Healthy soil is the foundation of successful gardening.

There are many ideas, opinions and even philosophies on what exactly constitutes “healthy soil.”

One tried and true method of discovery, backed by years of science, is to soil sample.

Test results establish baselines about soil pH and nutrient levels. This information can be used to tweak pH and determine the nutrients needed.

The pH scale ranges from 0 to 14: A pH of 7 is neutral; pH less than 7 is acidic.

Typically, the pH of virgin soils in Western North Carolina ranges from 5.3 to 5.8, but can be lower (acidic 0-7) and/or higher (7-14 basic).

Most fruits, vegetables, some berries and lawns prefer soils with pH from 6.0 to 6.5. Acid-loving plants, such as azaleas, rhododendrons, camellias and blueberries, prefer a soil pH between 5.0 and 5.5.

Soil testing is the only way to know if your soil is too acidic, if you need to add lime to raise pH, and if so, how much.

Many people apply lime unnecessarily, wasting money and raising soil pH too high, resulting in poor plant growth.

In addition, soil-test results, by revealing the nutrient needs of types of plants, pinpoint specific fertilizer requirements. These needs can be met naturally (organic) or by using synthetic fertilizers, such as 10-10-10.

Collecting soil samples only takes a few minutes, and fall is the perfect time.

When sampling, soil is collected from different areas of a plot, then mixed and placed into a soil box. Total, about a cup-and-a-half of soil is collected per test sample.

Sampling requires a stainless steel trowel. The soil is taken from a 4- to 6-inch depth.

Sampling boxes, instructions and forms are available at the Jackson County Extension office on Scotts Creek Road.

The tests are free from April 1 through the end of November, but cost $4 per sample Dec. 1 through March 31, during peak season.

Results are usually ready within a few weeks and are posted online.