Now is the Time to Test Farm and Garden Soil

Test soil now to save valuable time in spring, says UMass Extension lab manager
Tracy Allen
Tracy Allen
Soil samples
Soil samples

AMHERST, Mass. – Many people think that when they put the garden to bed, tucking the tomato cages into the shed for another winter, their gardening season is over until spring. Not so, says Tracy Allen, supervisor of the Soil and Plant Tissue Nutrient Lab operated by University of Massachusetts Extension in Amherst. “This is the perfect time to get your soil tested,” she says. “Go collect your sample and send it in now. You’ll have results early and give yourself time to plan for spring.”

“Soil properties are not going to change much in the winter because soil processes slow way down in the cold, so soil test results and recommendations that we offer this fall will be accurate and useful for the whole growing season in your garden next year,” she adds. “Now is a great time to think about this because when the spring rush hits our lab, it could take twice as long to get your results back and that is valuable time in the planting season.”

Last year, the lab handled more than 16,000 routine soil tests, with volume averaging 300 requests per day at peak demand times in April, which can cause a backlog. “We do our best to keep up but sometimes, with the limits of equipment, space and time, we get behind,” she says.

By contrast, Allen says, the lab handles approximately up to 100 to 150 samples per day in the fall and results are usually available in 5 to 10 business days. This can swell to two or even three times longer in spring, depending on the number of orders received, she adds.

The lab offers a routine soil analysis for $15, which provides information on soil acidity and nutrient levels, for example, plus recommendations on changes to that may be needed to fertilizer and pH levels, which can save farmers and gardeners from wasting money on unnecessary soil amendments, for example.

In addition, for additional fees the lab will screen for soil particle size, test organic matter and soluble salts content and soil nitrate levels, the chemist points out. A common mistake gardeners make is to use too much fertilizer, which not only wastes money but can lead to crop failure. Too much potassium in the soil combines with other salts and blocks plants from taking up nutrients, she says, while too much nitrogen can cause plants to produce generous amounts of leaves but no flowers or fruit.

To meet new demand from an increasing number of urban farming and gardening operations, Allen says the lab also offers specialized testing for heavy metals, including lead, because in urban environments there is a risk of such contamination in soil. “In cases where people are starting a garden in a city plot, near older buildings or even farmhouses where lead paint was probably used, we urge people to make sure their soil is safe. It costs extra, but you find out all the environmentally available heavy metals that are there and whether your sample is considered safe by Environmental Protection Agency’s threshold standards.”

Most requests come to the extension lab, which is part of the Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment at UMass Amherst, from farms and gardens in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, but they also come from as far away as California, which like many states no longer has an affordable soil testing service, Allen says. Very often people introduce themselves as UMass alumni, she adds.

At the website, https://ag.umass.edu/services/soil-plant-nutrient-testing-laboratory, proper sampling procedures are explained, leading clients to send a cup of soil to the lab that represents a composite of 12 to 15 smaller samples from all over the garden area. Allen says, “We need more than a teaspoon of soil, and it must be dry. Soil that is too wet or muddy will slow down the whole lab.”

Allen, who started at the lab as a work-study student in 2002 and worked her way up to become a soil chemist and lab manager, says she and four staff members and three undergraduate students are pleased to go the extra mile to help clients. “Unlike most labs, I talk to people, and I will answer your email,” Allen says. “I will give advice on how to use test results and I’ll make recommendations. We try to be as helpful as possible to people with their garden and crop needs.”

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