in the United Kingdom. What on earth are you talking about?

You must be joking.

Franz
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Why did you crosspost this to urg and a US dominated group?
Franz
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Because I wanted as much input as I could get. Most of what the US replies said were still valid and very useful! Just because one of them mentioned USD rather than GBP does not make it an invalid post. The input on soil composition and ph levels was all very useful!
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Ben Blackmore ( snipped-for-privacy@nospam.hotmail.com) wrote: with editing... : Because I wanted as much input as I could get. Most of what the US replies : said were still valid and very useful! Just because one of them mentioned : USD rather than GBP does not make it an invalid post. The input on soil : composition and ph levels was all very useful!
But you might want to ignore the advise to add coffee grounds to the soil. Works ok, I'm told, in the southern US. Just adds an extra bit of material for moulds to grow in wet, humid climates like here on the we(s)t coast of Canada.
Regards.        RAF
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