Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Test Your Soil, Rotate Your Crops

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Test Your Soil, Rotate Your Crops

Article excerpt

Q.: I am interested in having the soil in my vegetable garden and flower beds tested. I have grown tomatoes in the same area for a number of years. They did not do well this year; neither did some of my flowers. My neighbor told me the soil could be lacking nutrients. I till in a few inches of mushroom manure to both my flower beds and vegetable garden every year. My neighbor told me to try liming the soil. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

A.: While I strongly encourage you to have your soil tested, nutrient imbalances might not be the only thing troubling your garden. This has not been the easiest summer for gardeners in our area.

Depending on where you live, rainfall has been sorely lacking, and keeping ornamental and vegetable gardens supplied with adequate moisture can be challenging. Also, late blight has been reported on tomatoes in our area, and if you grow impatiens, downy mildew has taken its toll on that popular annual this summer (see my Sept. 1 column).

Soil test kits are available from your local Penn State Cooperative Extension office. In Allegheny County, soil test kits are $12 for the first kit and $9 for additional kits ordered at the same time. They come with complete information for taking representative samples and understanding your soil test results.

You can send a check for the cost of the number of kits you want to Penn State Extension, Soil Test Kits, 400 N. Lexington St., Pittsburgh, PA 15208. Make checks payable to Penn State Extension.

Once you receive the kit, take the sample, fill out the paperwork and send it to Penn State's Agricultural Analytical Laboratory. The fee covers the cost of the kit and the actual testing.

Your only other cost is the postage to send it to the university. The kit is a self-contained mailer with the correct address pre- printed on it.

Penn State soil tests evaluate the level of phosphate, potash, calcium and magnesium, as well as the pH (acidity or alkalinity) of your garden's soil.

The lab does not test for nitrogen because the level of nitrogen in the soil changes so rapidly. Nitrogen can be lost to leaching, volatilization and/or runoff. Nitrogen recommendations are based on the known needs of the crop you are growing.

You should have separate tests done for the flower beds and the vegetable garden. If you want to have the soil in your lawn tested, that should be a separate test as well.

The reason for separate tests is that different crops have different nutritional requirements. These differences determine the soil lab's recommendations.

It is a good practice to incorporate organic matter, such as mushroom compost, into your garden soil annually. Organic matter improves the structure of the soil, which permits greater aeration, water penetration and improves drainage in our clay soils. It creates a favorable environment for microbial action and insect activity, which aerate and enrich the soil. …

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