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What’s in your soil? New lab goes beneath the surface to find out

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A new service at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette is dishing the dirt on soil health.

The Delta Urban Soils Laboratory can help small production farmers, gardeners, landscape designers and architects, homeowners and environmental firms better understand what’s in their soil.

And healthy soil produces healthy plants and crops, said Dr. Anna Paltseva, an assistant professor of environmental science in UL Lafayette’s School of Geosciences and the lab’s director. She is the South Louisiana Mid-Winter Fair Endowed Professor in Renewable Resources.

“It’s important to know what is in your soil so you can grow plants effectively. People will say, ‘My plants are dying. I don’t know what I am doing wrong.’ But if you study the soil, you can see what you need to do to fix it in order to meet the needs of the plant,” Paltseva said.

“The soil speaks for itself,” she added.

The Delta Urban Soils lab examines samples submitted by the public to identify what nutrients soil contains – and which it needs – to improve plant growth. Tests also pinpoint soil composition and detect any contaminants that are hindering development.

The lab will perform the following common tests:

  • Soil texture affects how well water drains, how much water and nutrients soil can hold, and how often you need to water or fertilize.
  • pH is the measure of how acidic or alkaline the soil is.
  • Nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, or NPK, are essential for plant growth and development. Nitrogen stimulates leaf growth, phosphorus strengthens root systems, and potassium contributes to fruit and seed production as well as overall plant health.
  • Soil organic matter comes from organisms that are present in the soil in various stages of decomposition.
  • All soils contain some salts, which are essential for plant growth. However, excess salt affects soil-water balance and will hinder plant growth.
  • Soil contaminated with heavy metals such as lead, chromium, mercury and nickel pose a serious environmental threat to plants and crops. It is essential to test for these metals before planting to ensure safe gardening and healthy produce.

Individual tests and testing packages are available. For more information, including pricing and how to submit samples, visit https://geology.louisiana.edu/soils-lab. Email questions to deltasoils@louisiana.edu.

The lab accepts samples from anywhere in the United States. Results will be emailed within two business weeks from the day samples are received, Paltseva said.

“Soil science should be available to all who are motivated to make a difference from the ground up. That’s the mission of the Delta Urban Soils lab – to make soil science accessible to the public.”

Photo caption: Dr. Anna Paltseva examines soil samples in UL Lafayette’s Delta Urban Soils Laboratory. Paltseva, an assistant professor of environmental science, is the lab’s director. (Photo credit: Doug Dugas / University of Louisiana at Lafayette)

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