Soil Testing

The secret to successful gardening is soil. Soil is as fundamental to our existence as water and air. Soil makes up the outermost layer of our planet and is formed from rocks and decaying plants and animals. Soil has varying amounts of organic matter, both living and dead organisms, minerals and nutrients, which is hard to imagine for something we sometimes casually dismiss or don’t even think about at all.

An average soil sample is 45 percent minerals, 25 percent water, 25 percent air and five percent organic matter. How those elements combine provide living environments for a variety of organisms, including us.

Different-sized mineral particles, such as sand, silt and clay, give soil its texture.

And don’t call soil “dirt,” a former boss of mine with a degree in soils once made it very clear that was an inappropriate word to use when referring to this most amazing life-giving compound. He was right. We may not appreciate the intricacies of how these organisms work but we do know when they don’t. If something is not growing correctly in your garden, and you are providing water, the next thing to do is to check your soil.

To find out what kind of soil you have, you can do a quick soil test at home:

1. Fill a quart jar one-third full with topsoil and add water until the jar is almost full. Screw on the lid and shake the mixture until all the clumps of soil have dissolved.

2. Set the jar on a windowsill and watch as the larger particles begin to sink to the bottom. In a minute or two, the sand portion of the soil will have settled to the jar bottom. Mark the level of sand on the jar side. A colored magic marker will work, you can wash it off later.

3. Leave the jar undisturbed for several hours. The finer silt particles will gradually settle.

4. Leave the jar overnight. The next layer above the silt will be clay. Mark the thickness of that layer. On top of the clay should be a thin layer of organic matter. Some of this organic matter may still be floating in the water. In fact, the jar should be murky and full of floating organic sediments. If not, you probably need to add organic matter to improve the soil’s fertility and structure.

Not sure what you are seeing? I can understand, sometimes it all looks like a big blob of mud. Take a good look until your eyes can distinguish between colors. Give up? Ok, but don’t toss it down the sink, pour it on a flower bed.

There is another way. Collect about six scoops of soil from around your garden in a plastic bag and take it down to your local University of Missouri Extension Office. For $15, they will send the samples off. In a couple of weeks, you will get a detailed analysis back with recommendations of what you need to do, if any, to improve your soil.

Charlotte Ekker Wiggins is a beekeeper, gardener and sometimes cook. Published by El Dorado Springs Sun once in print and online with author’s permission. Copyright 2017, all rights reserved. This column may not be reprinted, republished or otherwise distributed without author’s permission. Contact Charlotte at gardeningcharlotte at gmail dot com.


I filled this quart jar with soil from my garden and let it sit in my garage for a couple of days. Looks like I have a very tiny layer of sand at the bottom and the rest is organic matter, not a speck of clay.

When getting samples to send off, make sure you get them from all areas around your garden so you get a good representation of your soil. I use my glass jars to collect the soil, then pour the soil into a plastic bag before taking it to my local Extension Office. (Photos by Charlotte Ekker Wiggins).