Healthy soil is the most essential part of growing healthy plants. Yet, many gardeners and urban growers do not take the time to have their soils tested. This week we are going to investigate the Top Three Reasons to Test Your Soils.
Reason 1: Lead ContaminationGet a Lead Test
If we learned anything from the Flint Water Crisis, it’s that ingesting lead isn’t bad. It’s really, really bad.
Lead is a metal, but humans react differently to it than we do to other metals such as iron. When ingested in even low quantities, lead can cause major damage to your health. According to medlineplus.gov, 3 million Americans are at risk for exposure to lead, an odorless, tasteless poison. Lead poisoning can result in irritability, skin rashes, kidney damage, slowed body growth in children, reduced IQ, and, in extreme cases, death. Gardeners and urban growers may be at a significantly higher risk of lead exposure because of where lead contamination often comes from: old paint and unleaded gas particles in the soil. Furthermore, lead is mostly immobile in the soil, which means it won’t go away without bioremediation. So if cars were driving past your garden site before 1996, or if your site is near an older home, it’s probably best to get the test.
If you learn that your soils are contaminated with lead, reach out to your local university extension to learn about options for soil remediation, and to learn best practices for staying safe while working in your garden site. The University of Minnesota Soils Extension can be reached here.
Reason 2: Soil pH
The pH of your soil determines what nutrients are available to your plants. If your soil pH is too acidic or too basic for the plants you are trying to grow, they will still struggle to survive, even if all the nutrients are there for them to use. What’s more, many of the nutrient deficiencies that result from the wrong soil pH for a given plant could also be diagnosed as other, unrelated problems. Trying to grow plants without testing your soil’s pH is like going on a road trip without a map, and then refusing to ask for directions, an action so frustrating and colossally silly that none of us would ever do it (or at least, ever again).
Getting the soil pH tested at the University of Minnesota Soils Extension is an easy process to follow with this step-by-step guide, and all pH soil tests come with recommendations for achieving optimal growing conditions in your soil!
Once you know the pH of your soil, it is easy to correct, and often involves a simple top dressing of the soil.
Reason 3: Texture and Organic Matter (TOM)
The structure of soil has two basic things to consider: texture and organic matter.
Texture is defined by mineral composition. Sand, silt, and clay are the mineral particles of soil, and are what make different types of soils feel different when you squeeze them between your fingers. It turns out that many soil experts can determine the mineral composition of your soil just by how it feels in their hands, and this is why it is called “Texture!” This is more than a Master Gardener’s geeky cocktail party trick, however. Texture is very important because it decides how well certain plants’ roots can grow, how easily nutrients make their way through the soil, and how well the soil holds water.
Organic matter is equally as important, for similar reasons. According to this University of Minnesota Extension article, OM helps crops to thrive through dry spells, supports extensive root growth, increases your ability to farm with implements, and prevents both erosion and compaction. Obviously OM is a good thing. Failing to test for these two critical aspects of soil leaves you not knowing how much water and fertilizer your plants will require, or how to best build your soils’ productivity.
In the urban farming and gardening setting, lead content, soil pH, and texture and organic matter are three especially important aspects of soil health. By getting your soils tested with the University of Minnesota Soils Extension, you equip yourself for a successful growing season and gardening experience!