Soil Sampling

22 Oct

So, the first thing you want to do when farming a new piece of land is find out what you’re working with. We do this with everything; from buying a new car to having a first date at a hot wing joint. You want to see what’s under the hood (and in the case of dates, whether or not someone will still look you in the eye with orange sauce surrounding their entire mouths). In the case of farming, you want to do a soil sample.

Now, lucky for us laymen, you don’t have to be much of a scientist these days to do this. Any Extension program will give you instructions on gathering soil, take your samples, and tell you what to do with the information they pump out of their scientist-brain-machines. We use CSU Extension here in Colorado, and they are a well of other information, too. I would recommend any beginner farmer to check out what Extensions have to offer.

Anyways, today we went to do our soil sampling thang. I know, in my heart of hearts, that CSU must fundamentally believe that their instructions for collecting samples make sense, but really, I read it seventeen different times and could’ve translated it into about that same amount of ways to go about collecting. But on time 18 of reading it, I decided I was a logical enough human being to infer what they wanted and follow the few basic rules and get it done. These rules are as follows:

1. Don’t use a rusty spoon… I mean, shovel. Or augur. Or anything that gets dirt from out of the ground. It will add iron to your test results and you don’t want that.
2. Take 20-30 samples from the field/fields you are going to be farming. If there are creek beds, strange areas where nothing seems to grow, or changes in landscape and you want to get a sample from them for whatever odd reason, keep them separate.
3. Dig at least 8-12” deep. You want to get all parts of the soil and you want to see the nitrogen you’ve got way down there in case you ever need to tap into it.
4. Mix the 20-30 samples together to form a composite of your field.
5. Do not put a lid on whatever you’re storing the soil in. They recommend a plastic Homer bucket (the orange ones you find at home depot). A lid can change the environment around the soil and then change the soil.
6. Allow the soil to dry before you put it in a little plastic baggie (you can use a Ziploc, but often your Extension Program can provide you with something less homey. Our EP is in Fort Collins and we said, “Nay, we aint drivin’ all that way for a damn plastic baggie.”)

So I followed all those rules, using the mile markers and telephone poles as the digging guide so we were sure to be as thorough as possible. After painfully digging with our sorry excuse for a shovel 25 times in a field that was hard as rock and full of goatheads (read: super pokey things that make you bleed and send razor sharp splinters into your hands that break into tiny pieces and make you wish you were a kid again so you could cry at that sort of stuff), and after we did our fair share of exploring and feeding other people’s horses and goats while they were at church, we started to head home.

But curiosity got the best of us. We had a bucket of soil in the back seat of the car that could tell us how easy our lives would be in a few months. That, and we live in Colorado where it’s cool for people to grow marijuana, so there are little shops everywhere that sell stuff for growing, and we wanted to do our own soil sample test, too! This is America and we wanted to know NOW! So we stopped at a classy place called Way To Grow and picked up a home soil testing kit for $16.50.

These things are rad. They test for pH, nitrogen, phosphorous, and something else I forgot (I haven’t done that test yet). They have little chemical pills in different colors that you add to soil and water and they tell you the future! But in all seriousness, you add a little soil, add a little water, add a chemical pill, and wait for it to change colors. It comes with several little pills for each test so you can do it over and over in the course of a year (or month if you’re a masochist). I will be buying these a lot.

I also really wanted to check the amount of clay, sand, and silt in the soil. You don’t need a fancy kit to do this: just a clear jar with a lid, water, and your soil sample. Fill the jar with one part soil to three parts water, give it a good shake, then let the formula settle out for a few minutes. Once it’s all settled, you’ll see that it has separated. The clay will be at the top, silt will be in the middle, and sand will settle to the bottom. There you have it.

Needless to say, we will still be absolutely using CSU for a more thorough test. You get averages with these home tests and if you don’t have filtered water at home, it can effect your results a bit. CSU will also provide us with recommendations and plans based on our results that will be very beneficial. But we got a general idea of what problems we will and will not be having; our nitrogen is depleted so we will have to compost this year, our pH is a magnificent neutral (if not a tiny bit acidic), and we’ve got a really good combination of clay, sand, and silt on the land. This tells us what we can grow, how we should prepare the soil, what we should do to help next year’s crops, etc. It is indispensable information.

If you’re getting ready to start up farming next year and need to gather a soil sample, here is my advice: put on good pair of boots, make sure you’ve got a whole day to get it done, bring gloves, make sure that your tools for digging aren’t rusted or pieces of crap (trust me), and if you get a little antsy to know what you’re looking at, grab a home soil testing kit and check it out yourself. Don’t skip out on your Extension program’s testing, however. You’ll need that scientific data- and home kits don’t check for metals, and in places like Colorado, you need to know about it.

That’s all for today! My fingers are full of splinters and I have to go back to my day job tomorrow morning. Until then.

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