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Inside the soil testing lab at the University of Minnesota

For just $19, you can figure out what your soil needs, and doesn't need.

ST PAUL, Minn. — If you suspect that your soil is to blame for your yard's poor performance, all you need is a bag of it and a couple of dollars to get a detailed analysis from the University of Minnesota's soil testing lab. 

Soil testing has grown in popularity in the past couple of years. The lab's research manager Keith Piotrowski said they're about to break a record this year.

"Last year we got 6,100 samples for regular series tests, year before was 6,200," Piotrowski said. "We're right at 1,200 for this month. If we get about another 100 to 200 samples over the next week and a half, we'll have the busiest month in the history of the lab."

Piotrowski said the lab was established in the 1950s, initially for agricultural support reasons. While it continues to do that work, it also now serves the public in a big way, in the interest of responsible lawn management.

"People think that a little bit of fertilizer is good, so more might be better," Piotrowski said. "Well, I'm here to tell you it's not. We don't want to give excess nutrients into the environment because that can actually lead to pollution."

A bag of dirt, usually around two to three cups of it, yields a precise analysis of what the soil needs — or doesn't need.

It's something George Hennum said he wanted to know before he started a rain garden in place of his dying tree. He said after treating the tree for Dutch Elm disease for several years, he had to let it go.

"So after the tree stump had been ground up and the ground tilled, we decided to start planning, and part of the planning process is to have the soil tested," Hennum said.

He added that he knows of other soil testing services, but came specifically to the U of M.

"It's another way to support the university and that was another impetus for us was that it's good for the U," he said.

"Soil testing in general, the basic soil test that's available to the general public, makes up about a third of our annual budget," Piotrowski said. 

However, their goal isn't to turn a profit. In fact, they don't.

So other than breaking even, Piotrowski explained that the service is truly for folks who care about being a good patron in their neighborhood.

"Let's fertilize intelligently and efficiently," he said. "Don't over apply, don't underapply, just keep your trees, lawns, gardens healthy."

Turn around time on the tests is about two to three weeks and costs 19 dollars for the basic test. The results also include a fertilizer recommendation, and Piotrowski said they try not to push any certain brands of fertilizers to customers. 

Soil samples can be mailed in, or dropped off in-person at 1902 Dudley Ave in St. Paul. The Soil Testing Lab is open for business from 8:00am to 4:30pm Monday through Friday.


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