Today I have a very simple home soil testing process for you.

You may be more interested in learning about topics such as:

  • How to get rid of insect and disease pests, and
  • How to grow the best-tasting tomatoes ever, and
  • Which fertilizers to apply to improve your soil

And I’m looking forward to teaching you these topics.

But the thing is, we absolutely need to go over this home soil testing stuff first.

Click for video transcription

Phil: Hey guys this is Phil from, if you haven’t checked out my free online organic gardening course, you can do that right on the home page of Today I am talking about soils again, what I am going to do is get into a little bit of a home soil testing process, you can easily do and don’t worry I know you guys want to learn about how to control pests and get rid of weeds and how to grow really delicious tomatoes and how to get you know into fertilizing and which fertilizers to use and I am really excited to teach all that stuff I love talking about that stuff but the thing is here is the thing; hey, are you filming this out of order, when we start with the soil we are actually working on all of that stuff already.

So I am already teaching you that when we have really good healthy soil, we have healthy plants. We don’t have pest problems, we have delicious tomatoes and other plants and nutritious plants. So starting with the soil really takes care of any kind of problems you might encounter and it really addresses to love the goals you may have such as growing food. So that’s why start there and the cool thing is within a few years you are going to be growing this really healthy food, it is really beautiful flowers and I say a few years because it actually does take time to get the soil to a level of nutrition that you can really sure, you going to have hardly any pest problems, you can be more sure, you are going to have higher nutrition in your food.

It doesn’t mean this year wouldn’t be good. You can still have a great success in your first and second season, maybe second season but as you get further and further that’s when it really starts to click and it starts with this hole I have dug right here. Now this is a simple process, we are going to get into more detailed soil testing through a lab eventually but this is a simple thing that you can do in less than half an hour and I even do it every year to just to see how I am doing so what you do is you dig a hole, you dig a hole that’s about a foot wide and long and deep and you start to look into that hole and you figure a few things out about your soil.

The first thing I look at is how easy was it to dig and you want to keep notes on all of these stuff because one of the main reasons we do is just to see how we progress year to year. Last year when I dug in here, it was reasonably difficult to dig. It’s a pretty heavy clay soil, it came out in big clumps but last year I double dug this which I am going to show you eventually and I 2:21 melted it which I am going to show you eventually as well and so digging this year took about one minute to dig this hole. I put it in here into a wheelbarrow, you can put onto a trapper garbage bag, you want to look at it and see how dark the soil is, here this has pretty nice organic matter because I have mended quite a lot last year but when I started it was a much lighter color, now it’s pretty dark.

I guess you can see because I am kind of stranded in the shadows and you know what, it’s going to a get a lot darker over the years, if it will really light page color, if I knew I had sand; then I can kind of keep track as am mending it with organic matter, if I am improving that. You know if were like a grey color I may just be a little concerned about if it’s maybe a really heavy clay again I am going to be mending it, so I am just trying to pay attention. I also put it in here and I look at the soil in the wheelbarrow. One thing I do is I kind of drop it in there and clumps and I see how some of those clumps break a part, look at how beautifully this has broken apart.

It still has nice kind of aggregates, it’s not like sand but it also has a nice kind of looseness to it. So it kind of clumps a little but those clumps fall apart very easily that’s just because I have working on for a year but you know your year is the hardest because that’s when you got to start doing some heavy work but eventually it becomes like this and mine is doing really nice. Also I can do the ribbon test I showed you last time which is taken a third of a cup and trying to squeeze it into a ball and into a ribbon to see if I have clay or sand, that tells me a lot as talked about last time, oh and there is another thing to look for, earthworms.

So if you go through your square foot of soil and you find ten earthworms and you are doing pretty good. I am happy to have ten earthworms. I am really happy if I can find more like 30 earthworms which I am sure I could find in there because of all the work I have been doing, another I like to look for and this is especially if I do in a lawn which I did today but if you in a place where there is roots. If you see how far down the roots go, you can keep track of that, if you see the roots, kind of stop at a certain point and start going sideways, that probably means you have a hard pan layers there and you might wanted the first year double dig through that with a fork with a garden fork and also do some of mending when we get into the soil testing stuff because we want the roots to be able to go much deeper than that, also you can look to see if there are fine root here is on your roofs that indicate there is plenty of oxygen in the soil or maybe if there is not a lot of fine root here, that’s a pointing though lack of oxygen.

There are a few things you can do right now. If you have a question for me about how to improve your soil you can ask it down below and I will get back to you. If you haven’t signed up on my free online organic gardening course, you can do that at If you are on Facebook, you can like my page there and we hang out there and my sister posts stuff there everyday too, she posts a lot of cool stuff. On YouTube you can subscribe and I will see next time.

In fact, it may not seem like it yet, but I’m actually already starting to teach you the above because if you can do this step that so many gardeners never bother to do, which is learn about your soil and get some good soil test results, aphids and juicy tomatoes and soil imbalances will be so much easier to address.

Home Soil Testing Digging
Dig a hole and place the soil into a wheelbarrow or on a tarp.

In fact, within a few years, you’re going to be able to consistently grow big, nutrient-dense, pest-free yields of your favorite tomatoes, or strawberries, or garlic and basil for pesto, or whatever you want to grow.

I say a few years because it does often take a while to improve soil so as to get exceptionally healthy plants.

But not to worry, that doesn’t mean you won’t see excellent results this year, too.

Getting high-quality vegetable harvests (or big bursts of flowers if that’s your thing) year after year can take some time, but growing food so tasty that it gives you goosebumps can most definitely happen in year one or two and will get better almost every year after that.

And it starts for me with this simple home soil testing.

We’ve looked at what soil is made of and how it’s formed, and now it’s time to look at your soil.

Eventually, you might want to get into some more specific soil testing through one of the soil testing labs I recommend, and I’ll get into more detail in an upcoming lesson.

But even though I may bring out a little home soil test kit once in a while just for kicks, I still start with some simpler tests I can do myself.

I enjoy this process so much that I do it every year or two in order to track my progress. I even keep a diary so I can remember where I started.

It’s very easy. It takes me less than half an hour. The hardest part is walking out to the garden or lawn and digging a hole that’s about 1 cubic foot – 12 inches deep, long and wide.

Soil Testing For Earthworms

Place that soil on a tarp or garbage bag, and then it’s time to play and observe and take notes:

  • Is the soil easy to dig or is it like concrete?
  • Is it a nice dark brown indicating good organic matter or a less-than-optimal beige, gray or blue indicating low organic matter and lack of air?
  • Does it smell like rotten eggs indicating perhaps poor drainage, or a nice, earthy forest floor indicating a healthy soil food web?
  • Does the ribbon test mentioned in the first lesson point to an especially sandy or clay soil that needs amending?
  • Or does the soil you pulled out fall apart like beach sand, or does it stick together in huge clumps meaning it is probably heavy clay, again, either of which may need amending?
  • If you dug in an area with roots, like a lawn, do they go nice and deep or do they stop short, indicating compaction or a hardpan layer in the soil that needs to be broken up?
  • Are there different kinds of insects, and (in most regions) at least 10 earthworms, indicating the soil is a healthy place for them to live, or if not, indicating the soil needs help?

If you’ve skimmed these bullets quickly and are now going to go back to reading your email instead of digging a hole in your garden, I understand.

It is often much more fun to read about doing something than to get out of your chair and do it – I do that all the time.

Plus, it may be winter where you are.

So all I will say is just keep it in the back of your mind that the next time you are working in your organic garden, it might be a good idea to dig a hole and take a few notes on it.

Doing this home soil testing won’t solve the whole soil puzzle, but answering these questions does give you all kinds of information you can use.

Like if your soil needs a lot of compost or could use some tilling or double digging, how to water and which fertilizers to apply, which plants to incorporate, and so on.

Then you can move onto improving that soil and making a garden bed, and eventually into doing some more fancy pants soil testing at home, both of which we’ll get into in the coming lessons.

What’s your biggest question about how to improve your own soil? Ask me below and I’ll get back to you…


  1. Bob King on March 30, 2013 at 2:36 pm

    Hi PhilI have a clay soil that does drain, but slowly and have been adding compost in the ~ 10″ raised bed garden areas for five years or so. Now I want to make the beds higher (to about 3 feet) so my wife, who can’t bend because of back problems can enjoy veggie gardening too. If I add my yard soil to the compost I buy, will I still need to buy rock dust since clay soil has minerals in it already? How much soil shoud I mix with the compost and what elso should I add?Thanks alot for your very informative videos.

    • Phil on April 1, 2013 at 6:18 pm

      I would use 25% compost in your raised beds. Rock dust is always a nice addition. You probably need other fertilizers, but most of them should be used only after you’ve done a soil test with a lab, which I’ll discuss in a couple of weeks.

      • Connan Crawford on April 14, 2019 at 8:11 pm

        I’m looking to plant some grass for an alpaca pasture.
        We live in southeast Texas with what we call gumbo as our soil. If you’re unfamiliar with gumbo, it’s a hard black dirt, great for rice patties, but not much else.
        Saint Augustine and clover grow well along with a lot of weeds and wildflowers. I’m thinking about breaking it up with some sand. Can you give me some pointers?

        Thanks for your time.

        • Phil on April 17, 2019 at 2:02 pm

          Hi Connana, sometimes adding sand to clay creates a concrete-like soil. Other times, it’s helpful. In your area, it seems to be more problematic. I haven’t yet found a suitable explanation for this but it clearly depends on the type of clay and the type of sand. If you do try sand, use course builder’s sand instead of a finer sand. And try it on a small area for the first year to see if it makes things better or worse. It would also be worth trying another experiment with compost instead of sand.

    • Dinesh on December 1, 2017 at 8:20 pm

      What about red soil

  2. Laurie and Wing on March 30, 2013 at 3:03 pm

    Should we Add worms to the garden or amend/support the soil to Attract worms?

    • Phil on April 1, 2013 at 6:21 pm

      Mostly I prefer to improve the soil so that it supports earthworms. Add organic matter, improve drainage if that’s an issue, etc.

    • Dinesh on December 1, 2017 at 8:22 pm

      Vam or any compost even plants like dancha

  3. Susan Rahauser on March 30, 2013 at 3:16 pm

    Hi Phil, I have amended clay soil with digging in about 3 inches each of composted manure that contained worms and a Mix of: mushroom compost, chicken litter and peat moss that had gone through a heat I think because it contained some white veins of some kind of maybe mold? or fungus? LOL something I have seen before in older composted material..anyway, the spinach that I had previously planted before adding these composts to their area were puny and now they have shot up and look really healthy and dark green,,But, about a week ago I planted some young 4 inch high brussel sprout plants in the same mix and they have taken on a bit of a light greenish yellowish color. (they never were dark green to begin with)My question is, can you tell from the way the brussel sprout plants reacted if these two composts (that were mixed with with the original soil )are a wrong way to go?Additionally, we have had some extremely cold weather…22 degrees or less right after they were transplanted…\\Thank you for your time~~

    • Phil on April 1, 2013 at 6:25 pm

      Brussel sprouts like it cool, but that freezing probably caused the problem, so I wouldn’t worry about your compost just yet. It’s hard for me to say from here if the compost is good, but I would say the cold is the culprint in this case.

      • Susan Rahauser on April 2, 2013 at 1:29 am

        THank you Phil, I appreciate your input and time..

      • Kingsley Ifeanyi on August 14, 2015 at 8:15 am

        +Phil Nauta Good Day Phil Nauta,please can you tell the best ways to control pest,insects and diseases in tomatoes plants,Bananas plants and Yam,please can you help me with information

  4. Rob Lundholm on March 30, 2013 at 3:18 pm

    Great article Phil. I have been harping on my customers to have me collect a sample and send it to the extension service. I’m going to use this practice(if you don’t mind, that is) and call it my soil pre-test. Keep the info coming, I always read and enjoy!

  5. Don on March 31, 2013 at 2:01 am

    Hi,Many thanks for your article.I have been reading about the importance of fungi in soil. There are many learned articles about how they work, different types and measuring them etc but I could not find anything on how to encourage them in the soil (except that you can purchase inocculants).Do you have any suggestions please?Regards, Don.

    • Phil on April 1, 2013 at 6:29 pm

      Many topics I discuss this year in my series of lessons will help encourage fungi – same with my 15 free lessons. Ultimately they need a healthy soil with nutrients and organic matter and plenty of air to breathe, but specifically: tilling harms them, as does pesticide use, while using a bit of wood chips as a mulch encourages them – I don’t use too many wood chips in the garden, but I will use some around my fruit trees to encourage fungi.

  6. HealthyAnimals on March 31, 2013 at 11:23 am

    I know my soil needs amending. I now have a young man working with me, so I can do something. My first step is to put down mulch for the first time in 3 years (time, energy and money stopped me). I have 1/4 acre, in scattered beds of perennials, mostly native to Maryland, so digging down does not seem possible. I only get enough compost (time and energy) to top dress a few areas or fill holes where I plant a few tomatoes or my herbs.Question – how to help the compacted soil in established perennial beds?

    • Phil on April 4, 2013 at 12:43 pm

      Compaction is just as much a nutritional and biological issue as it is a physical issue. So while mulch can help, it’s also important to get a soil test done from a good organic lab in order to know which organic fertilizers you need to balance out nutritional imbalances, and then also improve the soil biology with compost or compost teas or other microbial inoculants. Obviously all of this is a big topic that I can’t get into here, but I’ve discussed these kinds of things a bit on this site already and I will more this year.

  7. Pop John on April 1, 2013 at 12:00 am

    I built a 3 foot retaining wall andfilled it with about 12 to 18 inches of 2 year old composted cow manure and hay.My tomato plants were beautiful but my fruit was poor. The tomatoes were smalland never really ripened. Then my plants got a blight and died. What do yousuggest?

    • Phil on April 4, 2013 at 1:02 pm

      Makes sense that the growing medium is probably nutritionally imbalanced. I’d send a soil sample to a good organic lab and then you’ll know what fertilizers you need to balance things out.

  8. Archimo on April 1, 2013 at 4:19 am

    Would there be an advantage to placing a 6″ layer of non-composted fall leaves at the bottom of a raised bed to hold moisture and add more air. I saw a method of where they placed layers of wood below the garden bed which kept it very moist. I also have see lots of articles on growing vegetables in hay bales. The leaf method would be a variation. Speaking of hay bale growing – could you research this and give your opinion please. How do the plants derive enough nutrition or is it more like hydroponics with fertilizer needed?

    • Phil on April 4, 2013 at 1:08 pm

      Not sure about the hay bale method, but nutrients must be added somehow. As for the leaves on the bottom of the raised bed idea, it’s an interesting one. It will definitely hold more water, and perhaps more air too as you say. There may be unforeseen disadvantages, but I think it’s worth trying – would be cool to leave part of the bed without leaves as a control and see what happens this season and in future seasons.

  9. Jenny on April 1, 2013 at 8:12 pm

    Hi Phil. I just signed up with you last week. Thanks for the e-book. First time home owner and total newb to gardening. Our project this year is the back yard. We just ripped out the Virginia creeper and now plan on planting a traditional lawn and a ground covering of Virginia blue bells for the shady areas of the garden. But right now just weeds, moss, and dirt out there!After digging a hole to test drainage, I found a very high level of clay and the drainage isn’t great. My plan: till the entire back yard, add in 4″ of compost and shredded bark into the soil. My questions are: 1. do you think shredded bark and compost would do the trick to help the extremely clay like nature of the soil and 2. as I am already renting a rototiller on Saturday – after the first round of tilling about 3″ deep, can I dump the compost and bark onto the ground and then go over the whole yard again with the rototiller to mix it in. I can’t find information on HOW to actually add the compost?Thanks.

    • Phil on April 4, 2013 at 1:00 pm

      Yes, make a pass with the tiller, then add your compost with wheelbarrows and shovel and rake, then till it in. Don’t use shredded bark, as that will just tie up nitrogen and release mild toxins into the soil and promote mushrooms – stick with just compost. And while you’re doing it, you should add organic fertilizers to till in. Unfortunately, without having done a soil test through a good organic lab, you don’t know what to add, but without a soil test, you can add per 1000 square feet any or all of this: 5 pounds of calcitic lime, as much glacial rock dust as you can afford (can be hard to find sometimes), organic alfalfa pellets, kelp meal.

  10. the Ambassador on April 3, 2013 at 10:35 pm

    Does adding lawn clippings to the potting soil help, or hinder?

    • Phil on April 4, 2013 at 1:32 pm

      I’ve never heard of doing that – I would say a little might be helpful for the nitrogen release, but not too much – you don’t want to encourage anaerobic decomposition.

  11. ali on April 8, 2013 at 11:52 pm

    I live in central Florida and my soil is naturally mostly sand with some clay so I made up several raised garden beds to put in a higher grade potting soil mix with compost (my own plus mushroom compost and cow manure). My question is the garden is going on two years old now and I have never seen an earthworm. Do I need to buy some to add to the beds and also if I decide to do any of my other areas in my lawn by the lasagna method for next year? If so, what kind would I buy?

    • Phil on April 13, 2013 at 4:16 pm

      You can certainly add earthworms (you generally want burrowing worms, not topsoil or compost worms), but if they are already in your area, they should come when your soil is right for them. You need to take care of them by having a nutritionally-balanced soil with lots of organic matter (compost in the soil and leaves on top) and adequate water. It seems like you’re on the right track. It might be worth while to test your soil (or compost) for toxins like pesticide residues, as that could be why the worms aren’t there. But most likely the soil just isn’t ready for them yet – they should come eventually.

  12. skissh on May 17, 2013 at 6:48 pm

    The soil in my 20′ x 50′ suburban backyard garden area is bordered by a row of 5, 100′ redwoods. The soil is mostly clay, so I would like to work in some compost but I am afraid I will hurt the roots of my redwoods. I read somewhere the their roots spread out in the top soil. I can see these small roots in the soil. Will I hurt the trees by chopping up the soil in order to work in the compost? Thank for your site. I have learned a lot already.

    • Phil on May 20, 2013 at 8:13 pm

      I wouldn’t do too much disturbing. I would just put it on top and then a light mulch perhaps on top of that. Another method is to dig holes where you don’t think roots are too dense and then plop a bunch of compost in them.

  13. stacy on May 17, 2013 at 7:39 pm

    hi phil. ive been mixing in bags of kellogg amend to this area in our backyard i want to grow flowers. if i wet it still has turned to concrete. ive busted my butt and need your advice!!!

    • Phil on May 20, 2013 at 8:15 pm

      you might try sheet mulching for this year. lay down 12 or more inches of a mix of manure, grass clippings, leaves, hay/straw and allow them to break down for a year. Next year your soil should mellow out a lot. The other step is to send a soil sample to a good organic soil lab and they will give you advice on how to balance out the nutrients in your soil, which will help relieve the compaction/concrete issue.

  14. Amanda Houseman Pecora on June 2, 2013 at 10:54 pm

    Can you recommend a soil test lab?

  15. Betty on August 10, 2013 at 3:19 pm

    How do I get rid of voles eating all my roots in my garden

  16. Helen Budlong on March 4, 2015 at 8:09 pm

    question about compost. Really sandy soil here in las Cruces, nm. Need a lot of compost, and local recycle facility offers free compost – well actually it is very twiggy, so I would call it mulch. It will have been made from ALOT of Oleander, one of the things that is frequently planted here and gets mostly killed in the winter Area is very zeriscaped – meaning volcanic type rocks over plastic weed barrier, which then gets covered with sand and the weeds grow into it. .Local gardening services all spray with weed killer to keep weeds down,Since we have little water, and abnormally cold/hot winters/summers, larger plants under stress and of course are getting diseases and pests, which the garden service treatment is again – all toxic, so when the things finally die, they get taken to the local facility. So I am wondering if this stuff is safe to use AT ALL/ helen

    • Phil on March 6, 2015 at 1:33 pm

      It’s really hard to know. Compost should be tested for pesticides, but it isn’t always done, or the information isn’t always made available to us. You should ask, but if you can’t get it, you could send a sample to a lab yourself, or you could test it on just part of the garden for one growing season and see if your plants are negatively affected.

  17. Helen Budlong on March 4, 2015 at 8:18 pm

    When we moved to our house in Sussex, UK. the soil had not been disturbed. It had been fields for probably a couple of centuries with various animals grazing, and a row of oaks providing a fine layer of leaf mould. Soil is very very clay-ey ( brick works down the road) We double dug the first year, adding in lime, manure, dried blood, and any organic matter we could find. That was 63 years ago, and aside from a few loads of manure and blood meal over those first hers, and whatever compost, wood ash a familly of 5 provides that’s about it. e grew vegetable for the first 30 years, and since parents became to old to take care of it the flowers have taken over. We still have beautiful soil.

  18. kansasrocks on March 5, 2015 at 12:05 am

    Thanks! The best tip there : looking for tiny root hairs for that oxygen. And Im glad you showed the density of the dirt too! Great info

  19. Jelena on March 11, 2015 at 4:58 pm

    Hi PhilI am writing from the Netherlands and the soil I have is almost exclusive sand. Understandable since we are all sitting within huge delta…Anyways I am adding compost every year and mulching (flower beds mostly). It’s getting better every season but the question I have is about 800square meters of back garden. That part has been used by previous owners as horse coral and they took out all the top soil(gasp) and put yellow sand instead. They also added some sort of non degradable fabric scraps to stabilize it. Needles to say the soil is so compacted its like concrete and the fabric pieces keep on coming up to the surface. We tried for last 3 years to top dress with compost but not even grass grows there properly. I have planted blackcurrant bushes there 3 years ago and their growth is completely stunted. This year I would like to dig up the whole area and replace it with proper soil. However I am not sure how deep to go. About half of it will be vegetable garden and the rest bushes/trees and lawn. Do you think 30cm deep would suffice? Or should I go for more? Thanks. Jelena

    • Phil on March 12, 2015 at 4:34 pm

      That’s a great question Jelena and I don’t have a definitive answer. I’ve never done such an extensive soil change. It’s true that most plant roots will be found in the top 30cm, but many of them do want to go much deeper, too. The deep tap roots of some trees are especially important for stability. I wonder how deep the past owners went with the sand they brought in? You can find out by digging a hole. You might want to take the slow route and just replace the top 30cm in a small part of the garden, try to grow grass and vegetables there for a year or two, and see how it goes, because changing 30cm of soil in an 800square meter area is a monumental task, so you might want to make sure it works before you do the whole thing. An alternative would be to build a garden of raised beds – also a lot of work, but you wouldn’t have to remove the sand then.

  20. Tyler Goddard on August 4, 2016 at 5:02 pm

    Hi Phil. First off want say that I just came across your website today and I’m so glad! The way you explain things is perfect. To get to the point. I’m in my first home with a lot of dirt to work with an transform. I’m testing the soil but my biggest question so far is about how dry the soil is. Doesn’t clump at all. The house has t been lived in for some time so no watering has been done. From what I can tell it is very sandy and loose. Easy to dig but doesn’t clump at all. Is it the dryness? Or should I water an area and check the next morning to see how it differs? What’s your suggestion. Thanks.

    • Phil on August 5, 2016 at 11:45 am

      You should water and test again, but it sounds like it may be sandy soil. Think of a beach – no clumping. The main way to improve this over time is with compost and good mulch (like leaves).

  21. Meg on January 14, 2017 at 10:22 pm

    Hi Phil, We moved to a new house. There are perennial beds and a lawn with some grass plus lots of mole holes, mushrooms and moss. The previous owners left some Miracle Grow slow release plant food under the sink and the soil looks pretty poor… but I’m determined to have an organic garden! It’s winter now so I’m planning and learning and gearing up for soil improvement. I’m really enjoying your course. Thoughts about moles?Thanks!

  22. Bill Wade on January 5, 2020 at 12:08 pm

    Good Brown Cardboard before sheet mulch, is that a good idea?

    • Phil on January 6, 2020 at 1:29 pm

      Presuming you’re sheet mulching on top of grass or weeds then yes, it does help to smother them with cardboard.

      • Bill Wade on January 6, 2020 at 4:12 pm

        THANK YOU SIR ….. Appreciate you sharing your knowledge!

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