Your Soil pH Explained: How to Test, Read and Treat pH Imbalances

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Feb 21, 2020

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Soil is a complex thing, and we all understand it needs to have nutrients to produce a lush yard or bountiful garden, but there is more to it than just fertilization. Your soil’s pH balance plays a crucial role in the health of your lawn or garden, and finding that perfect pH balance may seem a little too much for a nonprofessional.

Fortunately, with a little bit of guidance and an inexpensive kit, you can test and adjust your soil’s pH in as little as a day. Here’s how it works.

What Is Soil pH and Why Is It So Important?

Soil pH is the measure of its acidity or alkalinity and is on a scale of 0-14. The closer to 0 the soil is, the more acidic it is. The closer the pH is to 14, the more alkaline it is. Logically, a pH of 7 is neutral, meaning it is a perfect balance between acidic and alkaline.

Soil pH may seem trivial on the surface, but once you dig deeper, you’ll see it plays a huge role in the health of your grass or other plants. There are five key elements of lawn and garden health that soil pH affects.

Soil bacteria: Bacteria plays a pivotal role in the release of nitrogen from organic matter and fertilizers into your soil, and bacterial activity is its highest in pH ranges of 5.5-7. Without proper pH levels, bacterial activity slows, and your plants may lack the nitrogen levels they need to thrive.

Nutrient leaching: Your soil’s pH can also impact its ability to resist leaching, which is the loss of nutrients through water seepage. Soil with a pH of 5-7.5 leach slower than those below 5.

Nutrient availability: Not only is acidic soil more likely to suffer leaching, it also struggles to provide the nutrients plants need to survive when it’s outside the 5.5-6.5 pH range.

Toxicity: When your soil’s pH falls below 5, the aluminum in your soil may reach levels that are toxic to plants, slowing growth or possibly killing the plant.

Soil structure: If you live in an area with clay-type soil, the pH can affect how difficult it is to work with. With a pH of 5.5-7, the soil will be relatively easy to work with, but if it becomes too alkaline or acidic, it may become sticky, making it challenging to work with.

How to Test Your Soil’s pH

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With it playing such a vital role in the health of your lawn and other plants, testing your soil’s pH should be on your to-do list at least once every three years.

Fortunately, there are several types of pH testers that make that simplify the process.

Colored Dye Soil pH Testers

When using a colored dye tester, mix a little soil with water and put the mixture in the included test tube. Mix the dye into the water-and-soil cocktail and wait a few minutes. In a few moments, the dye will change the color of the water-and-soil mixture.

Compare that color to the pH scale included with the kit to get your soil’s pH levels.

Soil pH Test Strips

Soil pH test strips work similarly to the colored-dye systems in that you must first create a soil-and-water slurry. Instead of dumping dye into the mixture, you dip a strip of paper in the mixture and pull it out. In a few seconds, the tip of the paper will change colors.

Compare the colors on the paper to the colors on the pH scale included with the kit to get your soil’s pH levels.

Electronic Soil pH Testers

Electronic pH testers are some of the most accurate and easiest testers to use, but they are also the most expensive and require the soil to be wet for an accurate reading.

These testers include a head with a digital or analog scale attached to a metal probe.

To get your soil’s pH, wet the soil with water and push the metal probe into the soil. The screen or analog gauge on the tester will display your soil’s pH level. These are great options for folks who check their pH regularly or those who have difficulty distinguishing colors.

How To Adjust Your Soil’s pH

Adjusting your soil’s pH isn’t overly difficult, but it requires a careful understanding of the type of soil you’re working with: sandy loam, silt loam or silty-clay loam.

Sandy loam soils have visible particles of sand mixed in with the soil. When you compress the soil in your hand, it will hold its shape but breaks apart easily.

Silt loam soil feels almost like flour when it’s dry, but wet silt loam forms a thick mud you can easily squeeze into a ball.

Clay loam soil is the finest of the soils and becomes extremely sticky when wet. Clay will also form a ball when squeezed, whether it is dry or wet.

Measure Your Lawn

Before you can make any adjustments, you must correctly measure the area of soil you plan to amend the pH, as you will apply the amendments based on square footage. You can get this measurement several ways – with a tape measure, a measuring wheel or an online tool.

Raising Soil pH Levels

If your soil is acidic, the pH will generally fall between 4.8 and 6, and you will raise this applying a ground limestone to the soil. In the table below, you’ll see just how many pounds of ground limestone you’ll need per 100 square feet to achieve the pH levels your plants or lawn needs.

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Lowering pH Levels

If your soil is alkaline, you must first determine what is causing the issue.

According to the University of Vermont, naturally alkaline soil is borderline impossible to correct. However, if your alkaline issues are due to recent lime treatment or other alkaline amendments, you can use acid-forming amendments to correct it. You can use amendments like ammonium sulfate or sulfur to correct the issue.

Like the limestone above, you will apply the acid-forming amendment at a rate measured in pounds per 100 square feet. Unlike acidic issues, adjusting alkaline issues does not vary by soil type.

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When applying these acid-forming amendments, never apply more than 1 pound per 100 square feet, as this risks burning the roots. Instead, apply it in stages of 1 pound per 100 square feet every eight weeks until you reach the desired pH level.

Amendment Application Methods

You can apply limestone or acid-forming amendments the same way you apply fertilizer. You can use the scoop-and-spread method, a broadcast spreader or a drop spreader.

If you use a spreader, make sure to adjust the spread or drop rate to match the pounds per 100 square feet of amendment you need to apply.

While pH is a complex balance of acidity and alkaline, testing and rectifying a pH balance is surprisingly simple. Now it’s your turn to get out there, test your soil and get it where it needs to be to deliver an envy-attracting lawn or bountiful garden.