(Bill Dawson/Franklin Park Conservatory photo)

Though it's often overlooked, the first step to starting your spring or summer garden is the most important: testing the soil. Ask any green thumb about problems with your plants, and the first thing they'll want to know is whether you got a reading before seeding.

Soil tests can vary in scope, but most measure the basic chemistry of the dirt used to create greenery. Flowers and vegetables need appropriate mineral content, acidity and pH to grow. Knowing what's in or out of your soil can help you make adjustments with fertilizer, lime and other additives to produce healthy, fruitful plants.

Bad test results don't always mean you can't have a garden at your place -- only that you might need to fix a few problems before you break ground. Testing is especially important for first-time gardens.

Many soil-testing companies, including CLC Labs in Westerville, will send you free info and a testing kit that can be returned with results in less than a week. Costs depend on which tests you need. CLC also offers tests for contaminants -- something recommended for many urban community gardens -- and will go over results with you once completed.

[List of Ohio soil testers] [Soil testing FAQ] [American Community Gardening Association]