How to Know if Your Soil is Healthy: 11 Simple Tests


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Mulched Garden Bed

If asked, our four-year-old would probably say that the most important necessities to make plants grow are water and sunlight. While this is true, we cannot forget another top, but not as obvious, aspect of a successful garden: soil.

When a garden’s soil is healthy, its plants are healthy. When a garden’s soil is depleted, its plants may not yield fruit that is as nutrient dense as possible. The nutrients that are in the soil are the same nutrients that come out in the plants we use to feed ourselves and our families. Ideal soil is dark in color, nutrient-rich, porous, workable and full of life! Let’s take a look at a few easy tests to be certain that a garden’s soil is rich and healthy so that plants can grow and flourish to their highest potential.

Test 1: Color

Healthy soil with a nice dark color.

Soil in a healthy garden should be a nice, dark, black color. Soil with little to no life in it looks more like dirt: brown and dry. This poor soil will turn to brown mud when it gets wet. Healthy soil absorbs moisture beautifully and should not have a muddy feel.

Most plants have green foliage and if this is the case, it should be a deep green color. Plants that are different colors, like kale, red lettuces and the like, should have a deep color too. If the leaves are more of a yellow color, this is likely a sign of a nitrogen deficiency. Remember, the nutrients in our soil are the same nutrients that grow into the plants that we eat. When plants look delicious, that probably means they are healthy.

If a plant looks sickly, take a clipping of it and put it in a cup of water. If the water gets cloudy, then this could mean a bacterial problem is happening in the soil. If the water is clear, then the plant might have a virus. Fuzz or little hairs growing on the leaves could be a sign of fungus. If plants are just plain not producing fruit, this could mean the soil contains too much nitrogen, or that it is too hot for this particular plant in your area. In these disease type cases, plants should either be removed entirely or just the damaged leaves should be removed.  It really depends on what percentage of your plant has been affected.

If you think you have a nitrogen or other nutrient deficiency in your soil, you can do a quick fix with some water-soluble fertilizer. Your plants will be able to take up these nutrients right away.  For a more long term approach, you should add one to two inches of compost to the top of your soil each year in the fall.  Nature will till this into your soil automatically for you and you won’t have to buy fertilizer ever again!

Test 2: Structure/Tilth

To complete this test, find a time that the soil being tested is not too wet, but not too dry. Dig up a cupful or so of soil about six to ten inches down. Break the soil apart and study the “crumbs” or material. These “crumbs” may also be called aggregates. Ideally, this soil will be crumbly with no large, hard clumps. Good sandy soil should hold its shape well, but crumble easily with slight manipulation. If it does not break apart easily, the soil may be too hard. Soil should have different sized crumbs in it – it should not look uniform! Different shapes and sizes of crumbs allows the soil to be more porous, which creates an ideal environment for water and oxygen to move freely, which are excellent conditions for plants to develop healthy roots.

If an issue is found in the soil, continue to add more organic matter (compost, shredded leaves, mulch, etc). This will liven up the soil.

Test 3: Bugs

Bugs attacking plants in the garden is most likely a sign that plants are weak and may not have beneficial soil. Strong, healthy plants are able to resist bugs naturally. How cool is that?! If this is an issue, either the soil may be depleted of nutrients or it may not be the correct temperature. It is very likely that the soil would be too hot if a temperature issue is the case, so I suggest adding mulch with wood chips or shredded leaves on top to keep the temperature of the soil down.

I also recommend adding one or two inches of compost in the fall to the top of the soil. To protect this healthy soil, I find it helpful to then cover the entire garden with mulch for the winter. This should be all the nutrients plants need for next year’s growing season, with no fertilizing required!

Test 4: Plant Roots

This test requires a steady and careful hand. Checking roots can be very beneficial, but do not rush through it! Be very gentle. To start the test, gently dig around a small annual plant to attempt to view the roots. If you are comfortable with losing the plant (hopefully you have multiple of the same kind!), pull up the plant and study the roots.  After your investigation with some of the traits below, you may be able to replant your plant if the roots looked healthy to you.

Healthy tomato roots

Roots should be long and well spread out, not stunted. If root systems are healthy, this likely means the soil is nice and loose, allowing roots to reach out for nutrients easily. Another sign of healthy roots are white coloring with fine strands – almost hairy looking roots. Roots should not be mushy and wet. If this is the case, a drainage issue may be the problem.  Over time this can be fixed by adding more organic material to the top of your soil like compost, shredded leaves, grass clippings, trimmings from your plants, etc.  For a quicker fix, you could try mixing in some peat moss to your soil.

Roots rely heavily and directly on soil quality. If soil quality is poor, roots are unable to grow and spread as they please. Here is another example of soil that needs compost added to the top. This will add nutrients and make the soil more ideal for roots to grow.

Test 5: Soil Testing

Gardeners always have the option to send their soil out for testing. This sort of testing is a more exact and scientific approach, which will give measurable numbers for different nutrients. It is important to know the nutrients that soil may be lacking in order to support it correctly.

If you are having trouble deciding what nutrients might be necessary, check out our Soil Amendments Product Page for links to a few soil tests you can buy from Amazon!

When in doubt, add compost! (Louder for the kids in the back!)

Test 6: Compaction

Soil Compaction

Compaction is when hard soil prevents water from penetrating through to the roots of plants. Roots have trouble growing freely and earthworms cannot get through easily in compacted soil.

To test soil for compaction, stick a thin wire into the soil in various spots. If it gets stuck or bends near the top of the soil, the soil may be too compacted. Ideally, the wire should be able to go down without bending about a foot, fairly easily, with little resistance.

In gardens with clay soil, compaction is often an issue because of the density of clay. Successful gardens can definitely be grown in clay, but it might be more difficult. Clay typically has more nutrients than sandy soil, but pH needs to be checked regularly to ensure these nutrients are available to plants. See the Related Questions section at the bottom of the page for more info on clay soil.

Test 7: Workability

Similar to compaction, workability refers to the ease in which soil is manipulated. While our garden technique does not promote tilling or excessive digging in the garden, checking for workability in soil is important.

If it is difficult to drag a garden tool through the soil, or if this action produces large clumps or clods, then this means the soil has low workability. Furthermore, if you cannot easily dig a hole for planting with your hands, then the soil is not very workable.  It should not take very much effort to prepare a garden bed for planting!

Many gardeners might think that tilling is necessary for this instance. I only ever recommend tilling a garden bed the first year if it is absolutely necessary. In this case, you would be tilling in important soil amendments such as compost, peat moss, or worm castings.  I highly recommend avoiding tilling a garden as much as possible for many reasons including killing off pertinent soil organisms, creating a crust top layer that doesn’t allow water to infiltrate, and reduces crop residue.  Adding compost to the top of the garden will repair a garden’s workability/compaction over time.

Test 8: Soil Organisms

Soil Food Web

To complete this test, gardening tools are necessary! Start by digging down about six inches. Study the soil. Lots of life – spiders, beetles, earthworms, etc. – should be visible. Try to count AT LEAST ten living organisms. If this is not possible, then the soil is not as healthy as it could be. Remember, we are talking about organisms UNDER the soil. Organisms under the soil are good. Pests attacking plants are bad!

This test is one of the most visible ways to inspect soil quality. The more insects in the soil, the less likely issues with disease or other pests will arise. These organisms are each doing their part to break down organic matter to create more nutrients for the plants. Be very, very careful not to disturb this life, as it is positively affecting the soil! Our number one rule: DO NOT DISTURB!

Test 9: Earthworms

This test can be completed at the same time as the Soil Organisms test. Again, dig down about six inches and count just the earthworms. At least three earthworms is good, but the more earthworms the better (within reason, obviously!).

Earthworms

Earthworms should be very present in the garden. Earthworms are nature’s tiller because they aerate the soil by channeling through it. They feed on organic matter and their castings put good bacteria, enzymes, plant nutrients and organic matter back into the soil. If the soil does not contain enough earthworms, that means the soil is lacking in the organic matter on which they feed.

These crawlers are especially important in the Do Not Disturb method of gardening because, again, we never till the soil! By tilling the soil, all of this helpful life will be destroyed, depleting the soil. Worms will till the soil naturally if the soil is healthy enough to attract them. Let’s keep the soil as natural as possible!

To remedy lack of life in the soil, earthworms can be purchased and work themselves into the soil to help till the soil and add nutrients. While purchasing them is a quick fix, you would be suprised at how fast the worms will “appear” in your soil if you just start adding some simple amendments like compost, coffee grounds, and other organic matter. This is what worms love to eat!

You can also start your own worm bin to create black gold worm castings yourself that you can add to your garden when planting. Contrary to my wife’s preference (don’t worry, she still loves me), we have a bin of worms in our basement that produce this fertilizing gold for our garden!

Test 10: Water Infiltration

Water Infiltration Test

I cannot say I have tried this test before, but I plan on trying it this year because it sounds so cool! Here are the steps: Remove the bottom from an empty container – preferably a cylinder shape. Use something similar to a coffee can. Push said container down vertically into the soil until only three inches or so are left above the surface. Fill the container with water. Place a mark at the height of the water. Set a timer and record the amount of time it takes for the water to be fully absorbed into the soil. Repeat this same test several times until the absorption rate slows down and times become similar to each other. If these more consistent times are slower than one half to one inch per hour, then this may mean you have compacted soil.

When a garden has ideal water infiltration, water is better able to travel to plants and their roots. This is just another example of the necessity of healthy, strong, porous soil.

Test 11: Soil Moisture and pH

As an overview, the pH scale spans from 0-14. A pH of 7.0 is neutral, while pH levels of 0-6.9 are considered acidic and levels of 7.1-14.0 are considered alkaline. The ideal pH for a garden is 7.0, which also just so happens to be a very biblical number. The pH measurement is important because it greatly influences the availability of pertinent nutrients to plants. If a garden is too acidic or too alkaline, then nutrients become less available to the growing plants.

A soil meter is a great tool to test the pH of soil. My family must know this because I received two of them for my birthday last year! Only one soil meter is necessary – unless you want to check and double check! Sending soil out for an official test is another option to test pH. Check out this soil meter.

If a soil meter or soil test determines that soil is not close to 7.0, some steps can be taken to fix this issue. When the soil is too acidic, it can be fixed by adding lime to the soil. On the other hand, when the soil is too alkaline, a sulfur product can be added to the soil to get it into the target pH range. A pH test kit will have good advice on how to fix a pH issue.

How Do I Fix My Soil Issues?

Finished Compost Bin
Our own finished compost made from shredded leaves and coffee grounds!

As you may have noticed, in general, if issues are found in the garden soil, start composting immediately. Repairing soil can be a long process, but do not lose hope! Be patient with the garden and enjoy it! If you are not making your own compost yet (you should be!) then you can buy bags of compost at a store or check with your local landscaping companies.  You can probably find compost by the yard.  If you’re lucky, some communities even have free compost available!

Gardeners who add one to two inches of compost to the top of their soil each fall should not have much trouble with poor soil. Optionally, cover the entire garden with mulch to combat weeds and regulate soil temperature. Taking these steps should take care of the majority of soil issues. This will also make it so you do not have to spend any money on fertilizers.

Other upsides include less work since we choose not to till, little to no weeds if everything is kept covered with mulch during the growing season, and less watering because the soil stays cool since less water gets evaporated because of the layer of mulch. Basically, stick to our Do Not Disturb organic method of gardening and you will save time, money and you will not be disappointed!

Check out Our Favorite Products page to find everything you might need to help make your garden a success!

But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.

Matthew 13:23

Related Questions

How do you fix clay soil? Add organic matter (compost) to the soil. pH is often an issue in clay soil, so testing for this may be a good indicator of next steps. Remember, clay soil is often rich in nutrients! Building raised beds is another option as this would help with drainage.

How can I test my soil type? Take a handful of damp soil and squeeze it. If the soil crumbles or falls apart in your hand, then you have sandy soil. Clay soil will stay in a clump and will not fall apart in crumbles.

Do coffee grounds acidify soil? No! Fresh coffee grounds are acidic, yes, but used coffee grounds are neutral. Using coffee grounds in the garden will not make the soil more acidic.




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