Soil Nutrient Testing

My first year as an professional organic gardener wasn't always easy.

My mind was full of all this incredible information I had learned studying organic gardening the previous year, but I didn't yet have the experience, especially with more advanced things like soil nutrient testing and fixing problem lawns.

I had plenty of experience as more of a conventional gardener, but that is quite different. Now I had (and wanted) to do things without any chemicals.

This worked well most of the time, but when the client's soil was highly imbalanced, weeds and pests proliferated and I didn't have all the tools to fix it.

I had one lawn especially that I agonized over. It was full of weeds. Despite the fact I assured her some of them were edible and rather nutritious, the client didn't like them. She was very kind, but she asked regularly how I was going to get rid of those weeds organically. It stressed me out. I eventually enticed my sister to help me spend hours pulling the weeds. Luckily it was a small lawn.

Soil Nutrient Testing Is The Answer

I eventually figured out that I needed to do some soil nutrient testing to determine what was wrong, and then add the appropriate mineral fertilizers to balance it out. Of course that doesn't get rid of weeds right away - it takes years. But that's the sustainable, long-term solution.

An aside for the gardeners and landscapers out there: Other than soil testing, the most important thing I learned that year is to set realistic expectations up front. Let your prospective clients know that it can take a few years to get rid of weeds and pests because it's a lengthy process to fix the soil. If they understand that and still hire you, it takes so much pressure off. You can sleep at night.

Back to soil nutrient testing. Did I always have to do this? No. Many gardens were happy enough with just compost along with something else I had to teach clients, proper watering.

Do You Have To Soil Test?

There are a couple of ways to go about this.

Option 1. You can start by focusing on creating or buying good compost and incorporating that into your soil. Increasing the organic matter content and microbial diversity of your soil are often your two most important steps, so it makes sense to do on them first. Accomplishing these goals addresses many other issues in your garden, too.

Then if you notice after a few years that you still have pests, or you really want to get rid of the weeds in your lawn, or you think you could be getting bigger, healthier yields of food, you can go ahead and pay for soil nutrient testing and then supplement the lacking nutrients.

Option 2. When I start a new garden, I do a soil test right away and add the appropriate organic fertilizers. Thinking about it now, there are 3 reasons that come to mind as to why I like to do this:

  1. It's best to incorporate these fertilizers into the soil along with my compost when I'm building a new bed. It gets much more difficult when I have plants already in there.
  2. It takes years to get the full benefits of many of these fertilizers, so I don't want to wait. Kind of like how the best time to plant a tree is 10 years ago.
  3. I'm trying to grow supercalifragilistic nutrient-dense food, and for that, I need balanced soil so all members of the soil food web have what they need.

The reason I tell you that you don't have to do soil nutrient testing is because many people have grown perfectly pleasant gardens with just compost and mulch. The only times you need soil tests and specific mineral fertilizers are when your soil happens to be especially out of whack, or when you're pursuing nutrient-density and big yields.

Make sense? Any questions?