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Soil testing For Better Landscape

Is the landscape at any of your clients' residences not thriving as well as you want? The problem may be poor soil. Before you resort to fertilizer, you may want to test the soil first. This can save time, save the environment, and save you money.

According to Cyndi Wyskiewicz, a horticulture Extension agent with Virginia Cooperative Extension in Portsmouth, "When people come to me to diagnose problems, one of the first things I want to do is talk about the foundation: How is the soil, what (have) they done with their soil, and have they had a soil test recently? That's usually the problem. And if they say 'no,' I tell them why it's important."

Most soil problems have to do with the pH level, or acidity and alkalinity of soil. If soil is too acidic, certain plants won't thrive. The same is true if the alkalinity is too high.

It's good news to have soil measureing in the middle of the logarithmic scale of 1 to 14, with 7 being neutral. Most plants, including lawns, like a pH of about 6.5 or 7. That's called "being in the neutral range," said Wyskiewicz, or not having soil that's either too acidic nor too alkaline.

To confuse things, there are exceptions, such as rhododendrons or azaleas, blueberries or camellias. These plants all like more acidic soils, with numbers like 4 or 5. But they are special cases.

On the other end, high alkalinity in soil is bad for just about everything, generally speaking, Wyskiewicz said.

There's at least one other factor: Soil structure, or the physical components of soil. It's a separate issue, Wyskiewicz said, but goes hand in hand with pH.

Soil is made of sand, silt and clay. Too much sand means that nutrients or fertilizer just run through the soil, escaping the reach of plant roots. Too much clay and nutrients trickle down too slowly. Landscape professionals want soil that holds nutrients within reach of plants.

"So you need to know the percentages of each of those, as well," she said, "to know how they work together. You add organic matter to soil to loosen it so plants can take up the nutrients."

Different home test kits cater to do-it-yourself testers. Landscape professionals take soil samples from their yards and mix a little of this with a little of that; the test will reveal what their soil lacks.

Don't be shy about soil testing, Wyskiewicz said. Test if you are starting a new bed, and test an established landscape every two or three years to see what's happening in your soil.

And, definitely, if you think you're having a problem, test the soil every year.

Even after you make changes, it takes a few years for the additions to work their way into the soil. Lime is not an instant fix, she said. It takes time for lime to combine with soil particles and raise the pH. Sometimes you have to add lime twice a year - once in spring and once in fall - before changes can be seen.

Cold winter days are a great time for landscapers to do soil testing.

"They shouldn't wait until the growing season gets started," Wyskiewicz said. "They should do it now in January or February."

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December 10, 2019, 8:11 pm PDT

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