Soil is one of the most valued properties for a prepper. I never understood this until I was a certain age. My father grew up on a farm and worked a lot from an early age. He learned to value independence and self-reliance. Now he´s older, and he believes I´m a little bit over the top with all that I want to build and do at my cottage.
One of the things I asked a few weeks ago while chatting online was about how he knew that our location (partly a landfill because it is a mountain side) was going to be good for citrus. He answered “I didn´t. Citrus needs sun and this side receives the morning moisture of the forest. That should be enough”. I asked him if he requested someone for a soil study. He said nope, never.
“Dad but how do you know what are you going to seed??”
“If it grows off the earth, then the soil is good for it”.
Well, he´s an electrician. Very skilled, and knows his job. But he could have used a little bit the tools at hand. We never thought (until now) we could get some money out of our cottage. It was a resting place, far from the heat of the town down in the flatlands.
It´s high enough and surrounded by forest, but our mountainside had to be carved and filled up with dirt so we could have a few facilities, like the house.
My father´s goal was to get some independence with the citrus because these are usually brought from an industrial place across the state line, because “it´s too expensive to cultivate them” locally.
Now we have coffee and some tropical fruits that maybe you don´t know up there like the Pumalaca and Pumagas.
Back on topic, it´s very likely that many readers know a lot more about soil and stuff than me, at least in a practical manner. However, I have a few chemistry-based studies from my college years that have provided me an excellent background to explain why you should consider testing your soil.
For those readers who are just beginning to learn about prepping, or those without a background in some other area different to gardening and farming (like me), this is important to know.
This being said, I have collected a list with the best soil test kit I could find and that are easy to get.
These testers measure the macronutrients, as well as other parameters we are going to need measuring constantly to improve the performance of our crops.
The basic idea is, your plants have different nutritional needs just like humans. Therefore, you need to know what is in the soil, and what is not. You should have already a layout of what you´re going to plant.
Potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, lettuce, corn, every plant has nutritional needs. Some, of course, need more of a specific element than other ones. This is where soil testing kits and devices come to save the day.
I like to think about plants like super-efficient mini labs, able to produce edible stuff with solar energy and chemical compounds and elements. Some of these elements are more important than other ones, like Potassium, Phosphorus and Nitrogen.
These are the basis for plant growth: Nitrogen is present in all the amino acid, therefore it is a basic component of life; the compound called ATP, works as a primary source of energy for all cells and it contains Phosphorus.
The capability of a plant to metabolize, meaning decomposing at a molecular level and forming of new byproducts, relies largely on Potassium. These are called macronutrients. Every plant is going to need a proper range of all three of them no matter what.
Plants need what we call micronutrients as well. These are elements that must be present in our soil but in less amount: zinc, molybdenum, copper, manganese, cobalt, iron, and boron. If our soil lacks some of this and our specific plant needs it, then we must add it.
The soil testing kits are made to verify which elements we need, so we can decide how much to add if some of the nutrients is absent. For simplification purposes, this is largely done by trial and error. A good practice is adding slowly one of the elements that was measured as being low in the soil, test again after a while, and keep testing and adding until noticing a significant improvement in the plants. Literature is abundant, and references to determine the amounts of every element your plant needs, are numerous.
As a side note, we must add that elements are not the only important thing when cultivating. Every plant needs a solid base to develop their roots and getting a good grip that allows them to grow quickly. Much of this depends on the relative humidity of the soil, rock content (quite high around my hutch) and other stuff. This soil moisture and pH (the acidification/alkalinity level of soil) are another measurement of interest, as it is logical. Soils can be acids, salty, or even highly alkaline. And we have to control that parameter; therefore, we need to measure it. And the way to do this, is with our soil testers. And there are plenty of them for us to choose.
There is a myriad of other considerations, but I will keep this in a more or less basic level. Too much data can scare people and make it believe that this is complicated, and it is definitely not. Trust me, I am going to have to make a living out of this if I want to come back to my home. Which I definitely want to do as soon as possible. As you can suppose, I feel like I´m getting exposed out here, and my family there needs me.
I want to mention something that I find quite important. We have available a huge amount nowadays that our ancestors didn’t have. And I don’t mean the first human settlements. I am talking about my grampa here. He was a cattle raiser, but he had invested some money in crops, too, as usual. He never assisted to any school beyond a few grades, nor asked a government inspection, nor technical consultant to improve his farming processes. I am sure he could have done it a lot better with the proper technical assistance. It is impossible to write about soil testing without mentioning the Green Revolution.
Many readers, I am sure, are well familiar with this term The improvements introduced and the consequent monumental increase in farming production were such, that we are still enjoying its aftermaths. The good ones, and the bad ones, indeed. That revolution started by Norman Borlaug brought along a huge increase in production volume, but it was not necessarily associated with the nutritional quality of the crops. This is no speculation at all. It has a factual basis, as you can verify in this article.
The age known as the Green Revolution produced as a legacy, and undeniable a good one, but somehow we need to rectify and incorporate new elements with the tools we have provided by science and technology. And we need to do so as long as we have them…because we don’t know if they will be tomorrow. Today, modern labs are available to process tons of soil samples with just a few clicks and issue a report with everything you should use on your land.
Given the terrible consequences to the economy that SARS/COVID2 is going to have, this is now more important than ever and we can’t afford to lose time. But after the stabilization process and we have added to our soil what it needs, we must assure the means to monitor the elements and other properties of our soil like pH (acidity/alkalinity), moisture and even how much sunlight receive our crops, so they don’t start showing symptoms of absent macro-nutritional elements.
The reason for this is quite important. The healthier our plants are, the most nutritional load will have the products we will be consuming at the end of the day. This is important and must be fully understood: volume, size, and production does not equal nutritional power.
By improving our diet, our immune system will respond positively.
Back on topic, now that we know which elements we have to make sure our plants have, and why, we can proceed to select the proper tools.
Notice this are not in any case a replacement for lab soil testing. Labs use industrial quality reagents, professional technicians and all of the needed instruments. Some degree of imprecision is to be expected depending on our ability but with keeping a good cleaning of our instruments and following the instructions, results will be good.
A good practice is to push the probes of the meters like pH, and moisture, not by the probe itself: grab the probe, and stick it into the ground. The electronic box has to be handled with care.
Let’s check on some of the best kits available in the market.
The complete version of this kit allows you to test the pH and content of all macronutrients. For each one you have material enough for 10 tests, meaning with this that once our soil chemistry has been stabilized, we just need to perform the test on a regular basis according to our needs and evaluate the results. This kit can be enough for a year, maybe more if you use it sparely. Consider the period of fertilizer stabilization and fixation in the soil can last even two months. The soil pH tester measurement gauge is simple to read, and the procedures themselves are easy to follow, which is what we look for in a kit. It is recommended to get them from the manufacturer, though.
This kit has some mixed reviews. Some buyers seem to have had problems with the pH measurement in clay soils. Needless to say, this is a quite inexpensive and affordable kit but it has fragile items like the tubes that should be handled with proper care.
This is a completely different service, but it has an excellent reputation. The user collects the soil sample, and mail it to their facilities for testing. Personally, I would look seriously for this solution, provided I have the need for some assessment with high accuracy. This can be important in some instances.
There is a reason why industrial farming is running soil tests all the time. As a plus, it is provided a set of recommendations, carefully adapted to your particular needs. I consider this a good starting point for someone who has never gardened.
This is a quite simple, inexpensive meter, and the price is fair enough for what it offers. If you´re in need of getting a DIY soil test as part of your gardening, this is a good option. Just like others in this review, flip the switch and get the readings on whatever you need: pH, light intensity, or moisture.
This is a good tool for fast measurement of your soil and general conditions. As a big plus, it doesn´t use batteries. It is not intended to be used as a semi-permanent gauge, different from my idea like that in one of my previous articles “Using Computers in Prepping”. It´s quite simple to use, as most of the gauges of this type: a three-levels scale gives you an indication of the type of “Good”-“Neutral”-“Not Good”.
This measures soil moisture, pH, and sunlight intensity, with simplicity and fast enough. However I would be careful when inserting them in the ground. Probes are long and can be bent easily. Very similar to the previous one.
This is a Little cure tester, that does not need a battery. Just stick the probe into the ground and wait a couple of minutes.
This is an interesting one. It´s not exactly inexpensive at all, but it´s not a chemistry kit neither. For some reason, I find it much easier to handle these types of gauges than using the kits with solutions, and more practical too: the business for the kit maker is selling consumables. If you want an easy to use yet high tech style soil test, this is one to consider.
With instruments like these, you could easily get decades if properly care of. You do need a couple of solution bottles to “calibrate” the gauges, but that´s much simpler than the procedure in the style of test kit that measures the macronutrients separately. Good care of the probes is needed, but that works for all the equipment you may have.
On the positive side, these gauges provide an average measurement of the nutrients in your soil but can be used with aquaponic systems, to test your drinking water quality, and that itself is a good advantage. Someone with knowledge of chemistry could prepare a batch of calibration solutions that would outlast any of us.
Please note: when working with any chemicals you should wear gloves, and eye protection as a minimum. Remember to follow the instructions in the manual carefully.
I hope you have enjoyed the reading, and I stay to the expectation of your comments. Although I´m not an expert on this by any means, I do can collaborate with some technicisms and stuff.
Please feel free to ask and comment.