It is a familiar sight. Every spring, your local farmers’ market offers information on soil testing through master gardener volunteers. Maybe you have sent in a soil sample for testing to the soil lab at UMass (officially the Soil and Plant Nutrient Testing Laboratory), as thousands do each year. You want to know if your garden needs amendments to grow those long-awaited juicy tomatoes. But who catches your soil sample on the other side of the mailbox?
Meet Tracy Allen. Although her main task is to oversee lab personnel, equipment, budget, and procedures, as well as quality control of test results, Allen gives you the straight scoop on your soil. She spends a “fair amount” of time every day answering questions posed by clients, monitoring quality control and sending out test results. Then she helps clients with those results and recommendations via phone and email. For example, if a soil sample indicates that more phosphorous or nitrogen is needed, she can offer specific advice about the amendments to the soil for healthy gardens.
Allen says there is no typical day for her. The lab staff is small and usually includes two or three undergraduates in the lab… although she does not teach courses, much learning takes place in her domain. And she is grateful to western Massachusetts master gardeners for their help during the spring rush.
A very small percentage of her clients have a background in soil science, and some people find the test results to be a bit intimidating. She works hard to take the mystery out of the data, and to help people better understand what their test results mean. People want to know whether their soil is safe for growing vegetables, or how to make their lawn green again. They sometimes need help in devising a fertilizer plan, or have questions about the timing of a limestone application. Allen’s goal is to give people the information they need to succeed with their lawn, gardens, or other landscaping projects.
The routine soil analysis includes soil pH, nutrient values and a lead screening. The test results also include lime and fertilizer recommendations when requested. The cost of a routine soil test is $15 per sample before optional organic matter, soluble salts or nitrate testing, which can be added for a nominal fee. Visit the Soil and Plant Nutrient Testing Laboratory webpages for directions on how to send in a soil sample.
More specific soil analysis needs, well beyond a routine garden sample, can also be met. For example, construction projects need to know the USDA textural classification, which is defined by the percentages of sand, silt and clay. The UMass Soil Lab can do that. If you have the need to understand if there are heavy metals in soil to ensure that soil is safe for growing vegetables and for children’s play areas, send in your sample. And UMass’s plant tissue nutrient analysis is used by commercial growers to determine nutrient uptake by plants. This information helps to modify a fertilizer plan that increases yield or corrects a problem.
No soil used? No problem. UMass lab can analyze soilless media for commercial greenhouses, to determine pH, soluble salts, and nutrient levels. Test results are used to diagnose problems and to maximize plant health and yield.
When Allen is not looking down at soil, she’s often looking up to the skies. As a third-generation bird watcher, she has a deep appreciation for the native landscape.