Last year, as I stood near enormous stacks of soil amendments on display at the local garden shop, I was struck by the close resemblance between fertilizing a crop plot and playing Russian roulette.
I speak from my own experience, since I had never been certain exactly which additives were needed in my soil each spring. Nor had I found much help—or solace—in the warnings printed on commercial fertilizer packages. According to those guides, if I skimped on my amendments, I might not see any positive results in my garden. Yet if I overcompensated, I might "burn" my soil! Moreover, by following some of the generalized recommendations on the product labels, I could easily soak $50 into my front lawn alone, even if all my ground needed was a few dollars' worth of potash.
Finally, I concluded that I really needed to have my soil tested before I could, with any guarantee of success, begin a fertilizing program. In my part of Oregon, however, soil testing (from a professional consultant) costs $20 . . . and that figure doesn't even include interpreting the resultant data. Being nobody's fool, I went back to the same garden outlet later and purchased a do-it-yourself soil test kit. True, the packet of chemicals cost $36, but I could use it for dozens of tests.
I then spent a few hours testing the earth in my garden, lawn, and flowerbeds. The procedure was simple enough to follow. The trouble was, the charts for interpreting the data were pretty complicated to deal with. It didn't take long for me to realize, though, that my Apple II home computer could decipher the data a lot faster than I could. In fact, the computer could be programmed to print out a report giving specific recommendations and options custom tailored to each set of test results. Figuring that other people had the same problem with soil analysis that I had, I decided that providing a soil testing service could be a terrific business opportunity!
It took several days to develop the computer program, and during that time I ordered the necessary chemicals and test tubes in bulk quantities. My wife and I made up some advertising posters—with tear-off order forms—and thumbtacked them up at garden supply shops, feedstores, farm co-ops, country grocery markets, and lawn and garden nurseries in our environs.
Within a week's time, samples of soil began trickling in. By mid-June, my business had ballooned so that I had to set aside one day a week just to do tests. Now, I can manage five at once, and each round of them takes me only about 50 minutes. So, at $10 per test, I figure my time is well spent! Of course, a lot of my day is also devoted to advertising my service, ordering supplies, and waiting for the computer's printouts. Then too, this business is quite seasonal, as you might expect, so the winter months are often relatively slow.
Advertising is a career in itself, and my simple methods doubtless leave much room for improvement. My wife and I keep in close touch with the surrounding nurseries, and a lot of our business comes through them. I've also put ads in the newspapers and weekly classified pages. All in all, though, my poster pinups have brought me the majority of my customers.
Along with each set of test results, I send a cover letter and, if the customer tells me where he or she saw my ad, a plant pH-preference chart. (That way, I can gauge which of my ads are most effective.) Requiring the client to send along a self-addressed, stamped envelope with the soil sample keeps my clerical work to a minimum.
Once you've done a soil analysis a few times, the actual procedure is relatively easy. I spread a sheet of paper out on a table and use a plastic flour sieve to sift a few tablespoons of soil. Next, I fill four plastic test tubes to the level specified in the instructions that accompanied the analysis kit. Appropriate indicating chemicals then go into each tube, a stopper is set on top, and the contents are thoroughly mixed. After filtering and collecting each solution, I compare their colors with the charts in the instruction booklet . . . which also states the values of the various soil elements. Once all the examinations are completed, I discard the tubes and stoppers, because cleanliness is of the utmost importance to the testing procedure (used test tubes might be contaminated with traces of nitrates, potassium, and phosphorus).
The next step is to type the results into my computer, including the name and address of the client for use in future advertisements. The machine then prints out a complete report on the test . . . adding some informative material on the nature of soil chemistry, and a thorough application guide for both organic and chemical fertilizers. (See A Sample Garden Soil Test to view a sample report.)
Naturally, no two reports are exactly alike. Each one lists only the information pertinent to the particular test results. For example, if the soil is "sour" or acidic, the report contains detailed instructions on how to add lime. On the other hand, if the soil tests alkaline, the liming directions are omitted, and in their place is a discussion of ways to reduce its pH. Moreover, every report contains tips on applying organic fertilizers . . . a topic virtually overlooked by any other soil test reports I've seen.
I'm unable, unfortunately, to include analyses of "minor" nutrients such as calcium and magnesium and of "trace elements" such as boron and manganese in my reports, simply because testing for those nutrients requires relatively sophisticated (and expensive) procedures. But my service does provide my customers with a valuable awareness of the overall condition of their gardens, and reveals major deficiencies. I'm always careful to point out that balance is the key to a healthy, productive soil . . . and that simple practices—such as planting green-manure cover crops—can go a long way toward providing the additional "minor" and "trace" nutrients necessary for good plant growth.
After a solid year's experience in soil testing, I'm very pleased with the comments from my customers. In fact, much of my new business has come directly from referrals of happy clients. I make a point of being prompt: There are times when folks have hand-delivered samples to me, and I quickly performed the tests and telephoned the data to them. Nurseries, in particular, appreciate getting fast results, since it allows them to test new shipments of potting and fill soil immediately. Considerate service goes a long way toward getting the word out to new business prospects.
Altogether, I guess you could say that my Apple computer and I have hit pay dirt . . . all by making dirt pay!
EDITOR'S NOTE: Terry Nelson has made his computer programs available to MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers. There are three programs: a file creator to store the names, addresses, test results, and analysis dates of the clients . . . the actual soil test routines . . . and an editor that allows you to make a mailing list and to reprint copies of reports.
Sudbury Laboratories is one source for chemicals and test tubes. Mr. Nelson has found that, at least in his own case, it's most economical to buy the chemicals from Sudbury and other equipment from a local chemical supply house.
And for some information on new varieties that should flourish in your well-prepared soil, please see Best Vegetable Varieties of 1983.
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