If you're a homeowner or farmer, you may be wasting your money. You may be among the many Georgians who squander thousands of dollars annually by using fertilizers improperly.
"It's important for society to know the impacts (of correct application)," said C. Wayne Jordan, head of the Agricultural Services Labs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
"People think only farmers need to know this," Jordan said. "But people with gardens, lawns and ornamental plants need to know this just as much."
Money isn't the only issue. Using fertilizers wrong hurts the environment, too.
"The more you apply, the more potential you have for runoff into streams and lakes," Jordan said. "Landowners and farmers should determine the soil's fertility levels and decide what its needs are in terms of fertilizer or lime. We need to limit the likelihood of groundwater and stream contamination."
Certain elements consistently show up in levels that are either too high or too low for certain crops. Jordan said you should know how much to add for each situation.
"We're concerned with the amount of phosphorous that goes on the soil over the long term," he said. "Many of our soil samples from homeowners and some field crops are showing high phosphorous levels.
"At the same time," he said, "many Georgia soils need lime. You need to make sure you're putting on the right amount of the right material."
Not having a soil test means not knowing what to do for your plants, said Henry Hibbs, Extension Service coordinator in Oconee County.
"So many people treat their plants' poor growth symptoms when all they need is a good fertilizer program," Hibbs said. "They miss the core problem -- an unbalanced soil nutrition program."
Avoiding costly mistakes is easy with a soil test, Jordan said.
"Testing your soil can help you accurately match the requirements of the soil and plants and limit excess runoff," he said. "Farmers can also maximize their profits and keep costs down for themselves and consumers if they know how much (fertilizer or lime) to add to the soil."
The best time to test is now, Jordan said.
"The soil is drier and fields are cleaner in fall," he said. "And because such materials such as lime take time to react in the soil, it's best to test early in the fall rather than waiting until winter or spring."
The test, Jordan said, helps everyone. It's inexpensive, user- friendly and readily available through your county extension office.
"You will receive instructions, the proper paperwork and sample bags," he said. "The extension agents will mail the samples, provide the results and answer questions."
Private labs are also available in some areas.
Hibbs said the UGA test is free for farmers and commercial horticulture growers. There is a small charge for others. "It costs $4 per sample," he said. "But you can save money by consolidating your samples and not overfertilizing by guessing."
The results are easy to read, understand and apply to your soil. "After the test you can go to your fertilizer or garden supplier and know exactly what to buy and how to apply it," Jordan said.
"Your test is only as good as your sample," Hibbs said. "The more specific you are with your sample information, the better the results and recommendations."
(Heather Hardy is a student writer with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)