Why You Need the Right pH

Gardening is supposed to be fun, right? It’s a chance to get out and play in the dirt, with the added benefit of producing tasty food and beautiful flowers for the dining room table. Many gardeners would rather leave it at that, but in fact, there is a lot of science involved in successful gardening. In order for your garden plants, whether vegetable or ornamental, to truly thrive, you need to understand, and be able to apply some basic chemistry concepts.

“Basic” Chemistry

One of the major reasons that plants thrive—or don’t—has to do with the pH of the soil in which they are grown. PH, which stands for the “power of hydrogen,” refers to the concentration of hydrogen ions. This matters because the amount of hydrogen ions that are freely present in your soil affects a plant’s ability to tap into the nutrients available. In other words, if your soil’s pH is not ideal for your plant, it doesn’t matter how much food you give it; your plant can’t absorb the nutrients from that food without the help of those hydrogen ions.

To further complicate matters, every plant, over dozens, hundreds, and even thousands of years, grew to match its native soil, which has a specific pH value. This is why it’s hard to grow blueberries in the desert, no matter how much you water them; the soil in the desert is naturally too “basic” to support the blueberry roots’ feeding habits.

Fortunately for the standard backyard gardener, most plants will thrive with a pH between 5.5 and 7.0. What does that mean? Well, the scale goes from 0 (more acidic than lemon juice or stomach acid) to 14 (more basic, or alkaline, than ammonia or agricultural lime). “Acid” is a pretty simple concept for the gardener to understand; we’ve all tasted what lemon juice is like. “Alkaline” is the opposite, but not in the sense of sour vs. sweet. It’s more about the availability of salts and carbonate rocks (such as limestone) in the soil. The dividing line is not quite in the center; soil is deemed acidic if its pH is 6.5 or less, and alkaline if it’s greater than 7.3.

Testing, 1, 2, 3

If you’re building a garden from scratch, it’s a good idea to find out what soil profile you’re starting with. Soils vary dramatically, across the U.S. and around the world. Generally speaking, regions with heavy rainfall and dense forests have moderately acidic soils, while prairie areas with light rainfall tend to have soils near neutral. The more dry zones and deserts tend to have alkaline soils.

The best way to find out about the pH value of your own soil is to have it tested, because you can’t use these generalities to assume what your soil will be like. There are many factors which can change your particular soil’s pH from that of the land around you. For example, fill dirt might have been brought in—from who knows where—when your house was built. Living in an area affected by acid rain will change the pH of your soil. Or the person from whom you bought your house might have been a master gardener and created different micro-habitats around your home for different types of plants.

Testing is easy and straightforward, and many states’ agricultural extension centers offer the service. Methods include testing kits based on a barium sulphate powder that changes color when mixed with soil and water, litmus paper that changes color when dipped in a sample of soil mixed with distilled water, or an electronic pH meter which is inserted into damp soil and measures the hydrogen ion concentration.

Amending what Nature has Provided

Once you know your pH, you can set about changing it as needed. If you’re growing the usual garden vegetables, a pH within the range of 6.0 and 7.0 should be fine. If you aspire to being a master gardener and want to micromanage your soil, or you intend to grow a large amount of a single crop, Encap’s pH app can help. Simply enter your fruit, vegetable, herb or flower name, and we’ll tell you the right pH for your soil.

Changing or “amending” the soil is not complicated. To increase the pH of acidic soil, add lime; to decrease pH, use sulfur. Encap provides both lime and sulfur amendments which can be applied in combination with fertilizer. These products go to work quickly, and have lasting results. Plus, they have the added benefit of including Encap’s Advanced Soil Technology, which improves the soil environment.

Once your soil has the right pH, you’re ready to start your garden with confidence. Your healthy, happy plants will be the envy of the neighborhood, just because you spent a little time with some “basic” chemistry.

For more information on soil pH, contact us today!