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Wheeler: Test your soil now to prepare for spring gardening
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So the garden has stopped producing, and everything has been bitten by a couple of hard frosts this fall. You might be thinking there is not much to do in the garden this time of year.

Well you are mostly right, but there is one thing that can be done that will get you ahead of the game for next year's vegetable garden: Take time to gather a soil sample from your garden spot so you can plan and make changes to your garden's fertility.

The results and recommendations of a soil sample will allow you to insure that all the hard work and effort that goes into making a garden will not be in vain.

One of the best pieces of information you can receive from a soil sample report is the soil pH, which is, in a way, the "gatekeeper" of the nutrients in the soil. When the pH is low or on the acidic side, nutrients are not available to be used by the plants even if you fertilize them.

When the pH is where it needs to be — the 6.0-6.5 range — the nutrients that are put on the ground in the form of compost or fertilizer are easily absorbed by the plants and put to use. I often call lime a poor man's fertilizer because you do tend to see a growth response from plants as the pH goes up and nutrients become more available.

The information you get back from your soil test report is only as good as how the sample was gathered. In a garden spot, how you take a sample is fairly straightforward. All you need is a clean plastic bucket and a garden trowel or spade.

Start at one corner of the garden and take a thin slice of soil about 6 inches deep. Move along the garden in a straight line 15-20 feet down and take another thin slice of soil. Add that to the bucket and begin mixing the soil from the two spots together.

Work along the garden the same way until you reach the other end. Move over 4 to 6 feet and begin again, taking a sample every 15-20 feet. Serpentine through the garden until you have covered the entire area.

You should have taken about 10-15 samples from the entire garden when it is all said and done.

How often you have to take a sample will change with the size of the garden, but make sure you are thorough in taking the sample and the entire garden is equally represented.

From the bucket, pour off about a pint of soil and bring that to the office. If you end up with more soil in the bucket than what you need to bring, that is fine. It is always better to have more soil than not having enough.

Soil samples that are brought to the office cost $8 to be processed, and results are usually ready in about 10 days. You will receive your report directly from the office either through your email or regular mail.

Michael Wheeler is county extension coordinator for the UGA Cooperative Extension in Hall County. You can contact him at 770-535-8293. His column appears weekly and on gainesvilletimes.com/life.

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