Successful home gardening requires a few necessary elements. Both vegetable gardens and flower gardens need adequate amounts of sunlight, water, air and nutrients. Some soils contain adequate amounts of nutrients, while others are deficient. Testing the soil determines nutrient levels and acidity, as well as the porosity and drainage ability. Both manual testing and chemical testing provide useful information for gardeners.
Dig a small hole and scoop out a shovel of soil from a depth of 3 to 4 inches below the surface. Look at the color of your soil to identify the presence of some nutrients. Dark soil contains the highest amount of organic matter, while light-colored soil contains the least nutrients and tends to erode quickly. Soil testing kits, available at any hardware or home and garden store, can typically provide at least a rudimentary analysis of your soil's levels of the key nutrients nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.
Collect soil from several areas of your planting site. Use a small shovel to scrape the surface of the soil, removing leaves, mulch and debris. Dig out a small shovelful of soil about 6 to 8 inches below the surface of the soil and place it in a clean bucket. Take additional samples from a few areas of your garden to determine the average health of your soil. Place all the samples in the same bucket. Stir the soil in your bucket with your shovel.
Purchase some litmus paper strips to test the pH level of your soil sample. Find this paper in the pool supply department of your local hardware store. Place a small amount of your collected soil into a cup. Place a few drops of water onto the soil to dampen it. Touch the litmus paper to the moist soil. Determine your soil's pH level by matching the developed color on the litmus paper strip to the pH color chart included with the package of litmus paper. Most plants prefer soils with slightly acidic levels.
Test the composition and porosity of your soil by wetting a portion of your soil sample. Add just enough water to make the soil slightly moist, not wet. Squeeze the soil in the palm of your hand and rub it between your fingers. Soil high in sand resists compaction and crumbles between the fingers, while clay soil tends to stick together when squeezed. Loamy soil, the preferred composition for many types of plants, forms a loose ball that crumbles when pressed.