Soil Testing the Old Fashioned Way

Video screen capture. Mike Lieberman

Last week, I posted a video on how to tell if you have healthy soil, which proved rather popular.

I'm not sure if it's the cold snap that's getting people dreaming of the Spring, or simply that so many of us care deeply about soil health and consider it one of the most important markers of how sustainable our civilization is. Either way, I was delighted to see such enthusiasm for good ol' dirt - and it got me, errm, digging for some more useful videos.

From Clean Air Gardening:

If you don’t happen to have an electronic soil tester or even a chemical test kit on hand to test your soil’s pH, you can always do it the old fashioned way if you dare. In the old days, some European immigrant farmers would actually taste the soil of their new American holdings to determine the pH, though it’s not likely they realized what they were testing for. Acidic soils (that is, those with a pH of less than 7) tend to be tart, while alkaline soils are somewhat sweet. While we wouldn’t recommend putting dirt in your mouth (who knows where it’s been!), the flavor apparently really can indicate which crops will grow best in your soil. In some cases, a good whiff might be sufficient to tell you if the soil is sour or sweet.

Given that soil-borne pathogens can be a danger to human health, I'm not recommending you go out and start chowing down on dirt. But I am reminded that assessing soil health does not need to be soil science. As mentioned above, a simple sniff test can tell you a lot about how lively your soil life is. Civilizations have risen (and fallen) on the health of their soils, and our ancestors had plenty of tricks up their sleeves to identify and nurture the earth that supported them.

Some of those tricks may come in useful once again.