it’s Friday the 13th, and here’s something scary….

My soil has no nitrogen. None. I suppose it hasn’t even reached the elevated level of being called soil and should be called the lowely, cheap name for what it really is: dirt.

When we moved in April, I knew the dirt was of the solid Adobe clay variety. It’s pretty standard for Santa Rosa. While clay has its own issues, like becoming water logged in the winter and being impenetrable to roots, I still had hopes that we could get a garden in. We dug holes, filled with compost, and planted away. Come June, things had stopped growing. Nothing died, but things stopped getting larger. Everything looked like it was on the verge of giving up. When we got the first handful of tomatoes, the skins were so tough we couldn’t eat them. The eggplants were so bitter they went straight to the compost. Once I saw we had corn earworm, I gave up. I stopped watering and left everything to die. I let the chickens have run of the yard. Our first garden at our new property was an epic failure.

IMG_0886 Which is why I decided to test the soil.

Testing your garden’s dirt is a good practice; it can let you know what nutrients are lacking and what to amend with before pouring lots of effort, and money, into plants that won’t thrive. You can also test for the pH of your soil, to learn if your dirt is more acid or alkaline. Certain plants prefer their soil environment on either end of the pH spectrum, but most plants are happy at medium to slightly acidic, at 6.5 – 7. Correct pH is important because it controls how well plants are able to utilize the nutrients in your soil.

The main nutrients of soil are nitrogen (N), phosphate (P) and potassium (K). Nitrogen is an essential element for life, and is directly responsible for producing growth. Phosphorus is important for plant genetics and seed development, increases fruit development and aids in the plants resistance to disease. Potassium aids in growth and strengthens the plants and promotes protein synthesis. If your not a scientist, code words for all super important for your plant to grow.

So I purchased one of the test-it-yourself kits, Rapitest, from a local nursery, and discovered that I have a long way to go before my ground is healthy. Which is exceptionally scary seeing as how I need my garden to feed myself and I want to make a business feeding other people.

To test your soil, the first step is to take a soil sample from about 2-3” below the surface. If you can barely get your shovel in the ground, you’ve completed the first test of finding out what type of soil you have. Congratulations, you’ve got solid clay! Put your soil sample into a clean jar, trying to avoid pieces of grass, sticks or rocks.

dig a hole, collect dirt

First, test the pH. Fill the test chamber to the soil fill line with your sample, then carefully add the contents of the green capsule into the sample box. Add distilled water to the water fill line, cap the sample box, and shake thoroughly.

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Allow the soil to settle, and the color will develop over a few minutes. Let your cat be a part of the process.

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Compare the sample color to the pH chart. Holding it up against natural sunlight shows the best results. Thankfully, it appears that our dirt is pH neutral. While having alkaline or acid soil isn’t the end of the world, as you can amend with certain minerals to achieve the desired pH, having a neutral pH was one less thing I’d have to work on. Unless I was growing blueberries, then I’d need to add iron sulfate or other amendment to make more acidic.

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Next, fill a container with 1 cup of soil and 5 cups of distilled water. Or, whatever amount you want to use, as long as you are testing with a 1:5 ratio. Shake well for at least 1 minute and have your husband wonder what on earth he just came home to.

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Let the jar stand undisturbed until the soil settles, which took over a day for me.

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Use the dropper to fill the test chamber with the water portion of your soil sample, avoiding squeezing up the solid dirt, and place in each of the remaining text boxes: purple for N, orange for K, blue for P. Carefully empty each of the coordinating colors of capsules into its matching color test box. Like with the pH, close the lids and shake thoroughly. Let the colors develop for at least 10 minutes, the compare to the reference chart.

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And the results are…..Nitrogen: 0. Depleted. The color didn’t even register. Awesome. Potassium looks sufficient, and Phosphorus looks adequate.

I’ve embraced the scary truth my dirt isn’t garden ready, prolifically been trading eggs for all the squash and tomatoes other people don’t want, and did a bunch of research on how to improve my soil.

Stay tuned for the next big project: cover crops.

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