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Soil Testing Demystified

Updated: Aug 10, 2018

Have you tested your soil before? Read this.

The average landscape or chemically treated farm land requires regeneration. Property development and the use of untargeted and artificial fertilizers and biocides works against the living and dynamic nature of soil.

The most important thing to remember when growing a farm or garden is to “grow soil, not just plants”.

If we grow by this principle we can get the soil to work for us in ways that not only generate better results, but that save growers a ton of money.

A powerful tool in this process is soil testing. Fundamentally, growers cannot manage what cannot be measured. How do you know what to add if you do not know what is missing?

Here’s the first thing to know about soil testing, all soil testing is not the same. Extension Services and many University labs offer soil testing to growers, but they look for only a limited number of essential elements, meaning, they are not evaluating a full inventory of the elements required for healthy plant growth.

This is important because a system can only operate based on its weakest link. This is known as the “Law of the Minimum”, a principle developed in agricultural science by Carl Sprengel and later popularized by Justus von Liebig in the late 1800’s.

Think of conventional soil testing like a typical doctor’s visit, where instead of investigating the root causes of an illness through diet or custom blood testing, you receive a pill to fix your symptom. Rather than taking pills in order to eat more fast food, with Soil Test Solutions we are changing our diet and taking probiotics.

Our soil testing process uses private labs that perform what is called “base saturation soil testing”, developed around the pioneering work of Dr. William Albrecht. This sounds complicated, but it is pretty simple once you grasp the concept. Here is a quick explanation.

On paper, soil is comprised of sand, clay, and organic matter. Sand is inert and mostly there to allow drainage, so put it aside. Both clay and organic matter hold moisture, but they are also electrically charged. Clay is almost strictly a negative charge, while organic matter is more complex and retains both positive and negative charges. Overall, the soil has a net negative charge.

So the more clay and organic matter you have in your soil, the more charged binding sites there are in the soil, and the opposite negative and positive attract, like a magnet.

The majority of elements required for healthy plant growth have a positive charge. This phenomenon of soil “holding” positive mineral elements is called the “Cation Exchange Capacity”, or CEC. It is a measurement of how many positive ions soil can hang on to for use by crops at a later time, and is typically found on almost all soil testing reports.

Just like all forms of life, at a base level the soil is an energetic entity. What we are doing with Soil Test Solutions is testing for all of the elements required for healthy plant growth, and managing them into balance by comparing your results to the “base saturation” percentages in healthy soil that were established by Dr. Albrecht and many other soil pioneers over the years – 65% calcium, 15% magnesium, 3.5% potassium, etc.

We then take soil testing several steps further; the result of the Soil Test Solutions process is a comprehensive report that recommends specific custom mineral applications to balance the minerals in your soil. Yes, there is a lot of math. And, yes, this can appear complicated. But don’t worry, we do all of that for you!

When your soil has proper mineral balance, something magical happens that cannot be accomplished using conventional growing methods. Soil starts to work for you in incalculable ways such as increased yields, mitigating pests & disease, better drainage, and so much more.

The soil is a living organism that has physical, mineral, biological, and energetic capacities. With Soil Test Solutions we approach all of these platforms through what we call “BioEnergetic Agriculture”.

The mineral makeup of soil determines its physical structure. When a soil has the correct mineral balance, the correct physics of that soil will also be achieved. When the chemistry and physics are right, the environment for the biology will also be most ideal. That is why so much emphasis is placed on achieving the precise range for each nutrient.

Essentially, the Soil Test Solutions fertility model utilizes soil chemistry to affect soil physics, which creates a proper environment for soil biology.

The Soil Test Solutions process is focused on feeding the soil, not just plants. For example, most conventional fertilizers have a lot of nitrogen in them. Nitrogen is popular as a fertilizer because it will "green up" a plant, but with Soil Test Solutions we don’t even test for nitrogen. It turns out that each percent of organic matter in the top 6 inches of a medium textured soil releases about 10-20 pounds of nitrogen per acre per year.

Plus, almost 80% of air is nitrogen. A biologically healthy soil contains many different forms of nitrogen-fixing bacteria that can fix nitrogen from the air for free. The ability of soil microbes to create humus also accounts for the logic of home composting, using cover crops in farming, or mulch mowing in turf applications.

Many sources of soil testing also have a misguided focus on soil pH. The assumption of a pH driven soil test is that every soil is the same, and that if the pH is correct, then everything is right with the world. But it’s not that simple. It is also not complicated once the basics are understood.

The pH is a measurement of hydrogen ions (H+). The more H+ present the more acidic the sample. Referring back to the discussion regarding CEC earlier, make the connection that the H+ ion is a cation, or positively charged. This means it can be held by the negatively charged soil. What this means is that an “acidic soil” is essentially an empty or poorly mineralized soil.

Let’s make an example to drive the point home. You may be familiar with the method of using lime to raise the pH in acidic soil. Lime is made up of primarily calcium (Ca+), and sometimes magnesium (Mg+) if it is dolomitic. What is actually happening when lime is applied is that the stronger Ca+ bond replaces the H+ bond in the CEC, therefore the pH goes up.

Further, because lime is derived of Ca+ only, you can add lime based on the recommendations of conventional soil testing and make the pH number correct (6 - 6.5) every single time, like an equation. But what happens if you have a potassium or iron deficiency? Does it make sense to treat all soil environments the same assuming that they have similar types of deficiencies?

Below is an example of a common soil test in Southeastern NC. Note that the pH of this sample is lower than desired, but the Ca+ levels are close to acceptable. A recommendation from conventional sources of soil testing here would likely be lime to increase the pH to 6.0-6.5. But we already have just enough Ca+, note the fairly extreme deficiencies in the other elements Mg+, K+, Fe+, Mn+ Cu+, and Zn+. Unless we are evaluating the mineral balance of the soil, not just the pH, we would not be capable of achieving the true potential of the agriculture.  

Our Soil Test Solutions would account for these deficiencies by recommending a specific amount of mineral products such as gypsum, manganese sulfate, iron sulfate, lime, CalPhos, and others based on the deficiencies found in the soil sample submitted. Truly customized results tailored specifically for your soil!

Through our efforts in growing soil, we can stimulate the soil to begin fertilizing for you.

Much of modern agriculture is based off of the use of what are called “NPK Fertilizers”. NPK stands for nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium, expressed as the three digits you see on the front of fertilizer packages. These numbers are required by law to be communicated to the consumer, unfortunately not many people look past them.

Plants want so much more than NPK. Typical NPK-based fertilizers contain as few as 5-7 elements, but a plant requires at least 15, such as what is seen in a hydroponic fertilizer where plants are grown in water and the grower is responsible for bringing complete fertility.

Empty fertilizers take advantage of healthy soil, think of them like fast food for plants. They can seem to work well to start resulting in plants growing bigger and faster, but the plants are literally obese! Fast food may taste good, but over time this approach will generate increasingly poor results, pests attacking weak plants, plant disease, weeds, you name it.

Elemental consideration in regards to fertilizers is broken down into macronutrients (N, P, K, Ca, Mg, P, S), micronutrients (Fe, B, Mn, Zn, Cu), and trace elements. In soil testing, typically only the macro- and micronutrients are tested for, but trace elements are very important!

Why would Mother Nature make an element not needed in the garden?

One of the major benefits to organic fertilizers is they contain a broader elemental diversity. For example, fish may contain 50+ elements, kelp 70+, and sea minerals contain 90+. 

Let’s not think in terms of what plants have to have, but in terms of what plants want? After all, if it is not in the soil it is not in the plant, and if it is not in the plant it is not in the people!

But the fertilizer conversation is not merely based around the number of elements in the fertilizer, it is also important to consider the form. Typical fertilizers are artificial, or man-made, meaning, they do not feed soil microbes. An artificial approach to fertilization degrades the soil over time, why grow living plants with artificial materials?

The goal is to balance and stimulate the soil to start working for you, but fertilizer is a necessary crutch when soil cannot support plant growth on its own, especially when starting a new garden or farm, and particularly when the soil is sandy with a CEC below 7.

It is very important to ensure your fertilizers are organic. Artificial fertilizers are not food for soil microbes, they do not feed the soil, they feed the plant directly at the expense of the soil. By following the recommendations of the Soil Test Solutions report over time you should expect to reduce the requirement of fertilization significantly.

Hopefully this illuminates some of the seeming complexity behind soil testing and our Soil Test Solutions. Contact us today to get started, and please let us know how we can be of service.