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Updated: May 17, 2021

You and I have now walked through the importance of understanding soil health. You also know that I mentioned doing things like getting a soil test and a decomposition test. So today I am going to share with you how you are all the expert your soil needs and the steps needed to complete both of these tests. Let’s get growing!

You and I have now walked through the importance of understanding soil health. You also know that I mentioned doing things like getting a soil test and a decomposition test. So today I am going to share with you how you are all the expert your soil needs and the steps needed to complete both of these tests. Let’s get growing!


This blog post is part of a series I am doing on building soil health. So if you feel like you are jumping into the middle of something you kind of are. The blog post is the third in this series. I encourage you that if you feel like you would like to learn more of the back story go and check out; What is Soil Health? and What is the Ideal Soil Health for My Garden?. Now let’s get down to it.

If you have read the past two blogs then you know we have discussed the importance of doing a soil test. That is why today I am going to walk you through the steps needed for you to do a Nutrient/pH Soil Test and Decomposition Test. Because both of these tests are tied to the two ways you test for soil health.

The Nutrient/pH Soil Test tests what nutrient and pH of your soil and is linked to how you measure what your soil produces, your plants. And the decomposition test tests the life in your soil which is the second-way soil health is measured. If this all still feels clear as mud, go back and read or listen to the past two posts in this series on soil health.

How to Measure Your Soil Health

To recap a little, the easiest way to find the ideal soil health is to look at exactly what a plant needs to grow and produce fruit. Remember, one way soil health is measured is if the soil can produce life.

There is a list of about 15 micronutrients plants need to sustain plant life. And knowing this list and the percentages needed for each will help you understand what your soil needs to grow those delicious veggies.

And getting a nutrient soil test is going to tell you exactly which of the 15 micronutrients you already have in your soil.

The other way to measure soil health is to look at the microorganisms in your soil. And to do this you first start by looking at what a soil ecosystem is and how it functions.

A soil ecosystem is full of both living and nonliving matter with several interactions happening between the two! You have the microorganism, but you also have worms, fungi, and this list could go on and on. The diversity and abundance that exist in the soil are greater than any other ecosystem on earth. We know that this life breaks down nutrients in what is called the nutrient cycle but this, itself, can be only measured by what is produced from the soil and that brings us back to the first way soil health is tested. I told you that there was another way, so that must mean that soil has other cycles that we could use, right? And this other cycle is the decomposition cycle and you test it with a decomposition test. Is this all starting to connect? I hope it is.

You Are the Expert

I want to take a moment and discuss that little voice telling you that you could never do these because you are not an expert. Or saying soil tests are expensive and I just don’t have the money right now. I decided to start a garden to save money not waste it. And I hear you. Do you know why?

Because that same voice, those same questions are what I asked myself. I know what it feels like to feel powerless. You want to improve your soil and now you even know what needs to be done, but you are stuck. Stuck with feelings of overwhelm so you do everything else you can think of to just avoid the solution. But, there is something else I know because I did this same thing; guessing at a solution is never going to fix your problems.

I have told you about how I depended on those experts to tell me what I should put in my soil and how this not only harmed my soil but locked up nutrients that were already there and did more harm than good. However, I have not told you why I was so dependent on what those experts said.

It was because I felt that doing these simple tests was going to be too hard. That I was not qualified to do them. That I would probably screw them up somehow so what was the point of wasting all of that money. I thought a professional soil test had to be way more expensive than those cheap soil tests from my local garden center. So that is what I turned to instead!

My Soil Story

I have a little story for you. I have been gardening for, this spring is going to be the beginning of 18 years. That is a lot of time but it's also a lot of time to learn who I am and to learn to grow. Not only grow food but also to grow as a person. When I first started growing a garden I simply tried to survive. I was in the mode of learning and when you're in that mode of learning sometimes new you don’t have the energy to move beyond that. Then when it comes to doing something hard, like a soil test, you bulk at it. Because you are already doing hard things. You're already planting for the first time, you're already preserving your food for the first time, and you're already managing chickens for the first time. You have all this new stuff that you are learning that you let the little things that you think are going to be harder than the new things that you're learning slip away.

The next stage you kind of go through is the doing stage. You go into a stage of I got this, I know how to do it, I've done all the research, I can figure this out. And not only do I have it all figured out I can do everything for myself. I went into the doing it myself stage about five years after I started my garden. I thought surely the cheap little test with their little pills, charts and colors were going to solve all of my problems. Have you ever tried one of those cheap tests?

They are awful and so hard to use. Plus not only are they unreliable they only test the big three, Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium. These are very important! But what about the other 15 micronutrient plants need to not just grow but produce fruit?

In my eBook, Dirt: Finding The Solution To Soil Health, you will learn that there are 15 micronutrients including nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium that your plants need. I'm going to show you also in a few episodes from now that they are only 3% of all the things that you plant needs. So it is easy to see that they only test a fraction of what your plants need.

Let me tell you, I wasted more money on those cheap little things than 10 Professional Tests could ever cost!

Then about 5-6 years ago I hit the stage of looking back. I was no longer in surviving mode or do it myself mode but more of now that everything is working I need to work on fine-tuning everything. It's that idea of you know where you need to go but along the way you didn’t follow the path you thought you were following. So while looking back the big thing that was still troubling me was my soil. It was maintaining but it wasn't improving. And the solution to my problem was so simple.

My problem was that I thought a proper Soil Test was going to be too hard and expensive and I did everything in my power to avoid them. And that because I was not an expert I needed to have an expert do the test for me. I don’t want you to be stuck where I was. I want you to see that you are enough and that I am here to walk you through every step you are going to need to take. I want to show you that collecting samples for a Professional Soil Test is not only easy but a breeze. I want to let you know that a Professional Soil Test doesn’t have to be expensive because I get my done for free every year!

Once I started to test my soil regularly with a proper professional test, my soil became an open book. I began to see why listening to those other experts was so detrimental. I was adding things to my soil that was already there and avoiding amendments that my soil desperately needed. I finally found the locksmith that could connect me to the keys to my soil.

Now that you and I both are on the same page let's get to the ins and outs of collecting samples for a Professional Soil Test and Decomposition Test!

Nutrient pH Soil Test

The very first test we are going to do is a Nutrient Soil Test. Remember, this is the test that will tell you what nutrients are in your soil, and once taken you will compare this list to the list of 15 micronutrients that are required by plants.

This test will give you a base to move forward with, a foundation per se. The soil is the foundation of our gardens and we need to know what is there before we try to change it in any way.

Step 1- Find a Local Facility in your area!

I did this by asking Mr. Goggle Pants for Soil Testing Facilities in my area. This gave me a list of about 3. You don’t need to limit yourself to just your town because soil samples can be mailed. Use about 300 miles as a guideline. Once you have your list, go to each website and get the details on prices and how they want the sample delivered. Also, if you can’t find all this information on their site find their phone number and call them.

I found that my local feed store had soil tests done for them so that they could sell the fertilizer to large local farmers in my area. I also learned that in hopes of selling these said fertilizers that the soil test would be free of charge. I told them that I would not be buying any fertilizers from them as I was a small garden but they said that was still fine. I think just getting me into their store was the main reason they provided this service. I am sure you can find something like this in your area or at least something fairly cheap.

Step 2: Collect Your Soil Samples

I suggest that you test multiple areas in your garden. So you can compare the different areas to each other and can get a look at your overall garden needs. Not only is every garden different but every part of your garden can be different. I gathered about 5 different samples.

To gather your sample you will need:

A clean shoves or stainless steel bulb planter

Plastic resealable bag for each sample

Permanent marker

If you are using a shovel you will dig a hole 6” deep. Then take your shovel and shave off a 3” portion of the hole and put only this soil in your bag. Don’t forget to label it.

If using a bulb planter, press the planter into your soil until it is 6” deep. Pull the planter up. Inside the circular part of the planter, you will find a plug of soil. Place the whole plug into your plastic bag and label it.

On the label you want to include:

The date

The bed that you took a sample from. (I name my beds) Or at least a good description of where the sample was taken from like: North East Corner

Your Name- So when the Soil Testing Professional is testing the soil they are less likely to get it mixed up with someone else's sample.

Step 3: Turn in your samples to your testing facility.

If mailing you will need:

A box

Packing Tape

Address of Testing Facility

Step 4: Go over your results

If you would like help reading your results. The Soil Is Your Foundation Master Class 2.0 will walk you through every step and even help you implement your results.

Decomposition Test

We have talked about how soil health can be measured by the life in the soil by testing cycles in your soil. We have looked at the nutrient cycle and now we are going to talk about the decomposition cycle.

The soil is part of the water cycle, nitrogen cycle, and carbon cycle! All of these cycles were probably covered in your high school Earth Science class. But, today we are going to focus on the carbon cycle. I am sure while sitting in that class you thought, how will knowing how dinosaurs turned into coal and diamonds ever be so important that you would use this information in real life. I know I did! Now, we are not going to need to discuss the geological carbon cycle that takes billions of years to complete but instead, we are going to get into the biological/physical carbon cycle that is happening right now in your garden.

The biological/physical carbon cycle occurs over days, weeks, months, and years. It involves the absorption, conversion, and release of carbon by living organisms through photosynthesis, respiration, and decomposition.

Photosynthesis is performed by plants, of course, and respiration is the living organism in your soil but decomposition is done by the organisms in your soil. Decomposition is another job that the organisms do and can only be measured by the organisms themselves!

Measuring the life in your soil may seem like a daunting task. You may be wondering “how does one test decomposition?”

The answer to this may surprise you. Bill Robertson, a soil scientist at the University of Arkansas, developed what he likes to call the “Soil Your Undies Test”

This test involves burying a pair of men's cotton white underwear 6 inches under the soil, leaving the waistband visible so you can come back in about 5 weeks to see how much of the underwear has decomposed.

“Soil creatures — bacteria, fungi, and nematodes — eat cellulose, and those briefs are basically cellulose. If that soil is alive then, after five weeks, [the underwear] should fall apart like a wet newspaper.” If, on the other hand, the soil isn’t thriving, then what is left is a dirty, but intact, set of briefs.” - Bill Robertson


One Pair of White Men’s Cotton Underwear (You can use more than one if you want to test different areas)


Step 1: Buy and Wash Your Undies

Make sure you get 100% cotton underwear. The waistband does not need to be made of cotton. Wash your undies in just hot water. All you are trying to do is remove any chemical residue from the material.

Step 2: Find an area that you can leave undisturbed for 5 weeks.

Step 3: Choose when you want to test the life in your soil.

Early spring is going to give you different results from mid to late Summer and Fall because of the different soil temperatures; when soil is too cold or too hot you will get different results. Just remember to take this into account when analyzing your test. Also if you want to compare year to year make sure it is also the same time of year each time. I try to do my tests in late Spring.

Step 4: Bury your undies about 6” under the soil.

You can either leave the band visible at the surface or mark the spot in some other way.

Step 5: Wait 5 weeks

Step 6: Measure the amount of decomposition.

Underwear that only has the band remaining is your goal. But any level of decomposition results is good.

Information Overload

Before you start to get overwhelmed by all of this information I want you to think about this quote.

“Almost any soil can be made productive for growing crops. The difference lies in the effort needed to make it so.” - Eliot Coleman

He is a market gardener that has been gardening for longer than myself and what he is saying is that your soil can improve it just may take different amounts of effort. Any effort you do is going to help your soil, you don’t need to let that voice of doubt creep in and that your effort is going to hinge on what these soil tests tell you. They are going to be your starting point.

And remember that you are the only person that can be the expert of your own soil because the soil I grow and even the soil Elliot Coleman grows in is going to be different than your soil. And I promise you when you get these soil tests done you will be on the path to become that expert of your soil I always knew you could be. And as always not let the world hold you back,

Pray, Just Plant!

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