Gardening: Test your soil to know its content

Nancy Szerlag
Special to The Detroit News

Planting season is just around the corner and if you’re starting a new garden or renovating your landscaping, I recommend getting your soil tested so you have a baseline of what you’re working with when choosing plants.

There was a time when it was recommended that homeowners try to adjust the pH of their soil to between 6.5 to 7, which is slightly acidic to neutral. However it’s a difficult process that takes time and money and researchers have found that most plants do very well in soils that are healthy, drain well and contain a minimum of 5 percent organic matter. The only way to tell that is to get a soil test.

A question I am often asked is can I use one of those inexpensive soil probes or soil testing kits sold at the big boxes and garden centers to check the pH of my soil and my answer is you can, but the results are not very accurate.

I always recommend having soil tested by the Michigan State University Soil and Plant Nutrient Laboratory. The fee is $23 and includes the all-important assessment of the organic content of your soil and the soil’s structure. Along with the results of your test will come recommendations of what fertilizers may or may not be needed as well as the amounts to use to grow the plants you specified on your form. None of the home kits will do that and this information can save you big bucks down the road. For information on how to order a MSU soil test kit through the mail or submit a soil sample and submittal forms go to or call (517) 355-0218.

Adding organic material to the garden when renovating is not a permanent fix. Over time, compost and other organic amendments break down as the soil critters feed on it and it needs to be replaced. When I add new plants to my perennial and vegetable beds, I amend the back fill – soil taken out of the hole, with compost. Top dressing an established bed with an inch or so of compost every year or two and gently working it into the surface soil will help replace what’s lost.

Appearances: Join me and learn “More Secrets to Making Plant Magic” at 1 p.m. May 14 at United Plant Center and Gift Shop, 62170 Van Dyke Road, Washington, MI. For information call 888-929-4282 .

Nancy Szerlag is a master gardener and Metro Detroit freelance writer. Her column appears Fridays in Homestyle. To ask her a question, go to and click on Ask Nancy. You can also read her previous columns at detroitnewscom/homestyle.