Do You Have Dirt Or Soil?
We like to make a distinction between "dirt" and "soil". If you are growing plants in material that has no life, has little fertility and does little to support healthy plant growth, then we say you are growing plants in "dirt". If you have a medium that has sufficient air, water, minerals and microbial life to insure healthy plant growth, you have "soil". So are you growing your lawn grass and garden plants in dirt or in soil? If you have dirt, you may need to take some steps to make it soil.
You do not have to be a soil scientist to figure out whether your soil needs some renovation. All you need to do is answer a few fairly simple questions. Is your soil compacted? Does it have sufficient organic material in the top twelve inches? Does it have a full population of microbes and other creatures found in healthy soil that is alive with life. In this file we suggest some easy tests to help you answer those questions. You don't have to use all the tests. If two or three tests indicate that your soil is definitely in the “dirt” category, then don't waste your time with more tests; you need to fix the problem. See the file “Fixing The Soil” for advice about how to create healthy soil.
What About Soil Tests?
As a general rule, we don’t recommend the yardener go to the trouble of taking a formal soil test on his or her property.
After saying that, there are certain special circumstances where a proper soil test can be a good idea. Perhaps you are renovating your landscape in a major way or planting a lawn for the first time. Maybe you are puzzled about a flower bed that doesn't seem to be performing as well as you expected. You could have a serious drainage problem or be planning on building a water garden. In these kinds of cases, a soil test may be helpful. We describe the soil test in the section on left “Chemical Imbalance”.