Soil Testing

Salamanders, Soil Tests and Playing in the Mud

If there’s one thing I’ve learned this past year, it is that you need to be flexible to be successful. It is almost time to transplant our seedlings and our garden plans are totally changing. We started to dig around to remove what was left of the dead tree roots in our new garden last weekend. The more earth we uncovered, however, the more we realized there was an issue. The garden has rocks. Big, big rocks.

After digging down (or at least trying to) we also confirmed what the soil structure was really like. After 6 inches of beautiful, dark and loose soil (and some of those pesky rocks) the soil is a dense mix of sand and clay.

The clay soil didn’t scare us because we knew about it already and can amend as needed, but we were a little taken aback by the intensity of the rock situation towards the center of the garden. Both the amount of the rocks and their size have necessitated a modification of our plan to amend the soil on the ground level. Instead, we are going with a hybrid garden design.

The new plan is to build raised beds in the middle – where the big rocks are – and to amend the more manageable garden area around the sides for direct planting and perennial gardens. We are going to take advantage of the acidic soil by planting a border of flowers – blue hydrangeas for the win! – and native, acid-loving plants, like blueberries.



Although we knew that our soil was pretty acidic because of the native plants growing on our property (we keep finding high-bush blueberries) we weren’t sure how the part of our garden that we had cleared, double dug and dressed with grass clippings, wood ash and leaf debris in the fall would compare to the freshly cleared portion.

I took five dirt samples – one from each corner of the garden and one from the middle. The results were a good indicator of how effective the addition of basic compost is at changing the ph in our gardens.

The test we used was inexpensive, quick and easy. You just partially fill the testing compartment with the dirt sample you’d like to test, break open the powder capsule and add the powder to the soil –

Add water to the fill line –

Then cover it tightly, shake vigorously and wait for about a minute for the solution to settle and the color to change. Use the diagram on the right to tell the ph level. We had fun with this part!

The portion of the garden that we amended last fall came back the least acidic –

The middle of the garden was the most acidic –

I’m still tickled pink that just the addition of some wood ash, leaves and grass clippings made such a difference.

Also, while we were shoveling around, we accidentally uncovered a four-toed salamander!

We quickly moved it a few feet away to a similar environment where it would be out of harms way. We nestled it in some wet soil near a rock and topped off the new home with a few inches of damp leaf litter. Finding this little creature was a good reminder – it is important to take wild habitats into consideration when working the land. We are striving to make responsible choices with our farm, and we are reminded daily that we need to be conscious of the animals who share our home with us.

For anyone interested in home kits for basic/ph soil testing, we did okay with the brand ‘rapitest.’ It’s the only home kit we’ve used so far, but there are a lot out there. We will still be sending samples to the university extension office next year for more comprehensive test results.

Good luck to everyone who is gardening or getting ready to and watch out for those cute salamanders!

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