Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Part 2 in Soil Testing: More tedious than boring.

(Part 1)

Do you like how I'm enticing you with these post titles? I'm really making soil testing seem like a fun outdoor activity for the early springtime. Go me! Really putting that marketing degree to work!


Well, whatever. You don't need candy-coated messages to convince you to test your soil, the reward of 200+ lbs of tomatoes should be enough.

Though - let me revert to my marketing background for just a moment and add the disclaimer that I'm not guaranteeing you 200+ lbs of tomatoes if you follow this soil testing process. I'd get all legal-ease on you, but my degree is not in law, it's in marketing - so you get the dumbed-down don't blame me if you only get 199 lbs of tomatoes because HI - this isn't McDonald's and no one here cares if you burn your lap with hot coffee because it's coffee and it's supposed to be hot and these results aren't typical, etc.

You know what I mean. Moving on.

So, for the next step in soil testing - the actual testing.

This year I decided that I'd try, for once, to be helpful and give you guys what I'm always looking for when I go to the internets to figure out how to do something - step by step instructions with pictures. And, for the most part, I think I did pretty well on the photos part of that, except toward the end when I was interrupted by my neighbors who wanted to whisk me away in their convertible to go plant shopping at a California Natives nursery in the mountains and then to taste wine while wearing our dirty garden clothes at a very accommodating and beautiful winery. 

They're so rude and I obviously had an awful time, so forgive me that I forgot to photograph the final steps of this process due to low-grade inebriation and spring fever and I'll just try really hard to describe it in detail. Kay? Yes.

And also isn't this just the most awesome thing about NorCal that you can show up at a winery in your dirty yard clothes, with your hair pulled back under a doo-rag and garden clogs on your feet and they just serve you up a flight of wine as though it were just the most run-of-the-mill thing because it totally is? Yeah. Let it be known - I love it here so much.

But for the testing, here's the 1-2-3:

1. Gather your supplies and go out to the garden

Specifically: your test kit,  a clear container big enough to hold about 6 cups of liquid and dirt, a trowel, a notebook, a writing device (like the item shown here known as a pencil) and a filthy tasting glass of Cytomax if you're recovering from a horrifically painful morning run where you ran as fast as your legs could possibly carry you but you still fell short of your distance/time goal by .03 miles.

2. Open up that notebook and make your test chart

A nice friend of mine gave me this notebook way back in the day and it makes me a little happy every time I use it because I'm actually using it for its intended purpose. How about that.

An important thing with testing soil is to test all the different areas where you are going to plant so that you can amend the soil properly for the plants that are going to be living in it. Or so I've surmised after making many mistakes due to laziness.

I have four beds, so I do four sets of tests and I set up my notebook with a sketch of the beds' vegetable holdings on the bottom page and then the beds' test results and amendments on the top with the year marked in the corner so that when I want to see how the soil looked last year before I, say, nuked it with corn, I can just flip back one page and TEE DAH, I can see that it was quite fine. Until.

The chart on the top page is just each bed broken out with column for of N (nitrogen), P (phosporus), K (potassium) and pH and then a column for amendment amounts of each to bring each to the level of "adequate". I also keep track of these results year after year on a handy spreadsheet, because you know I like it like that.

3. Make mud

And not mud like our Australian friend means when he says, "Mud!" while pointing to the bottom of his shoe and scowling, but a mud mix as indicated on your test kit.

In the case of my test kit, it's a 1: 5 ratio of soil to water. So, I scoop up 1 cup of the bed's soil with my trowel, dump it in the jar, pour in 5 cups of water and mix it up into mud.They say you can do this with less soil and water, as long as you keep the ratio constant, but I don't like doing any more math than is absolutely necessary, so I go with what the Ever-Knowing Box says. Plus, I have a jar that will hold 5+ cups of mud, so there's that.

4. Go do something else while the mud settles

Your mud mix has to settle and the soil needs to separate from the water, so you have to leave it alone for a bit. I find that this time during testing is good for getting random shit done around the yard or making phone calls to people to whom you don't wish to speak for very long because WHOOPSY gotta go - have soil tests ready - bye!

For the first bed, the Mud Intermission consisted of picking peas, throwing the ball for the dog and choking down half a glass of Cytomax. Guph. I can still taste it in the back of my throat. Barf.

You can decide how to piss away your 10 mins to 24 hours (though, that seems like a rully long time to wait for this process) between mixing and testing, though.

5. Set up your tests

Because I'm painfully A/R, I set up each test with its capsules and everything so that I don't lose track of what I'm doing as the springtime heat nukes my frigid brain cells.

6. Do the PH test first

The pH test works differently than the other tests and also gives you faster results, so I do it first so that I can look at the results while the other ones are stewing in their own juices.

For pH - fill the small side of the tester with soil to the indicator line so handily pointed out with that arrow, there.

Then open the green capsule and pour in the powder.

Then fill with clean water to the indicator line at the top there - also with a handy arrow. Shake. Set aside.

7. Start your tests

From your settled mud, take the dropper that comes with your kit, and without disturbing the sediment on the bottom, suck up some of the water and fill up the tester to the line on both the large and small sides of the tester like so.

8. Add the magic capsules

Once you've filled both sides of the tester with water, carefully open the capsule for that particular test (color coordinated to match your shoes and, um, the testers I guess) over the test side (small side) of the tester and pour in the magic powder.

I find it's effective to hold the tester between my knees while getting a scorching sunburn on my back because I forgot to reapply sunblock after my run. SO SMART.

Put the top back on the tester and SHAKE IT LIKE HELL. Really. Don't let any of the powder remain unshaken. Channel James Bond's bartender or Charo or Slimfast some other shaking cliche here if you have to.

Set it aside, right side up and try not to fuck with it. It needs to rest for about 10 minutes to give it time for the color to develop.

9. Follow this process for each of the tests: N, P, K

10. Find our your pH results

While you were putting together your nutrient tests, your pH test finished its job. Which I find to be so handy that I actually manage to ignore my inner lazy person that says to blow off the pH tests every time I go to do this. Anyway.

So, the test kit says not to hold it up to the light to see the color change, but I usually take the tester on a tour through the shade and the sun just to admire the difference in color.

Actually, I'm always a little bit iffy when it comes to determining which color it matches, so I figure this method lets me get the closest hue. In this case, I chose ph 7.0 Neutral because it was about the same shade of green as that marker. Rarely, if ever, is it as dark as the swatches show.

11. Mark it down in your notebook

So, once I've determined that the pH for Bed 1 is 7.0 (neutral), I put it in the book and go back to the other tests which are now settled down enough so that I don't have to smack them around or send them to their rooms to think about what they did.

12. Find your N, P, K results

So, with these tests you do the same thing you just did with the pH test, except they're different colors so that you can admire the rainbow of fruit flavors or some such finery.

In this case, I deduced that the P levels (phosphorus) were 1 - deficient, because I'm a glass is half empty girl when it comes to soil nutrient levels.

Or something.

Same thing for N (nitrogen): 1 - deficient. Which makes sense since this was the soil from last year's corn bed that had been overwintered with fava beans. I suspect that if I hadn't planted fava beans, this soil would have been 0 - depleted.

Yay for fava beans!

I then did this for K (potassium/potash), but I effed up the tester when I went to take a photo, so you don't get a photo. Just picture the same thing as above, but in orange. There you go.

After that, I marked it down in the book.

Ignore the fact that this says, "P = 4" here. That's because the photo and explanation above were from a different entry in the book.

Now, Bed #1 has been tested and we can move on to the other three beds.

FYI - this is when it starts to feel REALLY tedious. You must forge ahead. You must continue to add water to soil and mix mud and wander off to do mundane things like fix the drip lines and dead head the daffodils and drink Cytomax even though it makes you want to hurl.

And if it starts to get tough and you feel like quitting, remember that at the end of the process you're going to have soil ready to feed tomato plants that will then make you enough tomatoes for this and this and this.

And, if by some curse of humanity, you're not into tomatoes, that same buff soil can grow you things like this and this and this.

And if all that's not enough to keep you going, then I don't know what to tell you except that perhaps your luck is better than mine or you have access to piles of lovely well-rotted manure that arrive at your house by some means other than your own ill-equipped vehicle that will feed your beds without the need to test or you just don't really *need* to have more juju in the way of vegetable gardening like I do.

Lucky fuckers.

Anyway, speaking of amendments (like the previously mentioned miraculously occurring well-rotted manure), I'll finish up this completely enthralling series about playing in the dirt with a final upcoming post about how to take the test results you just got to amend your soil with organic things that aren't derived from pee so you can grow food that won't give you a tail.

It will be a rollicking good time, that's for sure.

(Part 3)


  1. This is probably an insanely stupid couple of questions, but I'm going to ask them anyways. (And if you've got a 3rd post covering this crap then, well, ignore me and I'll just wait for that post!)

    -Do you want your soil results to be the same regardless of what you plan on growing in there? (i.e., everything should be pH neutral and sufficient/adequate across the board) Or are there some weird things that like alkaline or acidic soil?
    -Do you amend back up to adequate or sufficient?
    -How do you know how much stuff you need to put in to amend your beds? Do you retest later to check it?


  2. Dawnie - So, what you're saying is that you're ready for the last post in this series, then?

    ;) Just kidding - I'll answer your questions briefly, here, and then look out for the final post in the series this week (prob tomorrow).

    RE: pH and nutrient levels - I refer to the preferred pH levels on the sheet that comes with the test kit to make sure that it matches what I'll be growing there and then adjust accordingly.

    RE: adequate vs sufficient - I typically amend to at least adequate, depending on how heavy a feeder the plant is that I'm planning to put in. So, for example, when I amended the beds last year, I amended the bed for corn to N3 (sufficient Nitrogen) because corn is a heavy feeder.

    RE: How much amendment to add - I'll get to this in the next post, but there's a chart in the test kit that tells you how much of whatever (dried blood, bone meal, etc) to add to a certain square footage of soil to amend it to a particular level. I follow that and amend accordingly.

    And, because I'm lazy, I leave it at that - though a more thorough person would then retest the soil before planting.

    Stay tuned...

  3. This is SO helpful, Finny! Thank you!

  4. My goodness, Finn. What a very detailed and helpful tutorial. I, personally, won't be testing my soil, since we just go with rotation and liberal applications of rotted cow manure delivered by a local farmer every spring, but I appreciate your efforts.

    Incidentally, you can also visit many wineries within minutes of my house and taste wine in dirty laboring clothes. You know, in case you ever wanted to come visit, you wouldn't have to forgo the wine. Or the dirty laboring, because God knows, we have enough of that to go around . . .

  5. OK, this totally looks like fun. Not only am I not at all afraid of math, but I get all geeky about anything remotely science-y. Wouldn't be a bad homeschool project either.


[2013 update: You can't comment as an anonymous person anymore. Too many douchebags were leaving bullshit SPAM comments and my inbox was getting flooded, but if you're here to comment in a real way like a real person, go to it.]

Look at you commenting, that's fun.

So, here's the thing with commenting, unless you have an email address associated with your own profile, your comment will still post, but I won't have an email address with which to reply to you personally.

Sucks, right?

Anyway, to remedy this, I usually come back to my posts and post replies in the comment field with you.

But, if you ever want to email me directly to talk about pumpkins or shoes or what it's like to spend a good part of your day Swiffering - shoot me an email to finnyknitsATgmailDOTcom.