Soil Tests for the Family Garden – Necessity or a Waste?

The question is often asked if the family gardener should pay for a soil test before planting his garden.  Our advice is to not pay for a soil test.  However, a few students have discovered a statement by Dr. Jacob Mittleider in the book Food For Everyone (P 137) wherein he states that “The soil test is the beginning of operations…”.  Following is my response.

The book Food For Everyone was written in 1972, and at that time Dr. Mittleider was having soil tests done wherever he went, including numerous developing countries. However, over the ensuing years he learned enough that by the time most of his GARDENING books were published Jacob no longer used nor recommended soil tests, and here’s why.

Two reasons for soil tests were (1) to determine the soil pH, because plants are best able to take nutrients from the soil and use them when the pH is between 6.5 and 7, and (2) to determine any nutrient deficiencies in the soil.

Through long experience and field testing in gardens all over the world Jacob learned that whenever annual rainfall is 20″ or more the soil pH is below 7 (acidic), and the simple solution is to use lime – to raise the pH and to supply essential calcium.

When annual rainfall is 18″ or below the soil pH is above 7 (alkaline) and the solution is to use gypsum as the calcium source. It will not raise pH because it contains almost equal parts calcium (raises pH) and sulfur (lowers pH).  And Jacob learned that this was usually all that was necessary to grow successfully in high pH soils.

If the high pH in the soil continues to be a problem simply apply sulfur to lower the pH.

Furthermore, Jacob’s long experience with soil tests taught him that they often did not accurately predict the availability of the nutrients to the plants. The natural state of the many mineral compounds in the soil is to be “fixed” or adhered to the soil particles, and in order for the plants to use them the minerals must be water-soluble and pass in the soil water into the plant through the root hairs. That availability changes quickly, and a test taken last month, even if accurate at the time, may not be accurate today or tomorrow.

Jacob also learned that soils throughout the world were almost universally low in available nutrients, and he created a balanced formula containing all 13 essential plant nutrients that he applied everywhere in the world with great success.  And they are applied weekly throughout the growing season so that they are available to the plants as needed.

This knowledge allowed Dr. Mittleider to eliminate the need for soil testing, thus saving time and costs for everyone.  This is a tremendous boon, especially for the family gardener, because they have neither the time, the money, the knowledge, nor the patience to order and wait for soil tests.