The government might know more about your soil than you do. Did you know you can access the USDA’s soil map of your property? You can and I am going to show you how.
What are soil maps?
Soil maps, also known as soil surveys, are used by architects and engineers to determine a soil’s ability to support roads or structures. Farmers use soil surveys to help them decide the best use for their land and you can, too. Your soil map can help you with plant selection, irrigation, and other gardening decisions.
Soil maps are the combined information collected by various government agencies on different types of soil. Soil surveys used to be printed in book form by every county. We don’t do that anymore. [Thank goodness!] Now, all the information is found online.
How to access a soil survey
All of the information the U.S. government has about your soil is available at the USDA’s Web Soil Survey page. Because this page isn’t exactly intuitive to use, we will work through it together. Once you open the webpage, click on the green Start WSS button to begin.
Once you are in, you will see five tabs. Those tabs are:
You will automatically be on the Area of Interest page. This is where we will begin.
Area of Interest
Before you can access any useful information, you have to set an area of interest (AOI). To do that, follow these steps:
*If your AOI is too small, you will get a warning. If this happens, make sure you are on the AOI tab, under Area of Interest and AOI Properties, and click the Clear AOI button and start again at step #7, using a larger area.
Your map will have orange lines and reddish-orange numbers and letters marking various soil series, which will be listed on the left. You can click on the soil type links for a surprising amount of information, including:
If you need help, as I did, with some of the terminology, try the USDA Soil Glossary. Now we get into the nitty gritty information. Click on the Soil Data Explorer tab.
Soil Date Explorer
This tab has sub-tabs you can investigate. Under Intro to Soils, you can get the equivalent of a college education on soil, free for the reading. The next sub-tab, Suitabilities and Limitations for Use, returns you to your map with a ton of informational categories on the left. While you probably don’t care about Building Site Development, you still might find it interesting reading. If you are short on time, go straight to the Land Management heading and click on the double arrows to expand that category. [Be sure to check out some of the other headings, as well.]
A list of several sub-categories will open up and you can expand any of them. For each of these sub-categories, you can click on View Description or View Rating. In many cases, you may see “Not rated”. I have to assume that means it is either not relevant, or that it has not been considered worth the investment.
Speaking of investments, were you surprised to learn that our tax dollars are spent on this sort of information collection?
Download Soils Data
The next tab is labelled Download Soils Data. While you can certainly try using it, I had no luck. Apparently, I do not have the proper software to open the downloadable files.
Shopping Cart (Free)
This tab allows you to download a 30-page or so document with all the general information about your soil, if you want it. Personally, I find just playing around on the website gives me more of the information I can use in my garden than the report. If you want your report, click on the Check Out button and then decide if you want it now or later, and click OK.
Since most of this information is collected for farmers, builders, emergency response, and military use, it can be far more than you need in the home garden. But it sure makes for some interesting reading!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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