As the gardening season comes to a close, gardeners will soon be busy preparing for winter. Of all the chores involved, soil testing is often overlooked.

Because your soil is the foundation of your garden, testing is an essential task as you prepare for next year’s growing season. Fall is the ideal time to test your soil because it will allow you ample time to make adjustments before next spring.

In order to improve your growing environment, you need to know and understand the basic composition of your soil. A fertile soil is one that provides a biological, chemical and physical environment to grow a healthy plant. All soil needs air, water, organic matter and minerals in the right proportion to be fertile.

Maintaining the proper balance of nutrients is essential to optimal plant growth as well. These nutrients are referred to as macronutrients (nutrients in large quantities) and micronutrients (nutrients needed in very small quantities).

Macronutrients include oxygen and carbon dioxide in the air, hydrogen in water and nitrogen and phosphorus from organic matter, as well as soil minerals such as potassium, calcium, magnesium and sulfur. Micronutrients include tiny amounts of metals and minerals found in the soil (iron, manganese and copper, among others). Even though micronutrients are needed in very small quantities, they are just as critical to plant health as macronutrients.

Whether in excess or deficiency, an imbalance in soil nutrients is not only detrimental to plant growth and production but to the environment also.

Case in point. Phosphorus, an important macronutrient present in fertilizers and organic matter, has become a serious environmental problem. When applied in excess, phosphorus leaches into the ground to pollute lakes and ponds by causing excessive growth of algae and aquatic weeds.

Consequently, gardeners should use caution when applying fertilizers. That’s why having your soil tested is so important. The test ensures your plants get appropriate nutrition while serving as a critical preventive measure to protect the environment.

A soil analysis will determine soil fertility by indicating the excess or deficiency of essential macronutrients and micronutrients available in your soil sample. Additionally, it measures your soil’s pH (acidity level).

You can get your soil tested through the University of Vermont Agricultural and Environmental Testing Lab (pss.uvm.edu/ag_testing). Carefully follow the specified instructions to collect your soil sample. Your report will contain tabulated results and detailed recommendations to improve your soil.

It is a simple procedure that only requires a few minutes of your time, a minimal fee and a short trip to the post office. And the test is valid for at least three years. Trust me. You’ll be glad you did it.

Nadie VanZandt is a University of Vermont Extension Master Gardener Intern.

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