When you really get serious about growing a nicer lawn, flower bed, vegetable garden or landscape beds, a soil test will be at the top of your priority list. Adjusting soil pH and balancing nutrients before planting makes good sense, especially since some fertilizer is best incorporated into the soil with a rototiller prior to planting. During the decades we were planting and renovating lawns, we always used the soil testing services of the Merkle Lab at Penn State, mailing soil samples to the lab several weeks before we needed the results.
Soil test results include basic deficiencies and what steps are recommended to correct those levels in lawns, gardens and landscape beds.
For Do-It-Yourselfers, soil test kits were available for $12 (in 2011) from Penn State Extension offices. Check the agricultural extension office in your state for soil test kits, or order a soil test kit here.
Soil sampling 'plugs' sent to the soil lab should be longer than the ones pictured above; 4-inches is about right for lawn soil sample plugs. Soil should be dry and have stones and organic debris removed prior to mailing to the soil lab.
The soil test results above show 3 important sections:
Instructions included with the soil test kit point out that it's important to get a representative sampling of the growing area. If there are drastically different types of areas, you should send more than one soil sample to the soil lab.
When testing a home lawn, we use a commercial T-handled soil sampler (buy one here) which pulls a soil "plug" approximately one-inch in diameter. These soil cores are taken from 10 to 20 locations in your landscape or lawn, allowed to air-dry, then mixed together and packed for postal shipment to the soil lab. Results follow in 3 to 4 weeks.
There are three major areas we focus on in the report:
Depending how much lime is required to raise soil pH into the best range for your specific crop, it may be necessary to split the amount into two applications. It is best not to apply more than 50 lbs. of agricultural lime (calcium carbonate) per 1,000 square feet per year. While fall is often the recommended time for lime applications, we successfully applied non-burning pelletized lime year round (pelletized lime is more expensive than lime powder but much easier and less-messy to apply).
Ideally, you should separate lime applications from fertilizer applications by a couple weeks, and don't pull soil samples close to any lawn applications since it will influence the soil test results.
Phosphorus and potassium deficiencies can be corrected with an application of 0-20-20, or separate products like 0-20-0 or 0-46-0 (for phosphorus) and 0-0-60 (for potash) if permitted in your state. Phosphorus fertilizers have been restricted and banned in some states due to environmental concerns for waterways like the Chesapeake Bay.
CAUTION should be exercised when applying potash products (potassium is the last number on a fertilizer label as in 10-10-10) since they have a high salt index and can burn foliage! You might also be able to find a "lawn winterizer" fertilizer that is high in potash and will help correct a potash deficiency indicated by a soil test.