Garden soil testing -- 1-20-14

(This week’s picture is of soil sampling being done in Michael Maginnis’ garden near Greencastle, Pa. To enlarge the picture, click on it.)

Gardening is not easy when you have small children, but when my sons were about 5 and 2, we tried to plant as large a garden as we did before they came along. It did not always go so well, because their needs -- and often, what they had to have right now -- came before the needs of some poor seedlings trying to survive in the dirt.

One evening when I was taking care of the boys (my wife worked night work), I looked out the window to see several baby groundhogs going down the rows and munching on our green bean plants. I made sure the children were safely occupied, then ran upstairs to where I had a .22 rifle, safely unloaded and locked away.

I unlocked the closet door, grabbed the rifle, loaded it and ran back down the stairs, by which time the groundhogs were gone, leaving only the stubs of what they had been feasting on.

It’s not like you can sue groundhogs, but for a time I did try to pay them back a few years later by dumping the turds from the dog yard down their holes. (Take that, you bean killers!)

That’s been more than 25 years ago and now one of those boys has asked me for help with his garden at his home near Greencastle. What he wants is not heavy labor, but advice on how to do this and that in the garden.

Well, I said, our first step is to do a soil test, or his case, two tests, since he has two large raised beds on opposite sides of his property. I obtained the tests for $9 apiece from the Penn State Extension Office, located at 181 Franklin Farm Lane, Chambersburg, PA 17202. It’s just off U.S.30 (Lincoln Way East) where the staff gave me a easy-to-read brochure on how to prepare the soil.

The steps are as follows:

1. Get a trowel, shovel and a clean container.

2. Take 10 to 12 samples, each about four to six inches deep from locations throughout the garden. A diagram of where to take samples from is available at, but as long as your samples don’t come from one small site, you should be all right.

3. Mix the samples from all of the 10 to 12 sites you sampled. Then dump it on a sheet of newspaper to dry out overnight. Remove all sticks, rocks and root material from the sample. I don’t know why anyone would do this, but the brochure says, in bold letters: Don’t heat the sample. If it takes a bit longer to dry, let it.

4. Choose a one-cup sample of what you have on the newspaper and send it to Penn State. (The address will be on the mailer.) Fill out the appropriate questionnaire in the packet. Then take it all to the post office, get it weighed and apply the proper postage.

5. Recommendations should be sent back to you within 10 to 14 days.

For each soil nutrient, the test will tell you whether the nutrient level is below optimum, optimum or above optimum, and contain instructions for what to do (or not to do) in each case. A fuller explanation of this is available at

The University of Maryland Extension recommends a process that is very similar to Pennsylvania’s. Go to and search for “soil testing” for a full explanation of the process, including a video of how to do soil sampling and a list of regional laboratories that will do tests. The Extension site recommends calling the labs to get prices before you choose one.

There is also a list of frequently-asked questions about soil testing, including how to improve heavy clay soils and why pH -- a measure of a soil’s acidity or alkalinity -- is important.

Answer: A soil without the proper pH doesn’t allow the plants to take up the nutrients they need.

Once the test results come back, we’ll talk about how we’re going to implement the recommendations. Other topics ahead are early plantings of what are called the “cole crops.” These include: broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, brussell sprouts, kale, collards and kohlrabi.

Have you grown any of these? If so, we’d be glad to share your experiences with our other readers. And, if you’d rather not have others know your real name, feel free to share as “Garden Lady” or “Weeding Wally.” In 30 years in the newspaper business, I never revealed a source’s name, and I’m not about to start now.

(Did you like this column? Please feel free to make suggestions or share constructive criticism by e-mailing


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