Here's the dirt on soil

Ce Cowart Schlicher | WCMGA soil test kit. 

There’s a saying amongst Master Gardeners, “It’s soil, not dirt. Dirt is something that gets on your clothes. Soil is what plants grow in.” And it’s true. Soil is one of the three basics for most plant life (water and sun being the other two). So it only makes sense that this is one of the basics that we have the most control over.

So why is it the most ignored? The average person thinks that they can plop a plant in the ground, and throw a little water on it and the plants should just grow. Then they wonder why their plant looks so sad in the place they planted it. When you look at your sad plant, your next thought is usually, “What’s wrong with the plant?” Typically we throw more water at it (and it usually becomes waterlogged), and continue to wonder why it still looks awful or dies.

So instead of all that work. Here’s the real dirt on soil. Just get a soil test!

What is a soil test, you say? It’s a great tool for any gardener or non-gardener for that matter. It’s a scientific analysis of your soil on your property. Think medical test results from the doctor that help you discover what you need to help your body deal with health issues. The same can be said for a soil test. It helps you uncover what you need to help your soil do its best work. A soil test can read a lot like a medical test result, but more on that in a moment.

A soil test can be the most important information you will ever have on what will or won’t work on your property. It helps determine health of your lawn, your trees, your shrubs, flowers, and even gives insight on how water/moisture is managed. The information given to you from a soil test is like a treasure chest. Once you have it, you know how you can spend your money on your property. Good soil helps water to be used more efficiently, and it helps plants deter pests because they are healthy and strong. Nice to know a simple test can save you a lot of money, time and labor!

There are some basics that you need to know before you try to read your soil test. You need to know some basic properties of the main textures of soil. Understanding that the results of your soil type is basically the bones of your soil. This knowledge helps you to determine what steps to take next to make your soil stronger or more effective. Organic matter content has nothing to do with soil texture.

Here are the basic soil types or textures: Sand, Sandy loam, Clay loam and Clay. Of course, there are all sorts of mixtures and combinations of these. Wildly enough, you can have all or mixtures in the same plot of land. But knowing where they are on your property is key. Each of these textures can hold water and other nutrients in your soil. They also determine how your soil may leach or distribute nutrients such as nitrogen throughout your soil.

Walker County has all of these soil textures in play. I have some form of sand or sandy loam around my house probably because it sits up on a hill. But as my property slopes down towards a creek, I have found some tough pockets of clay. Knowing where these pockets are helps me determine what I should try (or not) to plant.

The basic soil test will also inform you of your soil’s pH. This is key for growing several crops such as blueberries or shrubs such as azaleas or camellias. You cannot assume that your soil has an acidic pH just because an azalea is growing there. Primary nutrients such as NPK (Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium) are also analyzed. The test results may offer fertilizer suggestions.

A soil test kit can be picked up from any AgriLife Extension office. The soil sample bags and information sheets are included, and pricing is based on the extent of the test you require. Always have your soil tested if you are purchasing land, and test results haven’t been provided to you. Also have it tested every 3 years or so to determine changes due to management practices. You should also have it tested if it has never been tested. The test can indicate if there is a buildup of certain salts in the soil, or minerals/chemicals that may be a problem to plant life.

When collecting soil samples, always use a clean shovel or other sampling tool. Choose 10 random areas, and pull soil from a depth of 6 inches. Avoid sampling areas such as under the eaves of the house, near brush piles, manure piles or compost bins. Stay away from gravel roads or close to a concrete or asphalt driveway.

The accuracy of your soil test will depend on the quality of the sample you take. Do your best to make sure the sample is a good representation of the area you want information on. Place your soil samples in a clean, plastic bucket and thoroughly mix the soils together.

If you want separate results from your lawn and your flower beds, you will need two kits. About a pint of soil will fill the kit. Fill out the form and send it to the indicated address, along with the payment for the type of test you want. Currently, the base or routine test is $12, but more in-depth tests will cost more.

To pick up a test kit, visit the Walker County AgriLife Office is located at 102B Tam Road off of Hwy. 75 North. If you need the kit mailed to you, call 936-435-2426. Once you receive your results, if you need help reading the report, call and ask for Reggie Lepley, AgriLife Extension Agent, or a Master Gardener. Master Gardeners are typically ‘in’ on Thursday mornings.

The Walker County Extension Office is also on Facebook. WalkerCoTxAgrilife has been established to provide updates and information to Walker County residents and landowners on a timely basis. The Walker County Master Gardeners are also on Facebook! Check out both of these Facebook pages and hit "like" to join.