How To Do a Lawn Soil Test The Right Way

Lawn soil tests are an extremely important part of a healthy lawn care program, even though many people often skip this step before important treatments like fertilization.  If your soil’s pH or nutrient levels are out of alignment, then any lawn treatments will be less successful and your grass won’t be able to achieve full health.

While some gardeners and lawn caretakers may try to guess at which nutrients their soil is lacking and correct the soil based on these guesses, it is essential to conduct a proper soil test.  The results from an official test will determine exactly which amendments to make to your soil in order for it to regain its health.  If you have never conducted a soil test before, read on to learn about the merits of testing your lawn’s soil and how it works.

lawn soil test

At-Home Soil Test Kits vs. Lab Soil Tests

There are two ways to conduct a soil test.  You can purchase an at-home soil test kit from any home improvement retailer which you perform yourself, or you can send a soil sample to your local cooperative extension service so that they can test the soil in a lab.  An at-home test kit, which can be as cheap as seven dollars and no more than twenty dollars, is typically cheaper than an official lab test.  Utilizing your local extension service generally requires a small fee, which is roughly twenty dollars or more.

Do It Yourself Lawn Soil Kits

While an at-home kit is cheaper and faster, it also provides less precise results which you must decipher on your own.  An extension service, which is typically a state university lab, will provide a much more detailed report of your results.  The official report will also include instructions about how much of each amendment you need to add to your lawn.

The consensus amongst most gardeners is that professional lab tests are worth the investment if your lawn is suffering, especially if you have never conducted a soil test before.  At-home kits will only give you a general estimate of the nutrient levels and pH of your soil.  For this reason, many gardeners prefer to use at-home kits solely as a method to monitor progress, rather than as a first measure of your soil’s status. Gardeners might use an at-home kit a year after administering the suggested amendments from a professional lab test.

Electric vs. Chemical Soil Test Kits

If you decide to purchase an at-home soil test kit, you must choose between an electric and a chemical test kit.  An electric kit will only tell you the pH of your soil, while a chemical kit will also inform you of your soil’s various nutrient levels.  The electric kit comes with a metal prong which you stick into six different areas of your lawn to determine the soil pH.  This kit is particularly helpful if you are only interested in applying a lime treatment to correct your soil pH.  To use a chemical kit, you must collect vials of soil and mix them with water and powder.  Compare the color of the powder with a color-coded chart to determine the nutrient deficiencies within your soil.

Lab Testing for Lawn Soil

If you decide to conduct an official lab test, you must collect an adequate soil sample.  Use a shovel to dig six to ten small holes in different areas of your yard.  The holes should be six to eight inches deep.  Scrape a one-inch layer of soil from each side of every hole.  Collect the soil samples in a bucket, mix them together and wait until they are completely dry before sending them in to the extension service office.

If the soil is wet, it can affect the pH reading.  Note that if your yard is not uniform – meaning that it has different landscaped sections with various terrains or soil types – you will need to conduct separate soil tests.  Otherwise, you will not be able to receive accurate results for the different sections of your yard, and your soil amendments may do more harm than good.

The benefit to using a local cooperative extension service is that once you collect an adequate soil sample, they will do the rest of the work for you.  They’ll send back a detailed report discussing your soil pH, the nutrients that the soil lacks and how much product to apply to achieve a healthier balance of elements.  The report will also tell you how much organic matter is available in the soil.  The only downside to this report is that it will probably use turf terminology and other jargon that may be difficult to understand, but simply call your extension service and they can walk you through the different numbers and figures.

We highly recommend lab testing for your soil because it will produce the most accurate report of what’s actually in your soil.

When To Perform a Lawn Soil Test

The best time to conduct a lawn soil test is before you begin any treatments such as overseeding, fertilizing or composting.  If you have warm-season grass, this window will occur in early spring, whereas if you have cool-season grass you should do a soil test in early fall.  The goal is to have sufficient time to correct your soil with the appropriate amendments so that any upcoming lawn treatments can be the most effective.

For example, it will be extremely difficult for new seeds to grow if your unhealthy soil is far too acidic to sustain those seeds.  Alternatively, you also should not conduct a lawn soil test immediately after a fertilization treatment, because the results won’t be representative of your soil’s year-round constitution.

Most healthy lawns only need a soil test every few years.  However, if you receive the results from your first soil test and your soil needs a multitude of amendments, you should consider testing your lawn every year until your soil regains a healthy composition.

Serious Lawn Care People Test Their Lawns

Healthy soil is the foundation to a healthy lawn.  Without conducting a soil test, you are unable to determine which type of fertilizer you need, whether your lawn needs lime or if any other essential nutrients are missing from your soil.  The process of conducting a lawn soil test is not all that complicated, but you must decide between procuring the results yourself with an at-home kit or using a local cooperative extension service.

In any case, the test itself is only the first step in altering your soil’s composition.  Follow the recommendations of your test results thoroughly by adding any suggested amendments.  Even though testing your soil may be an unfamiliar additional step in your lawn care program, it is one of the most important procedures you should complete.