There are several ways to tell what kind of soil you have in your garden. A soil test can provide you with information on the quality of your topsoil, its structure and fertility. The test will also advise you on any amendments or additives you may need to improve the condition of your soil. If you're building a garden for the first time or using a garden that doesn't seem to be performing well, you should definitely take a soil test.
Get your hands dirty. If your soil feels gritty and falls apart when poked with your finger, the soil contains excess sand. If your soil can be rolled between your forefinger and thumb and you can make it into a 1-inch long string, it contains excess clay. Both conditions can be improved by adding organic material such as compost.
Soil-testing is inexpensive, quick, and gives accurate results. You can purchase a do-it-yourself kit available at nurseries and garden centers. These tests will tell you how much fertilizer to add to soil but they will not supply you with the exact application rates and timing.
You can get a more thorough and accurate report from the County Extension Service in your area: for just a few dollars, you can purchase a soil test packet from your local CES. (You'll find the service listed in the phone book under state or local government offices.)
To take the sample, first remove small amounts of soil from at least 10 locations around the garden site. Be sure to use a clean trowel and bucket. Dig down about 6 inches with the trowel and place the soil sample in the bucket. Let the collected soil samples dry out enough, then mix them together.
From this mixture, take the final soil sample to the County Extension service. The soil test report will tell you whether the levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium are low, medium, high or excessive. A 6 to 6.5 pH level provides the best environment for vegetable plants to grow.
To take a quick test of the pH level of your soil, use a soil test meter to measure the pH, and nutrient levels. To verify the accuracy of the meter, insert the probe into cow’s milk – it has a 6.5 to 7.0 pH. Thoroughly clean the probe and then test your soil sample.
Remember to set aside time to care for your garden. You will need about three hours a week for weeding, watering, cultivation, harvesting and other chores. An untended garden usually fails; only weeds grow without help. Make your garden all that it can be by matching it to your climate and site, while planning for future plantings.