Can You Test Soil Quality in the Winter?

Once spring comes around, preparing your land and planting will keep you busy. Testing soil quality in the winter when there is not much else to do gives you more time to focus on your plants come spring.

You can test soil quality in winter, provided your soil is not frozen. Testing soil quality in the winter allows you to make necessary changes before planting. Soil samples must be dry and free of contamination for accurate results.

This article will discuss the when, why, and hows of testing soil quality.

How To Test Soil Quality in the Winter

You can test soil quality year-round. However, certain restrictions and conditions prevent you from taking a usable sample. 

You should not take a sample if the ground is frozen or wet. It will be challenging to dig up enough earth, but the sample may not be a good representation of your overall soil quality.

Additionally, it is best to test your soil several months before you will begin planting. Testing soil quality in the winter gives you enough time to correct any levels the test indicates are not ideal.

You can test your soil quality by yourself with an at-home test kit or send a sample to a laboratory for testing. Before you purchase a test kit, check with your local government to see if they offer free or discounted tests. 

Testing soil quality involves taking proper samples representing your soil overall and running specific tests on those samples.

How To Take a Soil Sample

The results of a soil quality test are only as good as the sample used for testing. If you don’t obtain your soil sample correctly, the results may not accurately represent your ground.

There are six steps to taking a soil sample: 

1. Select Several Areas To Sample

The best soil sample is a mixture of soil from several different places around your yard or field. If you take several samples from the same area, the samples from that area can be combined. 

If your samples are from areas with different characteristics, you should label them carefully. For example, you may combine samples from your garden beds, but you should combine other samples from your lawn in a separate container.

2. Gather Your Tools

To take a soil sample, you will need at least one shovel, spade, or soil probe and a ruler or tape measure. If you use the same tool to dig up the soil and collect the sample, you should clean the tool thoroughly between uses. If you have two tools, use one for digging and one for collection.

Soil samples are very easily contaminated. If there is any trace of fertilizer on your tools, gloves, or anything else coming into contact with the sample, the fertilizer will ruin the reading.

Additionally, you should avoid any tools made with galvanized metal. Tools with galvanized metal can add metals such as zinc to the sample, making it inaccurate.

3. Dig a Hole 4 to 8 Inches (10–20 cm) Deep

Next, you will need to dig a hole at an angle to create an inverted pyramid in the soil. The depth of the holes you use to collect samples must be consistent. You should follow these steps when digging for soil samples:

  1. Use your ruler or tape measure to check each hole’s depth.
  2. Samples for a lawn with grass should be 4 to 6 inches (10-15 cm) deep.
  3. Gardens, fields, and any areas with plants require a sample 6 to 8 inches (15-20 cm) deep.

Adhering to these depths is essential for two reasons. One benefit is that the hole is deep enough that it should not contain fertilizer but not too deep to make it difficult to take several samples. It is also essential because it measures nutrients where the plant roots will be. 

4. Extract a Cross Section of Soil

Once you have a hole, you must collect a small sample from the bottom. Make sure to change or clean your tool to collect the sample to avoid contamination. 

Take a piece from the center core, about the size of a tennis ball. With gloves, check for any debris in your soil.

Your soil sample should not have any traces of:

  • Fertilizer
  • Mulch
  • Grass
  • Straw
  • Sticks
  • Roots
  • Rocks
  • Worms.

Removing these items before adding the soil to your mixture is easier.

5. Repeat in Several Other Areas

Taking several samples helps create a comprehensive picture of your soil, and the results will better reflect your land.

If a particular spot in an area seems different, you should consider this a separate area and keep these samples separate from the rest of the area. For example, if one area of your garden seems to have more sand or clay than the rest, you should analyze that area separately.

6. Label All of Your Samples

Labeling samples is a crucial step that you can’t forget. If the results of your samples are different, you need to be able to know their designated area. If mixing samples, you should describe the area, such as ‘garden .’ It is not necessary to list the location of each hole. 

Labs will tell you the information they need, but providing as much information as possible is best. You should give the species of plants, type of grass, or produce present in the area of the samples. 

Analysts can give you much more personalized advice if they know what you have planted in the past and what you plan on growing. For example, blueberry bushes do best in slightly acidic soil that is not best for other plants.

Make sure to read the requirements for your laboratory carefully. Some labels have requirements such as drying the soil out before sending it.

7. Run Tests

Once you send your samples out, the lab will take care of the rest. However, if you do not want to send your soil to an outside laboratory for testing, there are some tests you can perform on your own.

The basic soil testing kits will measure pH, nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus. These kits contain a powder that will turn colors when added to water and soil. You then use a color scale to interpret your results. 

There are also fancier tests available that measure more nutrients. You can also get an electric pH meter if you are looking for a reusable option.

The Benefits of Testing Soil Quality

Testing soil quality gives you valuable information about the health and nutrient levels of your field, lawn, or garden. This data will allow you to select specific fertilizers that will address the deficiencies in your soil. Some land certifications also require soil samples.

Necessary tests vary based on location, as not all places will have the same concerns. Your local environmental agencies and laboratories can recommend the best tests for your soil.

Some laboratories will even include a summary of their recommendations for your field, telling you the exact treatments you should implement for your soil.

Most laboratory soil quality tests will analyze:

  • pH
  • Texture
  • Calcium
  • Magnesium
  • Phosphorus
  • Potassium
  • Iron
  • Manganese
  • Zinc
  • Copper
  • Sulfur
  • Boron.

How Often You Should Test Soil Quality

You can take soil samples for most areas every three to five years. However, planting crops that require a lot of nutrients may deplete the soil faster, and you should test every two to three years.

Testing soil quality every year is unnecessary, as nutrient levels generally take longer than a year to change significantly. You will need to take new samples each time you run the test. Do not mix new samples with previous soil samples.


Testing soil quality in the winter is a good idea to give you time to make adjustments before planting in the spring.

To obtain a clean and accurate soil sample, you need to:

  • Use clean tools
  • Dig 4-8 inches (10-20cm) into the ground
  • Keep samples from problem areas separate.

Alexander Picot

Alexander Picot is the principal creator of, a website dedicated to gardening tips. Inspired by his mother’s love of gardening, Alex has a passion for taking care of plants and turning backyards into feel-good places and loves to share his experience with the rest of the world.

Recent Posts