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Dirt(y) Science

I grew up in a small suburb before moving out to a large plot of land as a teenager. My parents spent a lot of time working on the yard/land. I was recruited for a bulk of the manual labor but not a lot of time was spent imparting trade secrets. It could be that they didn’t know themselves but I feel like when working on my yard I spend a lot of time guessing or doing internet research.


One thing I’ve picked up is that the chemical composites in your soil will significantly impact the health of your plants. Let me be clear, I am by no means an expert on this topic but wanted to share what I have learned thus far garnered from literature and expert websites. I have a small soil test kit I picked up at Lowes that comes with 4 vials and testing material to see the pH, Nitrogen(N), Phosphorous(P) and Potash(K) levels of my soil. Living in Clay County there is naturally a lot of clay in our soil and I’ve found adding the right fertilizer makes all the difference.

For lawns, annuals or house plants it’s recommend to take a soil sample from about 2-3” below the surface. For perennials especially shrubs, vegetables and fruit the sample should be from 4” deep. Avoid touching the soil with your hands. Test different areas of your soil as it may differ according to past cultivation, underlying soil difference or a localized condition. It is preferable to make individual tests on several samples from different areas than to mix the samples together. Most kits come with enough to conduct each test 10+ times so this shouldn’t require you to buy multiple kits.

Place your soil sample into a clean container. Break the sample up with the trowel or spoon and allow it to dry out naturally. This is not essential, however it makes working with the sample easier. Remove any small stones, organic material such as grass, weeds or roots and hard particles of lime. Then crumble the sample finely and mix it thoroughly.


Most tests will color code the testing material to make it easier to keep things straight. For my test pH went in the green vial, Nitrogen in the purple, Phosphorus in the blue and Potash in the orange. Follow the instructions on your kit but they tend to function like such.

Mix the dirt in a clear jar with water at a ration of 1 part soil and 5 parts water. Shake it up and let it settle anywhere from 30 minutes to 24 hours (fine clay soil takes much longer, trust me I know). Without disturbing the sediment on top suck up some of the water below the surface avoiding the debris and fill each vial, mix in the appropriate powder and shake vigorously. After allowing it to settle (~10 min) compare with the color chart.


Once you know what your soil might be lacking you can visit the hardware store to pickup the appropriate fertilizer. Every fertilizer displays 3 numbers to help you understand what it is inside. The first number is the Nitrogen level, second is Phosphorus and finally Potassium. They are universally displayed in this order. Their impact was explained to me as “above ground (1st/Nitrogen), below ground (2nd/Phosphorus) and overall plant health and hardiness (3rd/Potassium).”

When and how much to apply seems to be a topic widely debated but I prefer to apply in the spring and fall. In the fall I rent an aerator, apply fertilizer and seed before it gets cold and starts to go dormant. I am still learning though and welcome any input or suggestions from visitors.


3/12/2021

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