How do you test soil for the nutrients present in it?

How do you test soil for the nutrients present in it?

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I recently noticed that my rose garden has been in a very terrible state. The roses keep dying. I tested the soil for its pH and that was fine. Now I'm wondering how would I carry out a test to see what specific nutrients I should use to get my soil better.

Send soil samples to a soil lab (e.g., here). They will likely use the Mehlich III extractant method to extract and quantify the nutrients (most importantly the bases such as Ca, Mg, K, and Na). Will cost less than $25.

Testing Your Soil: How to Collect and Send Samples

Soil tests can be used to estimate the kinds and amounts of soil nutrients available to plants. They also can be used as aids in determining fertilizer needs. Properly conducted soil sampling and testing can be cost-effective indicators of the types and amounts of fertilizer and lime needed to improve crop yield.

The effects of adding a fertilizer often depend on the level of nutrients already present in the soil (Fig. 1). If a soil is very low in a particular nutrient, yield will probably be increased if that nutrient is added. By comparison, if the soil has high initial nutrient levels, fertilization will result in little, if any, increase in yield.

There are three steps involved in obtaining a soil test:

  1. obtain sample bags and instructions,
  2. collect composite samples,
  3. select the proper test, and complete the information sheet and mail to the Soil, Water, and Forage Testing Laboratory at 2478 TAMU, College Station, TX 77843-2478 for U.S. mail or 2610 F&B Road, College Station, TX 77845 for commercial deliveries. Contact the lab at (979) 845-4816, FAX (979) 845-5958, or at the Web site for additional information.

3 Simple DIY Soil Tests

Success in the garden starts with the soil. It, as much as—and sometimes more than—moisture and sunlight, determines whether plants thrive or die. Here are a few quick and easy ways to test your soil.

Your soil needs to be able to provide nutrients to plants, and allow plants to take up the nutrients in the soil. Otherwise, your plants just won’t grow well.

The Peanut Butter Jar Soil Test for Sand, Silt, and Clay

This should take about 1 hour to set up and a full day to conclude. Find an empty straight-sided jar, such as a peanut butter or mason jar, with a lid, and have a ruler handy. Dig down to root level—about 6 inches—in the area that you want to test and remove enough soil to fill the the jar to between one-third and one-half full. Next, fill the jar to the shoulder with water, then set the jar aside to let the soil soak up the water. Put the lid on the jar and shake it hard for about 3 minutes.

  1. Set the jar down and look at your watch. In 1 minute, measure (with the ruler) the amount of sediment that has collected at the bottom. This is the sand in your soil.
  2. Wait 4 minutes more. Measure the sediment again: The difference between the two numbers will be the amount of silt in your soil.
  3. Take a third measurement in 24 hours. The difference between the second and third number will be the amount of clay in your soil.

Calculate the percentages of sand, silt, and clay, which should add up to 100 percent. Healthy soil typically consists of 20 percent clay, 40 percent silt, and 40 percent sand.

This simple test can help you to decide what to grow: If your soil is high in sand, it will be well-draining. Silt and clay are hard to get wet, but they stay wet plants that like “wet feet” would be happy here. Choose your plants accordingly and/or amend the soil:

  • If you have sandy soil, add humus or aged manure, peat moss, or sawdust with some extra nitrogen. Heavy, clay-rich soil can also be added to improve the soil.
  • If you have silty soil, add coarse sand (not beach sand) or gravel and compost, or well-rotted horse manure mixed with fresh straw.
  • If you have clay soil, add coarse sand (not beach sand), compost, and peat moss.

The Pantry pH Test for Soil Acidity or Alkalinity

  1. Place 2 tablespoons of soil in a bowl and add ½ cup vinegar. If the mixture fizzes, you have alkaline soil.
  2. Place 2 tablespoons of soil in a bowl and moisten it with distilled water. Add ½ cup baking soda. If the mixture fizzes, you have acidic soil.
  • If it does not react to either test, the soil has a neutral pH.
  • A very high or very low soil pH may result in plant nutrient deficiency or toxicity.
  • A pH value of 7 is neutral microbial activity is greatest and plant roots absorb/access nutrients best when the pH is in the 5.5 to 7 range.

Once you figure out your soil pH, you can change or adjust it. Acidic (sour) soil is counteracted by applying finely ground limestone, and alkaline (sweet) soil is treated with ground sulfur.

The Earthworm Test to Gauge Organic Matter

The best time to check for earthworms is in the spring when the soil’s temperature has reached 50°F and its surface is moist. Use a shovel to dig up about 1 cubic foot of soil. Put the soil on a piece of cardboard, break it apart, and look for earthworms. Learn more about the wonderful world of earthworms.

If your soil is healthy, you’ll find at least 10 earthworms!

If your soil has fewer than 10 worms, add more organic matter—compost, aged manure, leaf mold. Organic matter improves structure, slowly releases nutrients, and increases beneficial microbial activity.

All about Soil pH its importance, need, how to test it and how to balance it

So you’ve tested your soil in six places and you’ve found out that it’s generally a pH of… whatever it is.

Here’s some tips on how you can balance your soil…

If the soil is too acidic: less than 7 = low pH

Add green manure crops into your rotation with more frequency.

Add organic matter in the form of a well balanced, pH neutral compost… adding humus is the best way of changing pH… let the biology do the work!!

Add agricultural lime (not builders lime!). As a rule of thumb, carefully apply 100g to each meter squared. NOTE lime can only be accurately applied if a total mineral test is performed. It will take a while to increase the pH this way – you should see a change in the pH within 6 months. Be careful not to over apply.

Add Dolomite – BUT it contains Magnesium, which if it is already present in large quantities, could block other minerals. Again, a total mineral test is a good idea before doing this.

If soil is too alkaline: greater than 7 = high pH:

This soil will be harder to rebalance

Add organic matter such as pine needles or decomposed tree leaves.

Add green manure crops into your rotation with more frequency

  • In an extreme situation you could use powdered sulphur. Be very careful with this as sulphur is anti microbial… and will kill off your biology if applied regularly. Apply one handful per square metre, once a year. It works very slowly and you won’t notice a change in your pH for about 6 months.

There’s other, more in-depth roads you can go down with mineral testing for your soil (we recommend Swep Laboratories if you’re going this road).

But as you can hopefully see from the info above, balancing your soil’s pH is a great first step to healthy veggies.

In short, balancing your soil’s pH is a short-cut to growing healthy food.

Once you’re on your way with good soil pH, it’s much easier to treat mineral deficiencies if they crop up in your plants.

Because now, you’ve created a soil environment where the plants can suck up the goodness they need, once you give it to them.

Testing the pH of Soil Samples

Commercial and recreational gardeners are showing a growing interest in taking accurate pH measurement of soil samples . The pH of soil indicates more than its alkalinity or acidity strength it affects the relative availability of nutrients, the soil life, and the type of plants that will thrive.

The common range of soil pH varies from 4.0 to 8.0 the range of soil pH for optimal availability of plant nutrients is 6.0 to 7.0. The ability of soil to provide adequate nutrition to the plant depends upon the following factors :

    Essential elements in the soil—The nutrients present in soil depend upon the elemental nature of the soil and the organic material content. Soil nutrients exist both as complex insoluble compounds (organic materials) and as simple soluble forms.
    Release of nutrients to plants—Simple elements in the soil are readily available for plant uptake. The complex forms (organic materials) must be broken down through decomposition to simpler, more available forms to benefit the plants.
    pH of the soil solution—pH directly affects the availability of essential nutrients. For example, though iron, manganese, and zinc become less available as the pH rises above 6.5, molybdenum and phosphorus become more available. When the soil is acidic, minerals such as zinc, aluminum, manganese, copper, and cobalt become more soluble for plants’ uptake. However, an excess of these ions can be toxic to plants. Alkaline soil contains a higher quantity of bicarbonate ions, which interferes with the normal uptake of other ions, harming plant growth.

Soil life refers to living organisms that live in the soil and break down the organic materials. Soil bacteria that assist in the decomposition of organic material thrive at a pH of 6.3 to 6.8. Fungi and mold prefer a more acidic soil, making soil more prone to souring and putrefication.

Plants also have different soil pH preferences—several gardeners’ web sites offer charts of preferred pH levels for different plants. Knowing the pH of soil can help you choose the correct plants and the required treatment for your soil.

Optimal Soil pH Ranges

Plants that thrive in more acidic soil include apple trees (pH 5 – pH 6.5), potatoes (pH 4.5 – pH 6), and orchids (pH 4.5 – pH 5.5). Alkaline loving plants include acacia and walnut trees (they both like soil between pH 6 – pH 8).

To figure out the best pH for your needs, do a little bit of research on the type of plants that you want to grow. Natural soil is typically between pH 4 and pH 8. If your soil's pH doesn't match the plants optimal range, you'll need to treat your soil.

Types of Soil Treatments

Soil too acidic? Popular options for treatment are lime, calcium carbonate, and ground up eggshells. If the soil is too basic then gypsum, iron sulfate, sulfuric acid, or calcium chloride can be added.

Irrigating the soil frequently can help lower the pH if it is too high as well. However, be careful not to over-water the plants if the treatment of the soil is in a planted area. This can cause diseases to set in, and nutrients can get diluted or washed away.

Hanna Tip: The cost of the materials and the size of the planting space will also be a factor in how you treat your soil. For example, it's much more workable and affordable to treat a small home garden with ground eggshells than to do so in several acres of field.

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Soil Testing

Soil health is an assessment of how well soil performs all of its functions now and how those functions are being preserved for future use. Soil health cannot be determined by measuring only crop yield, water quality, or any other single outcome. Soil health cannot be measured directly, so we evaluate indicators.

Indicators are measurable properties of soil or plants that provide clues about how well the soil can function. Indicators can be physical, chemical, and biological properties, processes, or characteristics of soils. They can also be morphological or visual features of plants.

  • are easy to measure,
  • measure changes in soil functions,
  • encompass chemical, biological, and physical properties,
  • are accessible to many users and applicable to field conditions, and
  • are sensitive to variations in climate and management.

Indicators can be assessed by qualitative or quantitative techniques. After measurements are collected, they can be evaluated by looking for patterns and comparing results to measurements taken at a different time or field.


Symptoms can vary depending on several factors. How alkaline is the soil? The higher the pH, the more chlorotic the plant. How long has the plant been chlorotic? In general, the longer the plant has been chlorotic, the more severe the chlorosis. Generally, mild chlorosis starts as a paling (lighter green to lime-green color) of interveinal (between veins) tissue, whereas a yellow color indicates a more serious condition. In some cases, only part of the plant is chlorotic. Affected areas (or the entire plant) may be stunted or fail to produce flowers and fruit. In addition, chlorotic leaves are more prone to scorching and leaf diseases. With severe chlorosis, the leaf veins will turn yellow, followed by the death of the leaf, the affected branch may die back, and death of the entire plant can occur.

Current turnaround for Soil Testing is about two weeks.

COVID-19 Update

The Soil Testing Lab is open for business. But due to COVID-19 safety measures, we are discouraging in-person sample hand-off. Please mail or ship your samples to us, or utilize the drop-box which is deployed outside the north door of our building during business hours (8:00-4:30 Monday through Friday). Please also understand that there may be slight delays in some laboratory functions. All samples will be analyzed as quickly as possible. Should we be forced to temporarily suspend operations, samples will be properly stored for future testing. Please email us at [email protected] , or call 612-625-3101 for more information. (Email messages often result in the fastest response.)

Mail samples to:
U of MN Soil Testing Laboratory
Room 135 Crops Research Building
1902 Dudley Avenue
St. Paul, MN 55108

Out-of-State Samples: Please consult this map (PDF). We can accept soils from mainland US counties (including AK) that are NOT highlighted or marked on the map.

For more complex, research-appropriate analyses and testing services, please visit the Research Analytical Laboratory website.