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Assessing soil health

Measuring the health of your soil goes beyond testing for nutrients and pH level

If your garden or your crops haven’t been doing well, grab a handful of your soil. What do you see? You’ll probably say “dirt” and maybe even an earthworm, but soil has a lot going on that the eye can’t detect. What happens underground directly affects what’s growing on top.

Bob Schindelbeck is an Extension associate at Cornell University. He says sometimes you notice what’s going on, sometimes you don’t. And traditional soil tests can’t always give you a clear picture.

"So it’s by having measurements of things beyond the nutrients, we can make sure that all those nutrients we apply or that are there can be accessed. I often use compacted soil as an example, very dense soil," says Schindelbeck. "Everyone kind of knows that the roots don’t grow very well. So you might have a lot of fertility in that soil but if the roots can’t get it, it doesn’t do you any good. And you realize that hey, my problem here isn’t nutrients, it’s that compaction."

Soil is a complex organism, a place where nutrients and water are stored, and where the plant roots live. Schindelbeck says it’s also a “house” for earthworms and other biological life. We have to make sure the house is in order so it can fulfill the life cycle of its inhabitants.

"Since they’re alive, they will die. And the nutrients and the materials in their body, they make available to the next level of creature in the soil, as well as the plant roots," says Schindelbeck. "So when we think of the physical environment, we think of a place hospitable to roots and these organisms so we want to have this area be appropriately aerated, appropriately un-compacted if it is over-compacted."

By having your soil tested for chemical, biological, and physical properties, you can make the right management plans to address any soil health concerns.

Learn more about soil assessment guidelines

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