Understanding Your Soil: How to Check Soil pH Level

Why I Switched to No-Till Gardening Practices

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Knowing how to check soil pH levels in your garden is the first step to having the healthiest soil you can produce. For most of us, especially me, a simple and basic understanding is enough. Soil pH is a measure of the amount of lime (calcium) contained in your soil. This determines the type of soil you have. A soil with a pH lower than 7.0 is an acid soil. Soil with a pH higher than 7.0 is alkaline.

If your soil isn’t within the range required by the plants your planting, you’ll need to adjust it to suit them. Many garden centers offer pH testing for your soil. You can also buy an inexpensive pH test kit. These test kits are easy to use and read. In just a few hours, you’ll know where your soil is on the pH scale and then you can know what it needs. Be sure to follow the instructions included in the kit as they may vary. Each one will tell you how to check soil pH using their test.

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If your soil needs to be more acidic, sulfur may be used to lower the pH. For raising the pH, lime is usually used. A general rule of thumb is to add 4 lbs. of lime per 100 sq feet of garden for every pH point below 6.5, and one pound of sulfur per 100 sq feet for every pH point above 7.5. The best way to adjust pH is over several seasons. If your soil is excessively alkaline, building raised beds while you work on your soil’s health is a great idea.

Of course, you can check the pH of your soil yourself without buying a kit from the store. You will need a sample of your soil, vinegar, baking soda, water, and 2 containers for holding the soil. I prefer something I can see through. Put a nice handful of soil into one of the containers, add one-half cup of vinegar to it. Watch for bubbles or fizzing. If you see either, your soil is alkaline. If you have no reaction, place a second handful of fresh soil into the other container, add one-half cup water and mix well with the soil. Next, add one-half cup baking soda. If the soil bubbles or fizzes, you have acidic soil. Adjust your soil accordingly.

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My great grandparents and my grandparents didn’t have a lot of understanding on soil facts, but they were successful. The difference is they put into practice traditional gardening techniques which built up the soil making it alive with nutrition and micro-organisms. They didn’t know this was what they were doing, they were using good farming practices learned from their parents. Today, our soils are stripped of nutrient-dense material and made a waste land by fertilization, pesticide, fungicide and herbicide use.

The old-timers used to check their soil by squeezing a handful of it then loosening their grip. They studied what was left in their hand. Did it stick to their fingers? It meant a clay soil and therefore probably alkaline. Did it spring back a little with some fluff to it? It would be loamy soil, the best and pretty balanced. Did it fall apart? Sandy soil and usually more acidic. They would use their nose to see if it smelled rancid, like rotten cheese, or natural and sweet. A soft, earthy smell is what you want. Ah, the smell of healthy soil is invigorating to me!

In many ways, we are not just homesteaders who garden, but solar farmers converting the energy of the sun in the most efficient way. We are making sure our soil is fertile to give the plants the best chance to succeed. We do this by using the energy of the sun to produce the most nutrient-dense produce possible, providing our families with the health needed to live long and happy lives. After all, the old-timers knew, “You are what you eat.”

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Making sure your soil has all the nutrients it needs to provide for the plants it supports is the most important factor in being a successful gardener. Gardening is a mainstay skill for the homesteader. No matter where you garden, on a terrace, in your front yard, on a small lot, or on acres of land, the health of your soil determines the health and nutrition of your produce.

As with most homesteading skills, many volumes can be written on the subject of soil enrichment. From how to add calcium to your soil to what is soil erosion and the plethora of information in between, there is so much to learn. I know I will be studying and learning this skill for as long as I put in a garden. At least until I’m 95!

Living Soil Produces Nutritious Fruit

Besides knowing how to check soil pH level, knowing how to till to cause as little soil damage as possible is imperative. Up until 4 years ago, we tilled our garden. When we learned about the delicate balance of the soil and the damage we were doing, we stopped tilling and moved to deep mulch gardening.

When the soil is tilled over a depth of five inches deep, you destroy the anaerobic micro-organisms by exposing them to oxygen. At the same time you’re turning your topsoil over and destroying the aerobic micro-organisms by depriving them of the oxygen they need to survive. These two micro-organisms work together in a delicate balance to maintain healthy soil. So if you do feel you must till, keep it as shallow as possible.

It has been estimated that in one teaspoon of soil there are over 5 billion bacteria, 20 million fungi, and up to 1 million protozoa. Each working in the soil performing necessary life-giving functions. These bacterium are the most physiologically diverse group of organisms on the planet.

Animals come in all shapes, sizes and colors, but physiologically they’re not greatly different. All animals need food designed for them. There’s no animal which can take sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water and make its own food. As far as I know, there aren’t any animals who can live without oxygen as some micro-organisms can.

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Mulched soil ready for potatoes

Tilling also destroys the delicate network of fungal hyphae which structure to soil. Some of these have symbiotic relationships with plant roots supplying energy to the plant and receiving energy from the plant. Chopping up the dirt destroys aeration and drainage of soil. Have you ever looked at your soil after you’ve tilled it? It looks nice and smooth, but when it rains or you walk on it, you’ll see it has no true structure. It compacts and prevents roots from growing, air from flowing, and nutrients from being taken up.

From what I can find, we began the practice of tilling because people believed an English country lawyer, Jethro Tull, who seemed to think roots eat soil particles for nutrition. So he thought the smaller you chop the soil, the easier it is for roots to utilize it. This was a few hundred years ago when there was no real study about the need for fungi to provide soil structure and how tilling completely disrupts it. It was a complete change from how gardening had been done for thousands of years.

Before the invention of the tiller, fields were plowed for large crops such as grains, peas, and other feed crops for the livestock. They weren’t tilled down the rows for weed control or soil exposure. Kitchen gardens were mostly mulched and weeded by hand or hoeing. Some shoveling was done.

Does this mean tilling the soil has no place? Not for me as a mainstay of gardening, but it may be the way you prefer or are comfortable with. Will I use a tiller for some things? I’m not sure I will never use a tiller again, but I won’t use one in my food garden (kitchen garden).

As with all aspects of life, I adhere to my grandfather’s advice, “There’re as many ways of gettin’ a farm job done as there’re farmers. Ya gotta be willing to listen, help, and learn from ’em, even if it’s just to see what not to do.” So I say each homesteader has to make the decision on what works for them and how they want to accomplish the task and move forward with that.

Do you have an old-timers trick for how to check soil pH or improve the soil? Please share with us in the comments below.

Safe and Happy Journey,

Rhonda and The Pack

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