Turf Tips: Soil Testing

Turfgrass is only as good as the soil it sprouts from.

When problems arise on your field, we must go to the root of the source, pun most definitely intended. We were lucky to sit down with Chrissie Segars, Turfgrass Specialist with Texas A&M AgriLife extension, to discuss soil testing or if you have missed applications over an extended period of time.

Plant essential nutrients are the life line to all growing things. A soil test is a baseline to understand how well we are preparing our plants to have access to those plant essential nutrients. It’s important to understand this because our plant health is only as good as the nutrients it has access to. Soil testing ensures that we are maintaining nutrients at the right levels and proportions for ample growth and health. Here are some steps to take when embarking on your plant health journey.

  • Identify a credible lab partner. As mentioned before, plant health is only as good as it’s access to essential ingredients. Soil testing results are only as good as the credibility of a trusted lab partner. It’s important to identify your lab partner before conducting your tests because some labs will have specific directions for you to follow. Whether you choose to work with your local university or a third party source, be sure they provide the information and recommendations you’re looking for before moving forward. For example, some lab partners may only return numbers and levels for you to decipher yourself while others will provide specific directions for you to take to ensure healthy plant growth.
  • Select your sample. If you’re looking for an overview of your entire field’s health there are many techniques you can implement for selecting samples. For example, the grid technique has you collect samples across the entire field in a zig-zag pattern so that the entire field is represented in the sample sent to the lab. If you have a specific problem area that you’re looking to improve, be sure to select multiple samples for just that specific trouble area.
  • Use proper equipment. In order to reduce disruption and collect accurate samples, it’s highly recommended to use the best equipment for soil testing. Segars recommends utilizing a soil probe when conducting your test and going down to the root level. You should be met with 4-6 inches of soil that can be used as a sample. Remove the vegetation from the sample before mixing the samples. Collect anywhere from 10-15 for an accurate representation of your field.
  • Reading the results. Formulate a plan for fertilizing and creating a fertility program based on the results you receive from the lab after sending in samples. The results will include the ratios of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in your soil and determine which levels are critical or stable. If your lab partner provides you with specific fertilizer recommendations or next steps, be sure to ask questions or provide more background if you’re still unsure how to proceed. For example, nitrogen rate recommendations should factor in your ability to perform regular maintenance on the field. So, if it’s recommended to apply nitrogen to your field, be sure you can mow frequently and keep a close eye on the progress, otherwise work with the lab to create an alternate plan for your field’s fertility program.
  • Lastly, conduct yearly. Segars recommends that facility and field managers conduct soil tests on a yearly basis and preferably in the spring. If renovations or major weather changes are impacting your field, conduct tests throughout the season to better understand what essential nutrients your plants are begging for.

Segars also touched on best practices for field managers to consider if they missed applications and are looking to catch up this spring. What questions should you be asking if you missed applications? What were you able to accomplish before? What shape was your field in before soil testing and implementing a fertility program? Were you able to make any applications, one, two or three this season?

When you do have the opportunity to tackle this project mid-season, give your field time to recover before heavy stress is reintroduced. Be sure to be communicating this time allotment to your community and bosses. Segars recommends first implementing a mowing practice. This will get mowing heights back to playable and safe conditions. But, keep in mind that this cultural practice causes stress, so you must be patient with your field as it looks to recover. Secondly, don’t overdo it. If you have missed an application, don’t try and make up for that in a condensed time frame. Throwing a ton of nitrogen down won’t benefit your field or the environment. So be calculated in what fertility steps you take once you get back to the field.