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Cornell Cooperative Extension horticulture consultant Alice Raimondo examines some garden soil. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

For beginning gardeners — or even experienced ones — problems can always arise when working out a green thumb.

Some, like an insect infestation, can be pretty obvious. But others, like unbalanced soil, will likely not be so noticeable to the untrained eye.

To find out if the dirt in your garden is causing trouble, stop by Cornell Cooperative Extension’s office on Griffing Avenue in Riverhead with a cup and a half of soil and five dollars. There, horticulture consultants Alice Raimondo and Sandra Vultaggio will test your soil’s pH balance and soluble salts level.

“With pH testing it’s a good idea to get the soil testing done, ideally before you want to plant because changing your soil acidity by using limestone is not an instant effect,” Raimondo said. “If you submitted soil from a vegetable garden that, let’s say, you never grew in before and you find out your pH is excessively acidic, you’re probably not going to be able to correct it to a great range that first season.”

The same goes for soluble salts, which are evaporated mineral deposits. Testing the levels of pH and soluble salts requires two different tests. Before either test can be run, the soil is left out to dry for approximately two days, Vultaggio said. During this time, the soil is sifted and ground down using a rolling pin. The soil’s texture is also determined, because the amount of sand or loam it contains affects the limestone recommendation you’ll receive, Raimondo said.

For the soluble salts test, two tablespoons of soil are placed in a cup. Distilled water, sodium and chloride are added to it and stirred. Electrodes, usually silver, are then used to test the soil. That test takes about five minutes, Vultaggio said.

Most people do not have problems with their soluble salts levels, Raimondo said, unless they’ve over-fertilized in past seasons. Soil that is too salty often leads to the burning of roots and causes damage to plants, she said.

To test the pH, distilled water is added to two tablespoons of soil and left to sit for about an hour. Then, electrodes are used to test the sample.

“Most of the things we grow here are roughly between 6.0 and 7.0 [on the pH scale],” Raimondo said. “Vegetable crops, turf grass, most of the trees and shrubs that people grow, most of the perennials people grow want to be in that range.”

But other items, such as blueberries, require the soil to be slightly more acidic, around 5 on the pH scale, she said.

“There’s this old misnomer out there that if you live on Long Island our native soil is highly acidic, even lower than five,” she said. “So the thought is among a lot of gardeners that they can put down all the lime [which raises the pH] they want because our soil is so naturally acidic. But that’s not the case because most soil is not really native anymore. Plus, if they’re dumping limestone on it every year they’re changing the pH. [Getting your soil tested] is a good way people actually can save money by not just liming without knowing.”

People are encouraged to bring multiple soil samples from different parts of their land. In 2015 the diagnostic lab tested 612 different samples. The whole process takes one to two weeks to complete.

Each soil sample costs $5, but if you bring in five or more samples at once they cost $3.50 apiece.

The horticulture diagnostic laboratories can also test plants for diseases, which costs $8; screen turf grass samples for $11; and examine ticks for $11.

The most common time to bring samples is between March and October, Vultaggio said, but samples can be brought in year round.

For more information, the horticulture information hotline is available from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday at (631) 727-4126. Or you can click here.

This story was originally published in the 2016 edition of northforker Home and Garden