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Soil Testing & Soil Samples - How to Make Your Garden Grow

Updated on December 26, 2014

Soil Testing & Soil Samples - Go Green the Right Way!

Just how is Soil Testing going to lead me down the path of great garden glory and righteousness? Well, let's answer that with a question: How do you know what vitamins and nutrients to feed your garden soil unless you know what's already IN your garden soil?

Lots of people add to the water pollution every year (and do great damage to the life of their garden soil) by adding chemicals (fertilizers) that the soil doesn't need (which then get washed away into rainwater), and that kill the beneficial life in the soil.  [Unnecessary chemical fertilizers sort of do for the soil what unnecessary food chemicals do for your body.] Actually, if more people got soil tests, they would be able to use less chemicals, and add what is really needed to make their garden grow - which is, more often than not, organic matter. [If this term is new to you, be on the look out for it again later!]

Few people realize that their local university co-op extension probably has a small-fee soil test lab service, along with a (usually free) Master Gardener consultation program to discuss the soil test results. Learn what's in your soil today before you plant that next seed, bulb or flower!

Soil Test Poll


Have you had your soil tested yet?

See results

Soil Testing Kits for Kds

Luster Leaf 1601 Rapitest Soil Test Kit
Luster Leaf 1601 Rapitest Soil Test Kit

Whether you're a home-schooler, or a gardener who wants your kids to get their hands dirty and learn about gardening, or a composter who wants your kids to learn how compost affects the soil, this soil testing kit is educational.


Want Better Soil?

ADD Compost, THEN, Add More Compost. Find out how:

Compost - How, Why & What to Compost

Want to learn more about

Everything Soil?

Go To Soil & Compost Forum

great soil with pumpkin seedling by D Sharon Pruitt aka Pink Sherbet Photography on
great soil with pumpkin seedling by D Sharon Pruitt aka Pink Sherbet Photography on

Great Soil

The point of soil tests is to see what your soil has going for it, and what its missing. That sounds simple enough. Does it have enough Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P), Potassium (K)? Does it have N-P-K in the ratios that you want for growing what you want to grow? Does it have enough Calcium, Magnesium, and other Micronutrients?

More importantly though, does it have the other aspects of great soil that makes great plants? What about the soil's Tilth, Humus, and Organic Matter? Don't know what that is, or how to get it? Keep reading!

[This beautiful pumpkin seedling in great soil is courtesy of D Sharon Pruitt aka Pink Sherbet Photography at]

worm castings and soil by cursedthing on Flickr
worm castings and soil by cursedthing on Flickr

Organic Matter & Humus & Tilth

of Soil

Organic Matter is the "plant and animal material that is in the process of decomposing." After that material has fully decomposed, it is called "humus."

BE SURE that your soil test tests for Organic Matter. An absolutely lovely soil would have a 25% Organic Matter. That is the soil that gardeners dream of. It makes the Tilth of the soil (i.e. the soil's structure) ideal. A soil with a good tilth will allow air and water to pass through the soil at an ideal rate, a rate that allows the plant ample time to absorb water and nutrients, but without drowning or suffocating it.

How do you get it? In my opinion, from everything I've read online and in books, and from my experience, you get that sort of awesome soil from continually adding lots of organic matter and humus over time.

[This wicked cool picture is courtesy of cursedthing on and was part of a science experiment. To see more pictures of the science experiment (which tested whether earthworms preferred cool soil to warm soil), see the photo stream attached to this photo.]

Adding Organic Matter - to your soil

Do you remember what Organic Matter is? It's stuff that's in the process of breaking down (or, decomposing). When it is done decomposing, it's called ... humus (no, not the stuff made of chick peas!).

To get great soil, keep adding Organic Matter to your soil. "Okay great," I can hear you saying (as I did many years ago), "but that doesn't help me identify this so-called 'Organic Matter' that I'm supposed to add to the soil!" Years ago, when I started my gardening quest and became fascinated with the art and science of soil (a.k.a. loved getting my fingers dirty!), I became somewhat obsessed with finding the answer to the obvious ensuing question of: "What is the Organic Matter that I'm supposed to be adding?!"

Here are some of my Organic Matter and Soil Building suggestions and insights.

  1. Organic Matter:

    wood chip, bark, (pine) needle mulch

  2. Organic Matter: COMPOST [Note: Why does COMPOST get bold? Because he's the best!] You can get COMPOST by (1) making it yourself (see Compost - 200+ Compost Ingredients), (2) buying it, and/or (3) getting it for free from your town!
  3. Organic Matter:

    Shredded Leaf mulch

    Next to COMPOST, Shredded Leaves are my favorite! (maybe because it involves power tools!) [Note: try to mix-in Dried Blood/Blood Meal in with the Shredded Leaves because this will help the shredded leaves break down quicker, and "theoretically" won't "steal" Nitrogen from the soil to break down the leaves]
  4. Organic Matter:

    dead fruits/veggies, dead garden waste

    (best in small pieces) (definitely without seeds, unless you want unplanned plants like canteloupes and cucumbers popping up all over your garden) [Note: I don't use this often because it can attract rodents as it doesn't break down as quickly in the active garden as it does in the compost pile, and it can get unwieldy and inconvenient to constantly be pushing back mulch and/or compost to "bury" the dead fruits/veggies.]
  5. Feed the Worms:

    used coffee grounds

    (from your own house or coffee shops, e.g. Starbucks)
  6. Feed the Worms:


    (yes, the kind sold in the baking aisle at your food store works just perfectly - get the bag of cornmeal, not the corn bread mix)
  7. Help the Organic Matter:

    Dried Blood/Blood Meal

    (get this at any nursery/garden center/store)
  8. Vitamins:

    Bone Meal

    (get this at any nursery/garden center/store)
  9. Supplements:

    Peat Moss & Vermiculite

    [Note: I don't use Peat Moss. Something about the idea of using this limited supply of this ancient relic just to improve my little veggie garden patch doesn't float my boat. But, some people wouldn't do a garden without it. Vermiculite is a natural mineral that retains moisture for the plants to use, while at the same time moderating the moisture level so that the plants don't drown. Think of it as little itty bitty sponges.]
  10. Notes:

    Organic Matter such as compost, pine bark mulch and shredded leaves are the best!

    Here's how I do it (ideally): (1) After removing rocks & roots (after all, I live in the Northeast part of USA - it's all rocks & roots up here), mix compost and some vitamins (blood meal, bone meal) into the top 6" of the soil, (2) Then plant, mixing some vermiculite into the area around the roots/seeds, (3) Then add a good 1" layer of compost, (4) Then sprinkle corn meal/flour, and/or used coffee grounds, (5) Then add shredded leaves mixed with dried blood/blood meal, about 1", (6) Then add pine bark or other wood-chip type (not cedar) mulch, about 1".
  11. Notes:

    Pine Bark is my favorite mulch

    for my garden because it is very quick to decompose. The ants help with this. Thus, I wouldn't recommend using Pine Bark near your house foundation for fear of carpenter ants being attracted to it. But, in the veggie garden, I let the ants go to town, and usually they're just the little "sugar ant" sort of guys.
  12. Notes: THE WORMS are your 24/7/265 garden workers. They work harder than you do, and the success of your garden is dependent in large part, on them (that is, IF you don't want to be completely dependent on synthetic additives). THE WORMS do 2 main things: (1) build air and water "tunnels" (which is crucial to great roots development), and (2) ingest & decompose the Organic Matter (thus making worm poop, or more properly termed, worm "castings"). Worm Castings look like little teeny tiny uniform sized-balls of dirt on top of your garden.
  13. Notes: THE WORMS love to eat corn meal/flour, used coffee grounds, and shredded leaves (or, so they told me over breakfast the other day). Thus, bring them up to the top of the compost with the corn meal and used coffee grounds, and they'll munch on some of those leaves while they're at it, and voila, organic matter abounds!
  14. Notes:

    During the gardening season

    add more compost. Now, I don't add compost on top of the pine bark mulch because I believe that the soil will use too much Nitrogen trying to break down the pine bark, and thus, the plants won't have as much Nitrogen available to them for the plants' use. Sooooo, I pull back the remaining pine bark mulch (and the shredded leaves if any are left), then I add another 1" layer of compost, maybe some more bone meal and dried blood (aka vitamins) mixed in, then I add a little more corn meal and coffee grounds, and push back the shredded leaves and pine bark mulch.
  15. Notes:


    can be simply compost, or simply shredded leaves. You don't need bark mulch. However, I like using pine bark mulch because I feel that it keeps the right water retention and temperature maintenance for my garden. And, I like to use the compost and shredded leaves for Organic Matter.

My Favorite Compost Book

Regularly adding compost to your soil results in a higher Organic Matter (OM) % in your soil - which results in more Humus - which results in better air, water & nutrient mobility & availability to plants. So, you want it - and lots of it. Learn what it's about, why it's important, and how to make it in "Let It Rot!"

Let it Rot!: The Gardener's Guide to Composting (Third Edition) (Storey's Down-To-Earth Guides)
Let it Rot!: The Gardener's Guide to Composting (Third Edition) (Storey's Down-To-Earth Guides)

I really like the range of topics that this book covers, without making you feel that your'e getting a PhD in composting. This book keeps it fun, and allows you to keep composting as simple, fun or complicated a possible.

Evidently Jessica Furguson agrees with me in her review: "This is a great, clear cut, interesting and fun-to-read book! Stu Campbell is able to take what, to newcomers, can be a daunting task and not only present us with the basics to feel comfortable but he also translates some of the scientific "mumbo-jumbo" of how and why compost works into layman's terms."


The $64 Tomato - How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden

Only a true home gardener could have written this book. It's listed under non-fiction, because it is this Connecticut gardener's true life account of his adventures. But, it reads like fiction. It is hysterical. And, all of us gardeners, can completely identify with his epic plights - ground hogs, cabbage moths, deer, etc.

After rehabing an old Connecticut disaster of a house into a beautiful home, William Alexander launches into the creation of his ideal garden. His visions of sheer bliss are met head-on with the challenges that all gardeners face, but William seems to encounter them on a much grander scale, thus creating his "existential crisis," which we follow from chapter to chapter with roaring laughter. I never had so much fun laughing with (or, possibly, at) another gardener. Nor have I ever felt that another gardener "feels my pain" on such a true and laughable level.

This book is on my "must re-read each year" list!

The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden
The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden

Whether it's winter, and you're waiting for spring planting, or it's summer, and you're lounging in the shade, The $64 Tomato will provide you with entertaining and humorous reading!

I LOVED this book! It was so funny, I read aloud whole paragraphs to my husband. I never knew there was such a thing as gardener humor until I read this book. What a hoot!


Getting the Coffee Grounds into Your Garden

Whether it's by way of the outdoor compost pile, the worm composting bin, or buried directly into the soil, you need a place to collect your kitchen scraps, and a neat way to carry it. Make sure that those used coffee grounds go to good use!

These are my suggestions. I have and LOVE the stainless steel one. I also love it because it's super easy to clean it, when you want to do that. There's absolutely no odor. It's very inconspicuous in my kitchen - just behind the sink & dish drainer. The white ceramic would probably work better for a white kitchen.

My Top 5 Soil Testing & Improvement Pages

There are some great resources out there about taking soil samples, and the benefits of soil testing, and how to interpret soil testing. Also, I think that the more you read about soil testing, the more you will get interested in how soil works, and thus, the art and science of soil. Very interesting reading!!!

Do YOU Compost?


I love composting. Do YOU?

[Photo courtesy of KirstyHall from]

Do You Make Your Own Compost?

See results

My Favorite Gardening Book

Now, Square Foot Gardener purists will tell you that the key component to Mel's Square Foot Gardening is his special "soil" mix. But, I disagree. I used Mel's Square Foot Gardening approach in my "beautiful" garden soil (see how I got it to be beautiful in the list above) (in our community garden).

The Tote Buddy - Go Green Inside Your Home

The Tote Buddy is the premier way to Tote your Reusable Grocery Bags!

Got reusable grocery bags?

Always forget them in your trunk?

Always get them in a tangle at the bottom of the cart under the veggies?

Always leave them hanging around somewhere between the kitchen and the car?

Get the cool, organized and smart way to use your reusable grocery bags with The Tote Buddy (and it even comes with your choice of 1 or 3 reusable grocery bags - your choice).

And, it's pretty too, isnt' it?

(Of course, if you're not into floral, there's always the sleek black option. :)

The Puppy by The White Wolf on
The Puppy by The White Wolf on

Digging: The OTHER Soil Testing

"The Puppy" by The White Wolf

In the Wintertime


Coffee Grinds,

& Potato Peelings

are a Great Addition

to your Compost Pile.

(My apologies for "borrowing" such an awesome phrase from such a revered national symbol, the Statue of Liberty, but you gotta admit, it sounds cool! For a more honorable commentary on America, visit God Bless America.)

Give me your comments on your tired soil, your poor soil, your huddled masses of clay yearning to breathe free!

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    • TheresaMarkham profile image

      TheresaMarkham 4 years ago

      @anonymous: Hi! I don't know the answer to your question, but I'm sure that you can find many answers online or by calling the worm company.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago


    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      I HAVE JUST BUOGHT A WORM FACTORY 360 NEWER VERSION.I THINK I POSTED A COMMENT TO JOSHK47 BUT IN CASE HE DOESN'T GET IT I HAVE STARTED MY NEW FIRST TRAY WITH 2000 RED WRIGGLERS FOR 3 DAYS NOW.OK BUT ON WEDNESDAY I HAVE ANOTHER1200 COMING CAN I JUST PUT THEM IN THE FIRST TRAY WITH THE REST.CAN YOU EMAIL AND LET ME KNOW PLEASE.MY EMAIL IS oh and also do you know where i can order online or go to for a compost moisture meter that is a good one but at a decent price around 20.00 if you can help me i would appreciate it. THANKS AGAIN ............MIKO ROGER

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago


    • TheresaMarkham profile image

      TheresaMarkham 5 years ago

      @JoshK47: Thanks Josh for the compliment - and for the SquidAngel "Blessing"!

    • profile image

      JoshK47 5 years ago

      Wonderful information - thanks for sharing! Blessed by a SquidAngel!

    • EdTecher profile image

      Heidi Reina 5 years ago from USA

      I haven't had my soil tested since moving to a new house. Hopefully my compost is helping, but you give me lots of good reasons to get it tested anyway... as well as exactly where to get it done. My plants thank you!

    • Im Horse Crazy profile image

      Im Horse Crazy 5 years ago

      We learned a lot from our soil test!

    • Melissa Miotke profile image

      Melissa Miotke 5 years ago from Arizona

      Great information, thanks for the great lens!

    • nyclittleitaly profile image

      nyclittleitaly 5 years ago

      Great job, this lens is very informative

    • profile image

      readabooki 5 years ago

      love your lens I did not know about feeding the worm - way cool

    • MBurgess profile image

      Maria Burgess 5 years ago from Las Vegas, Nevada

      Great information! I garden in containers at the moment. Book marking you for my future garden lens. =) Thanks for sharing!!!

    • Elyn MacInnis profile image

      Elyn MacInnis 5 years ago from Shanghai, China

      I love the soil testing kit for kids - will order one. This is some good inspiration to check it out and help the soil along so it is not a huddle mass yearning to be free! You have a great sense of humor. Thanks!

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I must get the $64 Tomato! Must admit I hate composting, & having to fuss with the soil first. I just want it to be all ready for me as I plant my healthy little seedlings! Doesn't work that way. Soil is the foundation of a gorgeous garden. Thanks for a very informative lens!

    • JohannDog profile image

      Johann The Dog 5 years ago from Northeast Georgia

      Great resource! Woofs, Johann

    • mihgasper profile image

      Miha Gasper 6 years ago from Ljubljana, Slovenia, EU

      Beautiful lens with extremely useful resources. Thanks for sharing!

    • waldenthreenet profile image

      waldenthreenet 6 years ago

      Appreciating your topic. Have complimentary on gardening topics indoor and outdoor. Congrads on reaching Squidoo Level. Just got here myself. Will meet again soon.

    • Countryluthier profile image

      E L Seaton 6 years ago from Virginia

      Nicely done, especially the humus!

    • MariaMontgomery profile image

      MariaMontgomery 6 years ago from Central Florida, USA

      This is a great lens with lots of useful information. Thanks for a really nice, helpful lens.

    • profile image

      homerepellent 6 years ago

      Laying the right foundations help ensure that the rest of the process is built upon solid grounding. Thank you for the information. Keep them coming.



    • avgsuperheroine profile image

      avgsuperheroine 6 years ago

      thank you for mentioning Extension in your lens, the Master Gardener program and the other resources at Extension Offices are sometimes a too-well-kept secret! Thank you for sharing.

    • profile image

      momsfunny 6 years ago

      Very helpful lens. It is really nice to have a good soil. You can plant anything you want.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      What a wonderfully helpful idea for a lens. I live in an apartment complex and would love to have my own lawn to test.

    • puerdycat lm profile image

      puerdycat lm 6 years ago

      Great Resource! Like, favroite & lens-rolling you to my more whimsical G is for Garden. Have a great growing season!

    • TheresaMarkham profile image

      TheresaMarkham 6 years ago

      @anonymous: Jennifer - I've added the Alabama link above! Go for it! Remember, grass LOVES coffee grounds and compost. See my Compost lens.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      I am located in Spanish Fort, Alabama, and would love to have my yard tested, the grass does not grow well.

    • TheresaMarkham profile image

      TheresaMarkham 9 years ago

      Diane R - I checked it out & found some info for IL - see the new University of Illinois Extension link that I added above.

    • profile image

      anonymous 9 years ago

      I'm looking for a soil testing extension for Illinois. The ones I've found seem to be for farmers. Thanks for any help you can give.


    • Tiddledeewinks LM profile image

      Tiddledeewinks LM 9 years ago

      I have a garden, but haven't tested the soil. It seems to be doing great with my chicken manure.

    • TheresaMarkham profile image

      TheresaMarkham 9 years ago

      Hi Andre!

      As I noted in my email to you, most states only select one university at which to have a cooperative extension. So, use the link to the FL Univ coop extension above, regardless of where you live.

      As to the other soil concerns, I highly recommend the Soil, Compost & Mulch forum at

      GardenWeb Soil and Compost Forum

      All the Best, Theresa

    • profile image

      anonymous 9 years ago

      Hello, my name is Andre, and i want to plant a garden in an area of my 2 acres that had some old tires, metal, and corroded cans of paint and just a bumch of junk on it for a long time. I wanted to get the soil tested first to make sure that nothing funky seeped into the soil. I live in Tampa, Fl. Does anyone know if U of Tampa, or USF (Univ of South Fl) has this program? Please email me at: Any advice on what I mentioned was there? Am i being too paranoyd?

    • profile image

      anonymous 9 years ago

      Check out Midwest Laboratories Inc.

      Midwest offers many soil packages at very reasonable prices with a high level of quality and quick turnaround time of three days.

      Check out the packages online.