Photo credit: Baltimore Sun/Nanine Hartzenbusch
I have a confession to make.
I have been a serious gardener for almost 20 years and, I am ashamed to say, I have never had my soil tested.
It is the very first thing a gardener is supposed to do, and yet I bet only a handful of gardeners ever do it.
That's because. I think, most of us don't know how to sample our soil.
I never understood how taking a sample from one spot in the garden was going to tell me anything about the rest of the garden. And I had no idea what I was going to do with the information.
Thanks to the advice of Chuck Schuster of the University of Maryland Extension in Montgomery County, I think I can actually do this. And I now understand that I should.
Here is his advice.
First, draw a rough map of your yard: grass here, shade here; perennial bed here, vegetable garden here. And give each area a letter, number or word designation.
Go to the grocery store, and ask for a handful of the bags that you would use when grinding your own coffee. (Never use bags that had actually contained any coffee!)
Take a spade and a plastic bucket (Never an aluminum one. It will leave trace elements) and go to one of your designated areas and take six or eight spade-fuls of dirt -- from six or eight different spots in the area -- and put it in the bucket.
Mix well. Allow the soil to dry out in the garage, but NEVER in the oven.
Take a cup of the dry soil, put it in the coffee bag, seal it and mark it with the appropriate designation.
Do the same for all the areas of your yard, gardens and lawn included. You can sub-divide you areas, too. Shade lawn. Full sun lawn. High traffic lawn. Full sun perennial bed. Shade perennial bed.
Six or eight samples from across the entire area will give you a broad look at the nutrient and pH needs of that bed or area of grass.
Check with your local entension service [In my case, the University of Maryland] for a recommended soil testing lab.
It might cost a few dollars to mail your samples, but the information you get back will tell you whether you need to lime your lawn in the spring, or if the pH is good for your azaleas under the front windows or whether the perennial bed has been sucked dry of nitrogen.
Doing it now will give you plenty of time to learn what your lawn or your gardens need next spring to give them a good start on the season.