Q: What is the best way to take a soil sample?

Answer: Sample boxes and instructions are available at the Forsyth County office of the N.C. Cooperative Extension at 1450 Fairchild Road in Winston-Salem. Take a soil sample for each type of garden or planting you will be growing. Once you have identified the area, collect several trowels-full of soil at a depth of 6 inches deep. Mix all of the samples in a plastic bucket, removing any sticks or plant material. Fill the sample box up to the red line with the mixed soil from the plastic bucket. Label the box, according to the accompanying instructions. For your records, make a diagram showing where you gathered your samples from and complete the paperwork to send in with the samples. Samples can be dropped off at the Extension office between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., and they will be sent to the soil testing lab. Soil samples are tested at the NCDA&CS Agronomy lab in Raleigh. Turnaround times for this time of year are two to three weeks and clients are notified by email when their report is available. This is a free service from April 1 until November 30. Between December 1 until March 30, the cost of each soil test is $4. Soil testing will let you know what the pH of the soil is; the cation exchange capacity, which tells how available nutrients are to plants; and the amount of humic matter, which is an indicator of organic matter, along with the levels of nutrients in your soil. If you are preparing to plant a lawn, fruit trees, a vegetable garden or a landscape planting it is highly recommended that you soil test.

Q: My soil is very heavy clay. What can I do?

Answer: There are several ways you can manage your clay soil. First, select plants that perform well in clay soil. Water moves slowly into clay soils, so use a soaker hose to irrigate slowly. Because clay soil compacts very easily when wet, keep foot traffic and vehicles away from your garden beds. Avoid working wet clay soils, as you will end up with bricks when the soil does eventually dry out. Add organic matter like compost or pink bark soil conditioner at a depth of about 2 inches on top of the bed. Organic matter may be worked into the top 6 to 9 inches of soil to improve soil condition. Gardeners will often build raised beds when their native soil is compacted, red clay. You need at least 6 to 10 inches of soil in the raised bed. Use an engineered soil in the raised bed that is 25% to 50% organic matter (such as compost), 25% native soil and 25% vermiculite or pine bark soil conditioner.

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Mary Jac Brennan is the agent for fruit and vegetable horticulture for small farms and local food for the Forsyth Cooperative Extension. Contact Mary Jac about commercial production, local foods, and sustainable agriculture questions. For information on home and gardening issues, contact the Forsyth Cooperative Extension office at maryjac_brennan@ncsu.edu or call 336-703-2850.

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