Soil quality is one of the most important (and most commonly overlooked) aspects of gardening. Understanding the kind of soil you’re working with will go a long way in growing the right kinds of plants, and growing them successfully. But how can you understand the soil beneath your feet? Do you have to do lots of involved tests?
Honestly, real scientific soil tests performed by your extension office are going to give you the most accurate, reliable results. But if you want to try your hand at testing your own soil, there are several very good DIY methods that don’t take any outside help or special materials.
Here are the top 5 DIY hacks for testing your soil:
1. Squeeze Test. This soil texture test is the easiest to conduct and to interpret. Soil basically comes in three main textures: sand, loam, and clay. And, of course, everything in between. Simply wet some of your garden soil and squeeze it tightly in your hand.
If it falls apart when you release your hand, you have sandy soil. If it holds its shape but falls apart when prodded, it’s loam. If it holds its shape well, it’s clay
2. Vinegar and Baking Soda Test. Some plants grow well in acidic soil. Some grow well in alkaline soil. Many prefer neutral soil. If you want to test your pH without buying a test kit, put a teaspoon of soil each into two separate containers. To one container, add half a cup of vinegar and stir. If the mixture bubbles and fizzes, you have alkaline soil, probably with a pH between 7 and 8.
If nothing happens, add a little distilled water to the other cup and mix it until it’s muddy. Then add half a cup of baking soda and stir. If that mixture bubbles, you have acidic soil, probably with a pH between 5 and 6. If neither of the mixtures bubbles or fizzes, you have neutral soil with a pH of 7.
3. Cabbage Water Test. Another way to measure pH level in your soil is with cabbage. Yes, cabbage…more to the point, the red cabbage variety.
Chop up 1 cup of red cabbage and boil it in 2 cups of distilled water for five minutes. Strain all the solids out so you just have purple to blue liquid. This liquid should have a neutral pH of 7. Add 2 teaspoons of your garden soil to the liquid, stir, and let it sit for half an hour.
If the liquid turns pink, you have acidic soil. If it turns blue/green, you have alkaline soil. If it doesn’t change, you have neutral soil.
4. Drainage Test. To measure your soil’s drainage capabilities, dig a 12-inch by 12-inch (30 cm. x 30 cm.) hole with straight sides. Fill the hole to the brim with water and let it drain. This is to saturate the soil, and it could take a while.
Once the hole has drained, fill it up with water again, and track how quickly it drains. You can do this by laying a pipe across the top and sinking a measuring stick into the hole. Measure the distance between the pipe and the water’s surface every hour. Ideally, the water should go down by 2 inches (5 cm.) every hour – this means you have normal drainage.
If it goes down by 1 inch (2.5 cm.) or less per hour, you have poor drainage. If it goes down by 4 inches (10 cm.) or more per hour, you have very fast drainage.
5. Mason Jar Soil Test. A mason jar soil test can be performed with a 1-quart jar and a tight fitting lid. Simply choose a spot in the garden and dig down about 8 inches (20 cm.) deep, and fill the mason jar half full. Add clear water until it reaches about three-quarters of the way full, then add a teaspoon of liquid dish soap. Place the lid securely on the jar and then shake for at least three minutes. Set it aside and leave it alone for the next 24 hours.
The heaviest material, like sand, will sink to the bottom while smaller clay particles will be near the top. Silt remains in the middle. The ideal combination you’re shooting for, referred to as loam, is about 40 percent sand, 40 percent silt, and 20 percent clay.