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Explanation of Soil Tests


452-701 (SPE-605NP)

Authors as Published

Authored by Rory Maguire, Professor and Extension Nutrient Management Specialist, School of Plant and Environmental Sciences, Virginia Tech; and Steve Heckendorn, Soil Testing Laboratory Manager, Virginia Tech; First published May 2009, last revised May 2024.


Your Soil Test Report and related Soil Test Notes referred to on a report will help you assess your plant’s need for fertilizer and lime. The “Sample History” section restates the in- formation you supplied along with the soil sample. The “Lab Test Results” section shows the relative availability of nutrients numerically and if appropriate, as a rating. The rating may be interpreted as follows: L=Low, M=Medium, H=High, VH=Very High, EH=Excessively High (soluble salt test only), DEF=Deficient, or SUFF=Sufficient, and sometimes a “+” or “-.” When soils test Low, plants almost always respond to fertilizer. When soils test Medium, plants sometimes respond to fertilizer and a moderate amount of fertilizer is typically recommended to maintain fertility. When soils test High to Very High, plants usually do not respond to fertilizer. If there is no rating for a nutrient, the adequacy of that nutrient in the soil for the plant you specified has not been determined.

The following is an explanation of the symbols and abbreviation used in the report:

Report Abbreviations

P = phosphorus K = potassium

Ca = calcium Mg = magnesium

Zn = zinc Mn = manganese

Cu = copper Fe = iron

S.Salts = soluble salts B = boron lb/A = pounds per acre g = gram ppm = parts per million % = percent

meq = milliequivalent Sat. = saturation N = nitrogen P2O5 = phosphate

K2O = potash pH = acidity

Est-CEC = estimated cation exchange capacity AG = agricultural limestone, dolomitic or calcitic

Fertilizer Recommendation

The fertilizer recommendations may be used for the same crop/plant for two to three years. After this time, it is advisable to retest the soil to determine if significant changes have occurred in nutrient levels. When the soil tests Very High for phosphorus or potassium and no fertilizer for these nutrients is recommended, you should retest the following year to determine if fertilizer will be needed. Due to the variability associated with sampling, fertilizer application rates may be varied by a plus or minus 10 percent.

No soil test is performed for nitrogen because this element is too mobile in the soil for laboratory results to be useful. Nitrogen fertilizer recommendations are based on the crop/plant to be grown, the previous crop, and when applicable, the soil’s yield potential. Comments on the report and associated Notes, if any, will have further information regarding nitrogen

Lime Recommendation

If needed, a lime recommendation is given to neutralize soil acidity and should last two to three years. After that time, you should have the soil retested. The measured soil test levels of calcium and magnesium are used to determine the appropriate type of limestone to apply. If neither dolomitic nor calcitic lime is mentioned, or “agricultural” type or “Ag” limestone is stated on the report, then it does not matter which type is used. When no information was provided regarding the last lime application, the lab assumed you have not applied lime in the past 18 months. If this is not correct, contact your Extension agent for advice on adjusting the lime recommendation to take into consideration recent lime applications. Do not over lime! Too much lime can be as harmful as too little. For best results, apply lime, when possible, several months ahead of the crop/plant to be planted to allow time for more complete soil reaction.

Methods and Meanings

For more detail on the lab procedures used, visit and click on “About Our Laboratory”, then on “Laboratory Procedures.”

Soil pH (or soil reaction) measures the acidity in the soil’s water (or hydrogen ion activity in the soil solution), which affects the availability of nutrients to plants. It is determined on a mixed suspension of 1:1, volume to volume ratio of soil material to distilled water.

Virginia soils naturally become acidic, and limestone periodically needs to be applied to neutralize some of this acidity. A slightly acid soil is where the majority of nutrients become the most available to plants, and where soil organisms that decompose organic matter and contribute to the “overall health” of soils are the most active. When a soil is strongly acidic (< 5.0-5.5), many herbicides lose effectiveness and plant growth is limited by aluminum toxicity. When soils are over-limed and become alkaline (> 7.0), micronutrients, such as manganese and zinc, become less available to plants.

For most agronomic crops and landscaping plants, lime recommendations are provided to raise the soil pH to a slightly acid level of between 5.8 and 6.8. Blueberries and acid-loving ornamentals generally prefer a 4.5 to 5.5 pH, and an application of liming material is suggested when the soil pH drops below 5.0. For the majority of other plants, lime may be suggested before the pH gets below 6.0. This is to keep the soil pH from dropping below the ideal range, since lime is slow to react and affects only a fraction of an inch of soil per year when the lime is not incorporated into the soil. If the soil pH is above the plant’s target pH, then no lime is recommended. If the pH is well above the ideal range, then sometimes an application of sulfur is recommended to help lower the pH faster; however, most of the time, one can just let the soil pH drop on its own.

A modified Mehlich buffer solution is used to determine the Buffer Index to provide an indication of the soil’s total (exchangeable + reserve) acidity and ability to resist a change in pH. This buffer measurement is the major factor in determining the amount of lime to apply. The Buffer Index starts at 6.60 and goes lower as the soil’s total acidity increases and more lime is needed to raise the soil pH. A sandy soil and a clayey soil can have the same soil pH; however, the clayey soil will have greater reserve acidity (and a lower Buffer Index) as compared to the sandy soil, and the clayey soil will require a greater quantity of lime to be applied in order to raise the soil pH by the same amount as the sandy soil.

Nutrients that are available for plant uptake are extracted from the soil with a Mehlich-1 solution using a 1:5 vol:vol soil to extractant ratio, and are then analyzed on an ICP-AES instrument. An extractable Mehlich-1 level of phosphorus from 12 to 35 pounds per acre (lb/A) is rated as medium or optimum. A medium level of potassium is from 76 to 175 lb/A. Medium levels of calcium and magnesium are 721 to 1440 and 73 to 144 lb/A, respectively. Calcium and magnesium are normally added to the soil through the application of limestone. It is rare for very high fertility levels of P, K, Ca and Mg to cause a reduction in crop yield or plant growth. Levels of micronutrients (Zn, Mn, Cu, Fe and B) are typically present in the soil at adequate levels for plants if the soil pH is in its proper range. See Soil Test Note 4, at, for documented micronutrient deficiencies in Virginia.

Soluble Salts (S.Salts) or fertilizer salts are estimated by measuring the electrical conductivity of a 1:2, vol:vol ratio of soil material to distilled water. Injury to plants may start at a soluble salts level above 844 ppm when grown in natural soil, especially under dry conditions and to germinating seeds and seedlings. Established plants will begin to look wilted and show signs related to drought. This test is used primarily for greenhouse, nursery and home garden soils where very high application rates of fertilizer may have led to an excessive buildup of soluble salts.

Soil Organic Matter (SOM) is the percentage by weight of the soil that consist of decomposed plant and animal residues, and is estimated by using either the weight Loss-On-Ignition (LOI method) from 150° to 360°C, or a modified Walkley-Black method. Generally, the greater the organic matter level, the better the overall soil tilth or soil health, as nutrient and water holding capacities are greater, and improved aeration and soil structure enhance root growth and microbial activity. The percent of organic matter in a soil can affect the application rate of some herbicides. Soil organic matter levels from 0.5% to 2.5% are ordinary for natural, well- drained Virginia soils. A soil organic matter greater than 3% would be considered very high for a cultivated field on a farm, but can be beneficial. Due to relatively large amounts of organic materials being commonly added to gardens, the soil organic matter in garden soils can be raised to greater than 5%.

The remaining values that are reported under the “Lab Test Results” section are calculated from the previous measured values and are of little use to most growers.

Estimated Cation Exchange Capacity (Est-CEC) gives an indication of a soil’s ability to hold some nutrients against leaching. Natural soils in Virginia usually range in CEC from 1 to 12 meq/100g. A very sandy soil will normally have a CEC of 1 to 3 meq/100g. The CEC value will increase as the amount of clay and organic matter in the soil increases. This reported CEC is an estimation because it is calculated by summing the Mehlich-1 extractable cations (Ca + Mg + K), and the acidity estimated from the Buffer Index and converting to units commonly used for CEC. This is also an Effective CEC since it is the CEC at the current soil pH. This value can be erroneously high when the soil pH is alkaline (greater than 7.0) or soluble salts level is high.

The percent Acidity is a ratio of the amount of acid- generating cations (as measured by the Buffer Index) that occupy soil cation exchange sites to the total CEC sites. The higher this percentage, the higher the amount of exchangeable acidity in the soil, and the higher the amount of acidity there will be in the soil solution and the lower the soil pH will be.

The percent Base Saturation is the ratio of the quantity of non-acid generating cations (i.e., the exchangeable bases, Ca, Mg, and K) to the total cation exchange (CEC) sites.

The percent Ca, Mg, or K Saturation refers to the relative number of CEC sites that are occupied by that particular nutrient and is a way of evaluating for any gross nutrient imbalance.

Additional Information

For questions and more information, contact your local Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) office or go to Contact information for your local Extension office appears on the upper left of your soil test report.

Conversion Factors

(Some Values are Approximate) 1 acre = 43,560 square feet

1 pound of 5-10-5, 5-10-10 or 10-10-10 fertilizer = 2 cups

1 pound of ground limestone or ground dolomitic limestone = 1.5 cups

1 pound of aluminum sulfate or magnesium sulfate = 2.5 cups

1 pound of sulfur = 3.3 cups 1 quart = 2 pints = 4 cups

1 pint = 2 cups = 32 tablespoons

1 tablespoon = 3 teaspoons

1 bushel = 35.24 liters = 1.25 cubic feet

Pounds per 100 square feet x 0.54 = pounds per cubic yard

100 square feet = 5 feet x 20 feet or 10 feet x 10 feet or 2 feet x 50 feet

1,000 square feet = 50 feet x 20 feet or 10 feet x 100 feet or 25 feet x 40 feet

Pounds per 100 square feet x 436 = pounds per acre

Pounds per 1,000 square feet x 43.6 = pounds per acre

Pounds per acre x 0.0023 = pounds per 100 square feet

Pounds per acre x 0.023 = pounds per 1,000 square feet

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Publication Date

May 29, 2024