Juan Carlos Cervantes

White Pine County Cooperative Extension Educator

University of Nevada Cooperative Extension

Growing Support for White Pine County Gardeners

Have you doubts about your ability to grow plants at home? I have heard many people who love to work with plants give up on the idea of growing their own flowers or vegetables simply because they have not had consistent past success as gardeners. Some of these folks even go as far as giving up the joy of growing their own flowers and/or vegetables because they erroneously believe they lack the magical “green thumb”. Well, as you might have noticed, fall is upon us and it is a great time to start thinking about developing that “green thumb”. Anyone, I mean it, anyone can develop a green thumb; all it takes is a bit of planning and effort. The first thing you need to do is decide that you will not pass up another opportunity to enjoy the many benefits that come from growing your own flowers, vegetables, herbs, and fruits.

The ABCs of Soil Tests

A soil test is a powerful and easy step you can take right now toward improving your chances of successful gardening next growing season. A basic soil test can help you, the grower, determine if your planned or present garden plot has enough available nutrients for good plant growth. A soil test can also help you determine the potential for salinity, pH, organic matter level, and the effects of soil texture on plant growth.

Fall is a great time to sample the soil where you plan to establish your garden for the upcoming growing season. There are a couple simple rules to follow when it comes to sampling your soil: First, be sure a minimum of a month has expired between the time you take soil samples and the last time you fertilized the ground you are sampling, it does not matter if the fertilizer you used is organic or chemical. Second, be sure to sample your soil before the soil freezes or if you miss the fall opportunity, do it in early spring before the growing season. This timing is critical and can be the difference between great results versus less than desirable results.

To get a good soil sample you need to collect 10-15 samples from 10-15 different spots within your planned gardening plot. Depending on what you plan to grow, each sample must be taken from soil depths were most of the plants’ roots grow. The range is quite large from (2 to 12 inches) but it really is dependent on what you plan to grow. If you are looking to establish perennials, including trees, you will need to sample deeper but if you only plan to grow flowers, herbs, and annual vegetables then 4-6” depths are fine. After you collect all your samples from your designated growing plot, mix all samples into one combined sample. The only exception to this rule is if you have a particular area in your current garden plot where plants grow very different from plants on other areas of your garden plot, then do not combine these samples with the rest of the samples and instead have these areas tested separately.

You do not need more than about two cups of soil to send in to the soil labs but do check with your soil lab facility first to determine how much soil you will need to send in or whether they want a dry or moist sample. In the event that your soil sample gets really hot or is exposed to extreme temperatures, it is advisable that you take another sample before sending in for soil testing.

What you will get from a soil test?

A soil test will provide you with specific characteristics that estimate the amount of nutrients that are available to plants for growth. The chemical characteristics that a soil test will provide you with are a measure of salinity, a measure of decomposed pant-carbon material, a measure of pH (which affects the plants ability to absorb nutrients). You will also get a measure of soil texture, which is an indicator of relative proportions of sand, silt, and clay. The proportions of sand, silt, and clay affect water retention, water infiltration, and water availability to plants. The lab will provide you with the results of your soil test along with an interpretation of the results and with recommendations about what to do to improve your soil if the ranges are outside normal ranges.

What you will not get from a soil test?

You will not get a measurement of some important variables that can adversely affect plant growth. A basic soil test will not tell you if your soil has chemical residues (pesticides, toxic chemicals), disease, or insect infestations or other poor physical characteristics, such as light conditions, water quality, and water quantity. A basic soil test will also not provide you with information about the basic soil biology of your soil, such as the beneficial bacteria, fungi, worms, insects, and other such beneficial life.

If you suspect your water is responsible for your growing challenges, you can have your water tested for sodium and other minerals which adversely affect plant growth.

Local challenges to

successful gardening:

Nevada soils are pH and saline high and lacking organic matter. For this reason, it is recommended that you avoid do-it-at-home soil test kits. These kits were developed for acid pH soils typically found in the eastern states and not in Nevada. You will get better results from your soil test if you properly sample your plot and send your soil sample to a quality soil test lab that regularly tests desert soils instead of using a do-it-at home soil test kit.

On the other hand, if you know that your current or potential garden plot is free from chemical residues, disease, insect infestations, has good exposure to light, and you have good water quality for irrigation, you can skip the soil test and add now organic matter to your soil, such as composted manure, grass, and leaf litter. Lastly, if you know that the plants you plant to grow next season use large amounts of nutrients, you can apply fertilizers to your soil, along with your organic matter, that are rich in  Nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) applying them in your soil mixture will encourage plants to vigorously grow, produce more flowers or bear more fruits.

Accredited soil testing labs near you that test desert soils:

Utah State University Extension

USU Analytical lab

Logan, UT 843222


A&L Western Labs Inc.

1311 Woodland Ave #1

Modesto, CA 95351


Analytical Sciences Laboratory

University of Idaho

Holm Research Center

Moscow, ID 83844-7900


Western Laboratories

211 Highway 95

Parma, ID 83660


Adapted from Soil Testing Guide for Nevada Home Gardeners

Holly Gatzke, Dan Nelson


Fact Sheet 09-38

UNCE does not endorse these or any other soil testing laboratories

An EEO/AA Institution