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Test soil now to grow better crops and gardens

newspaperMost Virginians take the winter off from gardening, but cold months are a great time to test your soil, said Chris Mullins, a Virginia Cooperative Extension greenhouse specialist at Virginia State University.

“It’s a good idea, three or four months before you plant, to get a soil test done and see what kind of nutrients are in the soil and if you do need to amend them and how,” Mullins said.

Soil testing is easy work compared to many other garden chores, he added. All you need is a clean shovel, a clean bucket and a soil sample box from either the Extension soil testing laboratory or a private firm. Free sample boxes and order forms are available at any local Extension office and many other local government locations, and Mullins said the cost of either an Extension or private test is a good investment.

“It’s really not that expensive, it’s really cheap as dirt,” he said with a smile.

To take a representative soil sample, dig a wedge about 6 to 8 inches deep in the ground, and cut off any grass or roots, Mullins said. For a small garden, sample several places in the garden, then mix the samples in your bucket and collect a small representative box of soil to be tested. For a larger area, take more samples before mixing them together. If ordering an Extension test, be sure to mail the order form along with the sample.

“That form will tell the people at the lab what was grown here last year and what you plan to grow here this year. It will identify the sample as unique to you and give you an analysis.”

It usually takes several weeks to get an analysis back, Mullins said. Key parts of the report are the soil pH and fertilizer recommendations.

“The pH level is so important for how the other elements are taken up by plants. So it’s very important to take advantage of that recommendation.”

Mullins said it’s also important to know the square footage of a garden in order to calculate how much material to put on the soil this spring.

Mullins appears on Real Virginia, a weekly television program produced by Virginia Farm Bureau Federation that airs on cable channels and public television stations across the state and on RFD-TV. It’s also available on VaFarmBureau.org.

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