To Bangs, each box represents a chance for healthier plants and an opportunity to save time and money.
Bangs is not a farmer. Neither are his students and clients, but they all benefit form sending soil samples to the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Service's Agronomic Services lab to be tested.
During tests, soil nutrient content is analyzed, and the results provide specific lime and fertilizer recommendations from lawn and gardens. Lab staff tested more than 250,000 soil samples in 2003, but many urban residents are unaware of the free service.
"Soil testing is the only way to ensure soil is in the best shape possible and to protect the financial investment we make in our plants and lawns," Bangs said. "And, anyone can do it. All you need to do is dig in the soil, fill out some simple forms and get the samples to the lab."
Soil testing also benefits the environment. Residents who apply excessive amounts of lime or fertilizer to their lawns and gardens create potential for nutrient runoff, which can feed into local streams and rivers.
Samples are accepted year round, but mid-March through September is the best time for homeowner and other non-farm samples. During these months, samples can be processed more quickly and results are usually available within two weeks.
Lawns are typically fertilized at regular intervals during the growing season. Although it is best to take soil samples before applying fertilizer, it can be done afterwards. You should wait about four weeks after fertilizing, especially during dry weather. Samples collected soon after fertilization may produce soil test results that are unusually high. Soil reports indicated whether the current fertilization program is sufficient.
"It doesn't really matter when you take your samples, but there is no better time than the present," Bangs said. "Soil is ever-changing. The important thing is to get your results in hand, understand them and then follow the recommendations when the time is right."
It is also important to understand that the box of soil sent to the lab should represent the area to be fertilized. Lawn grasses, vegetable gardens, annual flower beds and shrubbery all have different nutrient requirements, so a separate sample should be collected for each area.
One soil core is not an adequate sample. Soil in each sample box should reach the fill line and be a mixture of several cores, taken randomly from one specific area to be fertilized.
Soil sample boxes and information sheets are available from the Bladen County Extension Office on Smith Circle in Elizabethtown, for from the Agronomic Division in Raleigh. For information on how to collect a sample from a lawn or garden, visit the Web page www.ncagr.com/agronomi/samhome.htm or call (919)733-2655.