Plants require four things for successful growth — water, sunlight, carbon dioxide and fertile soil. While the West Virginia University Extension Service can’t help with three of those, every county office does possess materials and knowledge to help property owners ensure that their soil is not limiting growth.
The WVU Soil Testing Lab provides a basic soil fertility analysis to all West Virginia landowners, homeowners and producers. The process is free and simple; and residents can pick up a soil sampling kit from any of the WVU Extension Service county offices.
“No matter what the goal is —whether a healthy, green lawn, productive backyard garden or hearty pasture and hayfields — at the root of it all is good soil,” said Ed Rayburn, WVU Extension Service agronomy specialist.
Rayburn stressed that late summer and early fall are the best times to take a sample for analysis, as the soil conditions accurately reflect what the plant’s roots have access to during the growing season.
Before beginning, think about goals, considering past soil management and the terrain to set up management areas — blocks of land that have similar characteristics and will be growing the same thing. Every management area requires its own sample for analysis.
Treat areas with varied terrain as different management areas. Hill tops will have different soil characteristics than the slopes or bottom. The same applies for areas that have different crop and fertilization histories. Also, if the field is larger than ten acres, divide it into multiple management areas.
“A good, simple rule of thumb is that a final sample should be truly representative of the area that the landowner wishes to focus on,” said Rayburn.
For a single management area, the soil testing lab needs a total of one cup to one pint of soil to analyze. Several smaller samples from around the area should be mixed together to compose a comprehensive, final sample of that volume.
Once the number of management areas is determined, pick up a separate sampling kit for each of them and gather tools to begin collecting the smaller samples.
“The most vital thing needed is a clean container to collect the soil in,” cautioned Rayburn. “A container contaminated with any sort of debris or residue can greatly alter the results of the analysis and provide the landowner with inaccurate fertilization recommendations.”
In addition to a clean container, gather:
• Sampling device (tube sampler, auger or shovel)
• Plastic glass or clean, smooth rock
• Slotted spoon
Before taking a sample, determine the proper sample depth.
Rayburn recommended sampling full-till sites such as gardens and row crops at till depth, sampling minimum-till sites at half the till depth, and sampling sites with permanent sod, such as pasture, hayfields and lawns at two inches.
To take a small sample using an auger or tube sampler, start by moving organic debris to the side to expose the soil. If that’s not possible, take the sample through the sod. Push the tube sampler into the ground or twist the auger to obtain the small sample. Remove from the ground and place the soil into the clean bucket.
If using a shovel, dig a v-shaped hole to the desired depth and take a one-inch slice down either side. Remove the sides of the slice leaving a 1- by 1-inch column of soil as the small sample, and place it into the clean bucket.
For pastures and hayfields, Rayburn recommended about twenty small samples per management area to form the final sample.
For lawn and gardens, approximately 10 to 20 tablespoons of soil per 4- by 50-foot bed, or 15 to 20 tablespoons for a 50- by 50-foot garden should comprise the sample.
Let the smaller samples air dry in a shaded area. Do not dry in the microwave, oven or in direct sunlight as that could skew the results.
Once dry, gently crush and mix the smaller samples together with the bottom of a plastic glass or a smooth rock. Use the slotted spoon to remove organic debris and small rocks, then package at least one cup to one pint of the soil in the provided bag. Ensure the information sheet is filled out accurately and drop the kit off at the local Extension office, or mail it to the lab directly.
“Analysis results include fertilization recommendations based on the goals for the land, and your local Extension agent can help design a plan to ensure that your soil is in top form,” said Rayburn. “The sooner you send the sample, the sooner you can receive your results to make soil corrections and get a head start on a productive growing season come spring.”
For more information regarding soil testing, visit the WVU Extension Agriculture and Natural Resources website or your local WVU Extension Service office.
CONTACT: Cassie Thomas, WVU Extension Service
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