As a backyard (or front yard) gardener, it pays to get the dish on your dirt, er, soil.

Plants grow by absorbing nutrients such as nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus from the soil. Finding the right balance is key – too much or to little of any nutrient and your plants don’t thrive.

Most people err on the side of overfertilization which leads to any number of problems – not only are you spending money on fertilizer you don’t need (and possibly harming your plants in the process) but storm water runoff means your fertilizers end up in the nearby watershed.

Another reason to know what’s in your soil is determine the presence of heavy metals such as lead and arsenic. If you’re growing leafy vegetables and root crops,  you’ll want to know if there is lead in the soil.

How can  you find all this out? Easy – test your soil. Not a multiple choice test but rather a test to determine your soil’s pH, the presence of macro nutrients (potassium, nitrogen and phosphorus), the percent of organic matter and presence of heavy metals.

Low cost tests are available through your local cooperative extension service as well as other places – although not local, our soil tester of choice is UMass.

Test your soil – it’s dirt cheap!