Knowing the basics of PH balance as it relates to the soil can benefit you; both in keeping your garden thriving, as well as knowing what types of plants are best suited for your soil.
In this guide, I will show you three simple ways to test your soil pH. You can test your Soil Ph with Vinegar and Baking Soda, With Cabbage Water or with a commercial Test.
We all know how frustrating it is to see one of our plants struggling, especially when we know that we have done everything we can: we’ve given them plenty of water, sunlight, and food.
It is common to start to blame plant fungus and illness for The failing health of our plants, shrubs, and trees; but sometime the problem and solution can be found in the soil.
That is not to say that it is unhealthy soil, or that there is a problem with the composition; it simply means that the pH balance of the soil can be out of order.
When this happens, there are a multitude of issues that can occur to our plants.
How to Test Soil pH with Household Items?
If you don´t have a commercial tester for pH or it is simply too expensive for what you plan to do, then you can use some Household items to test the soil pH.
Vinegar and Baking Soda
You will need Vinegar, Baking Soda, and distilled water.
While some gardeners may frown on this method, it is possible to test the pH of your soil without using a testing kit, or having a company come out and test it for you.
The best part about using this method to test your pH is The ingredients that are used are available in most households: vinegar and baking soda.
To begin, grab two samples of The soil that you will be testing, and put The soil into two separate containers.
Add 1/2 cup of vinegar into The soi; if it fizzes, you have alkaline soil that is between 7 and 8 PH.
However, if it does not fizz during The vinegar test, then it is time for the next step of this process.
Switching now to The other container, add two tablespoons of distilled water until you get a muddy consistency.
Add 1/2 cup of baking soda; if it fizzes, then you have acidic soil that is between 5 and 6 PH.
If Neither of these above methods makes The soil fizz than you can consider yourself lucky because it means that your soil has a neutral pH of 7.
For this second method, you can test the pH balance of your soil by using cabbage water.
You will need distilled water and one red cabbage.
First, measure 2 cups of distilled water and add to a saucepan.
Cut up and introduce 1 cup of red cabbage to the water, and simmer for 5 minutes.
Remove from heat and allow to sit for up to 30 minutes. Strain off The purple/blue liquid, which naturally has a pH balance of 7.
With this test, there will be no fizzing involved, but it is still fun to do.
Simply add 2 teaspoons of The soil that you will be testing to a jar or cup and add a few inches of the cabbage water.
Next, stir and wait for 30 minutes; if it turns pink, then it means that your soil is acidic.
However, if it is a blue or green color, then it means that your soil is alkaline.
How to Use a Commercial pH Tester
Although the above methods for determining which side of the spectrum your soil is in (acid or alkaline), using commercial methods such as testing strips will help you to pinpoint exact numbers for the Ph of your soil; this will help you to know how much you need to alter the soil composition for the ideal Ph levels.
The following steps can be taken to get a precise number for the Ph of your soil:
Dig 4 to 6 inches below the surface of the testing area to obtain a soil sample
Place up to 3 teaspoons of soil in a clean container, removing stones and debris.
Using a 1:1 ratio, add distilled water to the soil. (If you have 3 tablespoons of soil, add 3 tablespoons of distilled water).
Stir the soil and water rigorously, to ensure that it is properly mixed; let rest for 30 minutes
Using a coffee filter, paper towel, or cheesecloth, strain the liquid from the soil into another clean container
Using the testing strip, dip it into the water. The testing strip will change color, and you can cross-reference this with the color chart provided by the test stip manufacturer
In order to understand the overall soil Ph of your garden, repeat this process several times with soil samples from various areas.
How to Alter the Ph of your Soil?
Before attempting to change the PH of your soil, it is important to not take a shot in the dark, so to speak; you should complete one of the methods listed above in order to check the Ph of your soil prior to making any changes to the composition.
Once you know what the Ph of your soil is, you can then move forward in making the proper adjustments.
Adding organic matter to your soil is a good way to off-balance the effects of either highly acidic or alkaline soil.
While adding organic matter on its own may not change the composition of the soil to the point of altering the PH levels, it will ensure that your plants are more tolerant of the acid or alkaline levels that are already present in the soil.
Organic matter essentially buffers the soil, and as we know, plants that are grown in soil with enough organic matter have healthier roots.
Even when the PH levels are not at the ideal spot, they are able to extract enough nutrients from the soil; which is what they need in order to thrive.
Lowering Soil pH
Depending on the plants that you are growing, it may be a good idea to lower the PH levels of your soil.
This is because some plants just simply do not like soil that is too alkaline, and prefer it to be slightly acidic.
That is because, with a soil that does have some acid, minerals like phosphorus, iron, and zinc become available for your plants to absorb and assimilate within them.
Many plants thrive on these essential nutrients, and decreasing the soil ph just enough so that is in the range of around 6 (in most cases), can do wonders for your garden.
Here are some methods that will lower your soil PH, without drastically reducing it:
Increase the Nitrogen: this will decrease the soil Ph, making it slightly more acidic by around 0.5; so if you had a soil that was a neutral 7, it would drop it to 6.5. This level is ideal for plants like tomatoes and raspberries.
Adding organic matter such as compost, manure, or alfalfa meal can increase bacterial populations, which will over time decrease the Ph of the soil.
Additionally, there are commercial fertilizers available that will decrease the soil Ph as well. When looking for fertilizer, you can check the chemical composition and choose one that is higher in nitrogen.
Use elemental sulfur: if you are needing to lower the Ph of your soil by higher amounts, you can use elemental sulfur. However, it should be kept in mind that the amount that sulfur will decrease the Ph depends on soil bacteria.
Because of this, you will want to pay attention to how well you mix it in with the soil; improper mixing can lead to areas in the soil that is highly acidic, while others have no change.
Additionally, sulfur only works during the warmer summer months when the soil is warm and the bacterial activity is at its highest.
Raising Soil PH
While it is true that a lot of plants and vegetables thrive in slightly acidic soil, there are some plants such as cool-season vegetables, or leafy vegetables, that thrive in soil that is more alkaline.
Although it may seem counter-intuitive, adding citrus juice to the soil can actually increase the PH of the soil.
If you prefer to go the more chemical route, then you can add dolomite lime soil amendment. However, this should not be used in soil that has a lot of magnesium. This is because plants need a small amount of magnesium, but adding this soil amendment can add too much, which can lead to the death of your plants.
What is Soil PH?
PH refers to potential hydrogen or the hydrogen ion concentration of soil.
PH is a measure of soil acidity. PH is the scale used to measure how much acidity or alkalinity is in your soil.
Some plants and shrubs will do better in soil that is higher in alkaline, while some do better in soil that has higher levels of acid.
Ph is on a scale that ranges from 0 to 14, with 0 being extremely acidic while 14 has very high alkalinity; with 7 being the neutral zone.
A lot of gardeners will assume that their soil needs to be at a neutral 7, but that is not the case. By nature, some plants require slightly acidic soil, while others do better in soil that is more alkaline.
There are ways to test the Ph of your soil and even ways to adjust this so that you can achieve the right balance when you are planting.
How PH Relates to Your Plants
Because plants live and breathe in the soil of our gardens, it only makes sense that the PH of the soil plays a major role in their development and growth.
The soil pH is important because it affects the availability of nutrients in the soil.
There are a lot of indicators from our plants that point to the acid or alkaline content of the soil; for instance, if there is an iron deficiency in the soil, the leaves of plants and trees will start to turn a yellow color.
Soil PH is important because it determines the absorption of nutrients in the soil that most plants rely on.
Most plants require a soil that is slightly acidic, around the range of 6 on the scale. When the soil PH is not in the range that a plant needs, it messes with the plant’s ability to absorb the necessary nutrients and vitamins, essentially starving out the plant.
Why it is Important to Check your PH?
Although the initial test prior to planting your garden may show that the soil is at the correct PH levels, it is important to check the PH periodically; as with most living organisms, it is in a constant state of change.
Generally, these changes are not too drastic, but in some cases, it can move to be just out of the necessary range that you are needing for a specific plant or tree.
In this case, you would need to alter the PH by adding the appropriate components. For instance, there are PH altering planting mixes available that work with your soil to attain the appropriate soil Ph and conditions.
While it should be the first thing that you check if you are having a struggling plant, it is also a good idea to keep an eye on it as a preventative measure.
This will ensure that you not only are aware of the PH of your soil for future plants but also makes it easier to diagnose any potential issues that you are having with your current garden.
What do The pH Numbers Really Mean?
As we went over, checking and maintaining the correct PH balance of your soil is an on-going endeavor.
There are several ways to check the soil, but you may be wondering what the numbers might actually mean.
A very basic way to understand this is by thinking of it like a positive and negative scale; 7 being neutral, while 0 to 6 is acidic (negative), and 8 to 14 being alkaline (positive).
However, make sure that you are not in the mindset of assuming that anything acidic is a bad thing; many plants actually need slightly acidic soil in order to absorb the necessary vitamins and minerals from the soil.
Another nice thing about the topsoil and planting mixes that you can pick up from your garden supply store or local nursery is the fact that they will have the PH listed right on the bag, and in some cases will let you know how this particular soil can affect the soil that you have.
Now, in the sections below we will be going into methods to check the Ph of your soil; both by using household items, as well as commercial testers.
But before we get into that, it is important to know what the numbers on the PH scale actually mean for you.
Now that we have gone over how important having the right balance of acid and alkaline is in making sure that your soil is healthy; which affects your plants, you may be wondering what the numbers all actually mean.
I’ve gone ahead and added some very basic breakdown of some hypothetical acid and alkaline conditions below:
|Extremely Acidic||Less than 4.5|
|Very Strongly Acid||4.5 – 5.0|
|Strongly Acid||5.1 – 5.5|
|Moderatly Acid||5.6 – 6.0|
|Slightly Acid||6.1 – 6.5|
|Neutral||6.6 – 7.3|
|Slightly Alkaline||7.4 – 7.8|
|Moderately Alkine||7.9 – 8.4|
|Stongly Alkine||8.5 – 9.0|
|Very Strongly Alkine||More than 9.1|
There is No “Correct” pH Level
Just because 7 is considered to be the neutral point of the pH scale, this does not mean that your soil absolutely has to be at 7.
In fact, in some cases, a pH of 7 could actually be detrimental to the growth of your plant.
The main thing to consider when looking at the acid and alkaline levels of your soil is the type of plant that you are planting. Some plants like higher alkaline levels, while some do better with more acid.
It should also be stressed and re-iterated that just because your soil is a certain level on The pH scale, that does not mean that it has to stay that way.
For instance, if you would like your soil to have lower acidity, you can use the juice of citrus fruits such as lemons or oranges.
It is also possible to change the pH of your soil by using specially formulated soil mixes.
Asking someone at your garden supply store or local nursery will be sure to point you in the right direction in order to achieve the pH balance that your plants desperately need.