How Soil Testing Can Help You

Heavy rains this summer have removed many nutrients from the soil in southeastern North Carolina. Symptoms of nutrient deficiency include stunted growth, discolored leaves, excessive shedding of older leaves, reduced flowering, and poor flavor in vegetables. If you have observed any of these symptoms on plants in your yard soil testing can help you get to the root of the problem and tell you how to fix it.  


Simple and Free!

North Carolina is the only state to still offer soil testing as a free service to its residents. Boxes and forms for sampling are available from any Cooperative Extension office. Completed samples should be dropped off at your local Extension office to be sent to the N.C. Department of Agriculture’s soil testing lab in Raleigh.

Fall is the perfect time to soil test. Results for samples submitted now will be ready in three to four weeks, much quicker than the nine to ten weeks it often takes in the busy spring season. Collecting soil samples only takes a few minutes, can help you save money in your lawn, garden and landscape, and can result in healthier plants by telling you which nutrients are already in your soil and which ones you need to add with either natural or synthetic fertilizers.

One of the most important things the soil test measures is soil pH, or how acidic or basic your soil is. Soil pH levels in our area range anywhere from 3.5 (very acidic) to 8.0 (basic) or higher. Most plants prefer to grow in soils where the pH is 5.5 to 6.5. Soil testing is the only way to know if your soil is too acidic and if you need to add lime to raise pH. Many people apply lime unnecessarily, which can raise soil pH too high, resulting in poor plant growth.

Soil test results will also tell you which nutrients you need to apply for the type of plants you are growing. If you have soil tested in the past and had trouble understanding the soil test report, there is good news. This summer the N.C. Department of Agriculture unveiled a new report format that is much easier to read. It features bar graphs that show your pH and nutrient levels and provides several alternative fertilizers you can use, in case you cannot find the specific one they recommend.


How to Test Your Soil

To have your soil tested, collect samples from different areas of your yard. You will need to collect three to five random samples from each section of your yard where you are growing something different, for example, three to five samples from your lawn, three to five samples from your vegetable garden, etc. Samples should be collected with a stainless steel trowel and need to be taken around six inches deep. For each sample you are going to submit (example: lawn, garden, flower bed), aim to collect a total of about a cup and a half of soil when the three to five random samples are mixed together. If there are areas in your yard where plants are not growing well be sure to sample them separately to find out if the problem is nutrient or pH related.


When complete, your results will be posted online at Soil test results will not determine if there are diseases or herbicide residues in your soil, or if poor drainage or soil compaction are causing plant problems. If you suspect these issues contact your local Cooperative Extension office for advice.


Learn More!

Contact your local Extension office to learn more about soil testing. If you live in Pender County, call 259-1235. In New Hanover County, call 798-7660. In Brunswick County call 253-2610, or visit you can post your questions to be answered via the Ask an Expert widget. Visit the Pender Gardener blogto stay up to date with all the latest gardening news,


Charlotte Glen is a Horticulture Agent with Pender County Cooperative Extension of NC State University, College of Agriculture & Life Sciences. She can be reached via e-mail at