What’s soil pH?

Soil pH is the measure of the acidity or alkalinity of soil from an extremely acid pH of 0 to an extremely alkaline pH of 14. A soil pH of 7 is neutral, neither acid not alkaline. Knowing the pH of your garden soil is important because soil pH controls the availability of nutrients and the number of microorganisms that improve soil structure. Plants can only absorb nutrients as electrically charged “ions” that attach themselves to clay and organic matter ions with the opposite electrical charge. Depending on the level of acidity or alkalinity of soil, varying amounts of different nutrients can be taken up by plant roots. At some pH levels, nutrients can become bound to other elements, or to soil, and become “locked out” and unavailable to plants. All the major nutrients are only freely available to plants within a narrow soil pH range of 6.5 to 7.5, where essential trace elements are also available, and aluminium is locked out. (See pH Table below) Most vegetables and exotics will remain healthy if grown in a pH range of 6.0–7.0, but potatoes and strawberries do best when pH is around 5.5, and Brassicas and beetroot require a pH close to neutral. However, few plants will survive when the soil pH is below 4.5 where major nutrients are strictly limited and trace elements become available in toxic quantities, or above 9.0 where calcium becomes insoluble.
On the pH scale, the “p” stands for potential, and “H” is the chemical symbol for hydrogen. The more acidic your soil is, the more hydrogen ions in your soil. As hydrogen ions are replaced by calcium ions on the charged sites, soil pH rises. Just to make it confusing, the pH scale is shown as a negative logarithm so that the more hydrogen ions in topsoil, the lower the pH number. Because soil pH is expressed as a logarithm, a pH of 6.0 is ten times more acid than a pH of 7.0, and a pH of 5.0 is a hundred times more acid than 7.0. Adjusting pH without the buffering effect of decomposed organic matter is difficult.
The only way to find the exact pH of garden soil is to test it. Test kits for this purpose are available at most large nursery and hardware stores for around twenty dollars, or so. The Manutec Test Kit is quite economical to use, and Bunnings are selling them, at the moment, for $15.50. Testing involves taking samples of topsoil from across the growing area, and mixing them thoroughly in a bucket. A small sample of the mixture is placed on a supplied sheet and moistened with a liquid dye. The damp mixture is then dusted with barium sulphate, and the resulting colour matched to a pH range on the kit’s colour chart (–see image below).
***All garden soils should be tested at least annually, because exudates from plant roots and the decomposition of organic matter release hydrogen ions into the soil, replacing calcium ions and increasing acidity.

pHkit.jpg
Black sections show level of availability to plants.

Changing soil pH

If the pH of garden beds needs adjusting, organic gardeners have a distinct advantage over “chemical” gardeners, because mature compost has a pH of about 6.5 where all the major nutrients are freely available to plants, essential trace elements are available, and aluminium is locked out. Adding mature compost to topsoil when preparing beds will help to lower pH of alkaline soils, and raise the pH of more acid soils, as well as buffering plant roots from an unsuitable pH in surrounding soil. Where the amount of mature compost is limited, green manures and well-rotted manures will break down to add nutrients, microorganisms and humus to topsoil. Worm castings and other solid organic fertilisers provide nutrients in easily absorbed form. Garden beds should be prepared a month before planting to allow soil chemistry to achieve a balance.

To raise soil pH
In all acid soils, pH can be raised by the combined use of organic matter and the addition of calcium ions in the form of dolomite or lime.
Agricultural lime – (Calcium carbonate) is finely ground limestone (chalk). Mined limestone, i.e. not chemically treated, is a safe choice to raise pH in garden beds. Although it takes several weeks to have an effect, it is longer acting than other sources of lime, and can be watered in around plants. Agricultural lime can be worked into the top 15 cm of soil when preparing garden beds. It takes less lime to raise the pH of sandy soils than it does to change clay soils. To avoid an excess amount of calcium in soil, apply as recommended in the test kit, and test soil a month later.
I must say here that I have not found the application rate recommended by Manutec for “organic soils” to be accurate, if soils contain compost. It may have been calculated for soils where only manures are added.
Dolomite – (Calcium magnesium carbonate) is limestone with a higher proportion of magnesium than agricultural lime, and is applied in the same way. It is a good way to raise soil pH on sandy soils with fairly low organic matter content because both calcium and magnesium leach easily from these soils. In soils with high magnesium content, such as in South East Queensland, agricultural lime is the preferred way to raise soil pH.
Quick lime – (Calcium oxide) is made by heating limestone in a furnace to remove carbon dioxide. It is very caustic and unsuitable for garden use.
Hydrated or slaked lime – (Calcium hydroxide) is also known as brickies or builders’ lime because it is used to harden mortar. Hydrated lime is made by soaking quick lime in water to form hydroxides. It is more soluble and faster acting than agricultural lime, but its effects do not last as long. This lime can burn roots and should not be used on beds that contain plants. It should also be applied a month before organic matter and fertilisers or nitrogen can be lost through conversion to ammonia. Gloves and a mask should be worn when applying hydrated lime because it is very drying to skin and throat. Apply hydrated lime to the soil surface, and water it in.

To lower soil pH
Adding organic matter as compost, green manures, and animal manures, without including lime or dolomite, can be enough to adjust the pH of slightly alkaline soils because organic matter produces hydrogen ions as it decomposes.
Manure from cows, horses and sheep that have grazed on herbicide-free pasture can be used more liberally on alkaline soils. It has been calculated that 2–3 kilos of manure per square metre of bed area will reduce soil pH from 8.0 to 7.0. Manures release hydrogen ions as they break down, replacing calcium ions on the charged sites.
Elemental sulphur, sometimes sold as flowers of sulphur, will assist organic matter in reducing soil pH in more alkaline soils. Elemental sulphur is available from produce stores, and some nurseries. For soils with a sandy structure, apply at 35 g per square metre, or 100g per square metre for clay soils. Test soil after one month, to see if further applications are necessary.
Please note – Lime sulphur is a fungicide, not a soil conditioner.
Acidic fertiliser can assist when alkaline topsoil contains some organic matter and herbicide-free manures are not available. Multicrop’s Ecofish liquid fertiliser is registered by NASAA as an input for organic cultivation. The concentrate is very acidic and diluting it in water should modify the acidity, somewhat. It can be watered into the soil or used as a foliar feed for plants in alkaline soils.