When a garden hasn’t been doing well, one of the first conditions to check is the soil’s pH, its acid-alkaline balance. The pH scale goes from 0 to 14; 7 is the neutral pH, measurements below 7 are acidic, and measurements above 7 are alkaline.
For reference, distilled salad vinegar has a pH in the range of 2 to 2.5 (acidic), and cold-process soap has a pH in the range of 9 to 10 (alkaline).
Soil pH influences how well plants can take in nutrients from the soil, so getting a garden’s soil into the best pH range for your plants will help them be healthier and more productive.
What is less well-known is that correcting a pH that is either too high or too low takes time. Testing soil pH should be done now, or soon, for gardens that have not done well in the past year.
What pH is good for gardens?
Most garden veggies need a soil pH of between 6 and 7. Where I live, northwest of Atlanta, the natural soil pH is lower than that range — it is naturally acidic. With that acidity in mind, many people here routinely add lime to their lawns and gardens without checking the soil pH first, and end up with a soil pH that is too high.
When I worked at the local Extension office and managed the soil samples that went to the soil lab at University of Georgia (UGA), it was not unusual to see some samples with soil pH around 5, but others with pH higher than 8. Those higher pH soil samples were from lawns and gardens that had been limed pretty much every year.
Once, a friend who decided to plant blueberries in the space where she had originally kept a vegetable garden sent a soil sample in to the lab at UGA. The lab found that the pH of her soil was 7. This pH level was not a surprise because she had been spreading ashes from her fireplace on the garden. Wood ashes are a good source of potassium, but they raise the soil pH.
For many veggies, a soil pH of 7 is fine, but the blueberries she hoped to plant in that space prefer a pH closer to 5. That soil needed some work before it would make a good home for blueberries.
How can I find the pH of my garden soil?
The most reliable method of finding your garden’s soil pH is to send a soil sample to your state’s soil lab. Call your local county Cooperative Extension office to find out how to take a representative soil sample, how to package it, and the lab fee for this service.
Another option is to purchase a pH test kit at a local garden center. One I have used (pictured nearby) includes a container with color chart for comparison, capsules of pH-indicator-powder to add to the container, and instructions.
The basic instructions for this kit, and others:
- put a tiny bit of garden soil into the container
- add the indicator powder
- add water up to a line near the top
- put the lid back on the container, then
- mix the parts together by shaking the container until color develops.
You find the pH by comparing the color of your sample to the chart on the front of the container.
How to lower a too-high soil pH
The UGA soil lab sent information to my friend about how much aluminum sulfate (the cheapest option) to add in order to bring the pH down to a better level for blueberries. If you know that the pH of your garden soil is too high, but don’t have a lab-recommendation for how to lower it, the amount of elemental sulfur (my preferred option) needed can also be found in a table by Clemson University Extension, in its Changing the pH of your soil publication.
For a soil pH that is only slightly high (about 0.5 higher than the desired level for your plants), one of my county’s former Extension agents used to recommend mixing sphagnum peat into the soil as a quick fix. Iowa State University Extension suggests other amendments that can lower a too-high pH, including “elemental sulfur, aluminum sulfate, iron sulfate, acidifying nitrogen, and organic mulches.”
There is a note, too, that a very high pH (over 8) is hard to bring down. When the local Plant-a-Row-for-the-Hungry garden (one of my volunteer groups/projects) was at a location that had a high-pH soil, we added the recommended amount of sulfur several years in a row before the pH started to come down.
How to raise a too-low soil pH
The Iowa State University publication How to change your soil’s pH includes a table showing how much ground limestone will be needed to raise soil pH. If you have hydrated lime handy, and think it might be a “quicker fix” for a too-low pH, please don’t try it. The risk of raising the pH too high with this product, by accident, is large. Lowering the pH after over-liming is difficult and can take a long time. Use ground limestone instead of quick lime or hydrated lime.
It takes more lime to raise pH in a clay soil than in a sandy soil. In general, according to the table in the Iowa State publication, for 100 square feet of clay-soil garden, it takes 5 to 6 pounds of limestone mixed into the top six inches of soil to raise the pH by 0.5.
When is the best time to adjust the soil pH?
For my friend’s blueberries, the UGA lab report recommended that the bushes shouldn’t be planted until 6 months after applying the sulfur. If she added the sulfur in October, that means blueberry-planting should — for best effect — wait until April. That is pushing the boundary for good planting time for woody plants like blueberries; as spring progresses and the weather warms, newly planted bushes are less likely to do well. They need time in the soil for their root systems to become established before being stressed by the heat of a Georgia summer.
What this means is that soil testing should be done now, if it hasn’t already been done, so adjustments to pH can be made soon enough to benefit plants that will be planted in spring.
What soil pH is best for my plants?
An article by Lewis Hill, published in Robert Rodale’s The Best Gardening Ideas I Know (1983) includes a list of some garden plants and the pH ranges they prefer. I’ve pulled some of the food plants from his list to post here:
- pH 4 to 5: blueberry
- pH 5 to 5.75: blackberry, grape, parsnip, plum, potato, pumpkin
- pH 5.75 to 6.5: bean, citrus fruits, cowpeas, currants, gooseberry, oats, pepper, rutabaga, rye, squash, strawberry, tomato, turnip
- pH 6.5 to 7: apple, beet, broccoli, buckwheat, butternut, chicory, chives, cucumber, eggplant, endive, kale, leek, muskmelon, onion, pea, peach, radish, raspberry, rhubarb, spinach, watermelon, wheat
- pH 7 to 7.5: alfalfa, asparagus, barley, cabbage, carrot, cauliflower, celery, lettuce, nasturtium, parsley
This list may help other gardeners in planning what to plant where, but it is comforting to remember that plants will still grow and produce in soil that is slightly outside their preferred pH range.
This is lucky, since most of us grow many of these plants mixed all together in our gardens. However, for peak production, planting in soil that is actually the preferred pH for each crop works best.
Succession planting with preferred pH for each crop in mind
When I plant Irish-type potatoes in the spring, I will have added some sphagnum peat to their soil to bring the pH down a bit, but not all the way down to 5. Knowing the pH preferences of other crops helps me know what to plant after the potatoes in that space. For example, cabbages in that space would likely be a total bust, because their pH preference is so much higher (7 to 7.5!).
After potatoes are harvested, a better option than cabbages would be to let a nearby vining crop, like melons, sprawl across that space. Another option would be to plant a crop there that prefers a lower pH range, like beans or cowpeas that thrive at pH 5.75-6.5.
(If this information seems helpful or interesting, please remember to “like” or “share” it. Thank you!)