Analyze that Dirt

bags of soil

Soil samples from my plot and my garden neighbors’ are mixed, dried, and ready to ship to U Mass.

Colleges just had that special break where students drink on the beach and faculty stay home to watch 90s movies, and I have potatoes sprouting on my kitchen table. So even if forecasters predict snow tomorrow, spring is officially here! For gardeners, that means it’s time to send in soil samples for testing, if you haven’t already.

Wondering what the deal is with soil testing? Here’s my basic guide to getting your dirt analyzed:

  • It’s a good idea to test levels of various materials in your garden soil every year or two. It’s like getting a physical and doing blood work. Then you can add whatever nutrients you need to grow the most abundant and nutritious plants or, in some cases, remediate or move on to avoid harmful contaminants like lead. Find out more on this and the movement for better soil from the Bionutrient Food Association.
  • A good time to do this in the D.C. area is usually late February. But if the ground is frozen solid during that time like it was this year, late March works.

  • The best place I’ve found to send samples is the  Soil and Plant Tissue Testing Laboratory at U Mass. They measure heavy metals and micronutrients for a very reasonable $10, with organic material testing for another $5. You can send multiple samples at once if you’re curious how that compost application affected your herb bed compared to your untreated squash bed. Or if you send in samples from various garden neighbors, like I did.  To reappropriate a line from The Big Lebowski (I wasn’t kidding about the ’90s movies): U Mass is a good value, and thorough.
  • The Cooperative Extension at the University of the District of Columbia will offer soil testing soon. Not quite yet, though.
  • Yes–UDC, bordered by the concrete of Connecticut Avenue, is a land grant university with a Cooperative Extension. What, you thought all of those agriculture programs were about farms?
  • To prepare the sample, U Mass instructs to dig dirt from six to 12 places in the sampling area, mix them together, then dry out the soil. Pack in a plastic bag and ship over with payment. Within a week, the lab emails your results.

If you grow things in the ground and don’t yet test your soil, I highly recommend it. Once you have the results,  you can take them to your favorite garden store guru and apply the recommended soil treatments. (Seriously–follow through. Last year I skipped the last steps and between undernourished plants and the deer, let’s just say it wasn’t a banner garden year).

Looking forward to a great season. Cheers and happy spring!



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