As a home gardener, it’s important to test your soil pH. Certain plants can only access the soil’s nutrients if the pH is within a certain range. Not even the addition of generous plant food or fertilizer will help if your soil lies outside of a plant’s preferred range.

Technically speaking, a soil pH (potential hydrogen) test measures how many hydrogen ions are in the soil. A pH less than 7 is acidic, 7 is neutral, and anything higher than 7 is alkaline. Acidic or alkaline soil isn’t necessarily bad; it all depends on what you’re growing. Most plants can adapt to soil pH that ranges from 6 to 7.5, but some plants have distinct preferences. For instance, blueberries prefer acidic soil while asparagus tends to do best in alkaline.

What is soil pH?

Soil pH is a way to measure the amount of acidity or alkalinity — in your lawn, garden soil or anything else. It is measured in pH units on a scale from 0 to 14. Extreme acidity is at the low end of the scale, extreme alkalinity is at the top end. Soil at the midpoint, number 7, is neutral soil, neither acidic nor alkaline.

The “p” in pH stands for “potential. The “H” is for hydrogen. While the science of pH gets complicated, everyone is familiar with things that are more or less acidic. Pure water is a neutral 7. Materials such as baking soda are alkaline. Alkalines have less hydrogen ion concentration than pure water, and much less than acidic items such as orange juice.

So pH can be defined as the level of hydrogen ion activity in a substance, including soil.

You may have naturally acidic or alkaline soil. There are many localized exceptions, but as a general rule, soils in the Eastern and Southern United States tend to be acidic. The Midwest tends to be more neutral, while soils in the Southwest and West tend toward alkalinity.  The level of acidity originates from three main sources: rain, microbial activity, and nitrogen fertilizers.

  • Rain. Rain is intrinsically acidic, says Friedericks. It carries with it a certain amount of nitric, sulfuric, and carbonic acid absorbed from the atmosphere. Your location makes a difference as well. Rain downwind of a metropolitan area can create a soil pH as low as 4.2. That’s because there is more nitric and sulfuric acid in the atmosphere near a city. And in areas that receive more than 25 inches of rain annually, nutrients such as calcium, magnesium and sodium are leached from the topsoil. That, too, creates acidic conditions. All of which translates to: If you live in a rainy area, your soil may tend to be acidic.
  • Microbial activity reduces soil pH levels. The decomposition of organic matter releases nutrients into the soil, producing soil acidity. As soil microbes decompose plant and other residues, carbon dioxide is produced and stored in the soil. This reacts with the soil moisture to form carbonic acid and results in increased acidity.
  • Fertilizer. Nitrogen fertilizers containing ammonium also lower the soil’s pH, says Friedericks. Ammonium creates acidity when it naturally converts to nitrate in the soil.

An acid soil has a pH less than 7.0, and as the number decreases the acidity becomes more intense. Soil with a pH of less than 5.0 is considered strongly acidic and is a challenging environment for most plants. As the soil pH increases above 7.0 it becomes more basic, or alkaline. A pH above 8.5 is unusual and also is challenging for plant growth.

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Why does soil pH matter anyway?

Soil pH matters because, as we mentioned earlier, many plants have a particular preference for the degree of acidity or alkalinity in the soil. According to Explain that Stuff, pH is measured across a scale that ranges from 0, or highly acidic, to 14, extremely alkaline. Oddly enough, most gardens across North America fall into the 6.0 to 7.0 range, making them slightly acidic. This is good because the vast majority of garden plants actually thrive in this range.

Soil that falls outside this range is either too acidic or too alkaline for planting. Garden plants, vegetables, shrubs, flowers, trees, and even grass might struggle in these soil conditions. So knowing what type of pH your soil has ahead of time will ultimately help you determine what needs to be done to bring it to that right pH level, either up or down the scale.

When to test soil pH?

A soil test tells you what your soil pH is (alkaline or acidic) and from there, pinpoints any nutritional deficiencies. Once you’re armed with this information, you can amend your soil, giving it exactly what it needs to allow your plants to grow happy and healthy. You can perform a soil test any time of the year, but fall is preferable — simply make it a part of your annual fall garden routine. Similarly, go ahead and do a soil test if you consistently experience unhealthy plants in an area of your garden for no discernible reason.

  • Chill out. Follow the recommendations from the soil pH testing report, but be patient. It could take a year or more to see the results of a lime application, for instance.
  • Split the application. Spread the recommended application into two or three applications over a couple of months. Water the lime into the soil.
  • Season accordingly. Also split nitrogen applications over the spring and summer to avoid leaching loss and to keep the grass healthy. Apply phosphorus in the spring to help establish a strong well-rooted plant.  “Applying some of the potassium in the fall can also help the grass create a good store of energy in the roots to improve overwintering.”
  • It’s a do-over. Keep on top of any problems after the initial test. Experts recommend that you take a soil sample and test soil pH every three to four years.
  • Don’t soak the samples. Dig your soil samples when it is neither too wet nor too dry, so you get a representative sample.
ph tester soil

How to Test Soil pH with a Test Kit?

Not every kit involves the same order of operations, but generally the process involves the following steps:

  1. Dig a small hole, two to four inches deep.
  2. Move any twigs or stones to the side, then fill the hole with distilled water—that is, water that is neither acidic nor alkaline. (If you don’t have any on hand, you can buy a bottle from almost any grocery store or pharmacy.)
  3. As the hole you created in the soil turns into a muddy pool, insert the test probe.
  4. Now wait.After about a minute, you should get a reading.

If the pH registers as being lower than 7, that means your soil is acidic. Higher than 7? Your soil is alkaline. (Exactly 7 means your soil is neutral.)

Bear in mind that most plants do well in soil with a pH between 6.5 and 7. If yours falls within that range, consider yourself lucky. No small number of gardeners must amend their soil to make it neither too acidic nor too alkaline to be hospitable.

NOTE: Before calling it a day, take the time to test the soil pH in several different parts of your garden. Even in a small yard, pH variations—sometimes considerable ones—are common. A plant that wouldn’t adjust well to one corner of your property might live very happily in another location.

DIY Alternative

An alternative method of testing soil pH involves—believe or not—the red cabbage that’s been lurking at the rear of your refrigerator.

  1. Chop the cabbage into small pieces before boiling it in a pot of distilled water (again, refrain from using tap water; the H20 used must have a neutral pH).
  2. After about 10 minutes, the boiling water should turn violet. Remove the pot from the stove and strain out the cabbage.
  3. Pour some of the water remaining in the pot into a clear container.
  4. Add a spoonful of soil to the violet water and monitor how its color changes.

If the water turns pink, that means your soil is acidic; if blue-green, your soil is alkaline. The stronger the color change, the more acidic or alkaline the sample. If the liquid does not change color at all, then your soil is neutral. Science