The UConn Soil Nutrient Analysis Lab tests for and analyzes multiple soil parameters; but none as critical, and as often overlooked, as pH. Soil pH plays a crucial role in the growth of vegetation planted, as well as ground water quality. Before we start talking about soil pH, I think it is a good idea to try to define what exactly pH is, and how it is determined.

When most of us think of pH, a pool probably comes to mind. I remember growing up, watching my mother apply different chemicals to our pool, and impatiently wondering why I had to wait to go swimming. She would tell me that she was adjusting the pH of the water to ensure it was safe to swim in. The basic understanding is that pH is tells us how acidic, neutral, or alkaline something is. To get a little more technical, pH is the measurement of the activity of Hydrogen Ions (H+) in an aqueous solution. The equation for determining and quantifying pH is:

pH = -log10 (aH+)

(aH+ = Hydrogen Ion Activity in Moles/L)

We express pH on a logarithmic scale of 0-14, where 0-6 is considered “acidic”, 7 is “neutral”, and 8-14 is “basic”.

pH range

(Image from: http://www.edu.pe.ca/gulfshore/Archives/ACIDSBAS/scipage.htm)

Mineral soil pH values generally range from 3.0 – 10.0. There are numerous factors that determine soil pH including climate, parent material, weathering, relief, and time. Texture and organic matter content also influence soil pH. Most Connecticut soils are naturally acidic. Nutrient availability is directly influenced by pH with most plants (with some exceptions) thriving at pH values between 6 and 7. A majority of nutrients are available within this range.

pH vs nut avail-1

(Image from: http://www.pda.org.uk/pda_leaflets/24-soil-analysis-key-to-nutrient-management-planning/)

Our lab measures pH using an 1:1 soil-to-DI water ratio. The saturated soil paste is mixed, then is analyzed using a glass electrode and a pH meter. We calibrate our meter using 2 solutions with known pH values, 4 and 7. We use these values because we expect most Connecticut soils to fall within this range. Once the initial pH value is obtained, a buffering agent is added. In our lab we use the Modified Mehlich Buffer. A second pH reading is obtained, and from these two values plus crop information, we are able to make limestone and/or sulfur recommendations.

The Buffering Capacity of a soil is the resistance it has to change in pH. Soil buffering is controlled by its Cation-Exchange-Capacity, Aluminum content (in acidic soils), organic matter content, and texture. A soil with a lot of organic matter and clay will have a higher buffering capacity than one with little organic matter that is mostly sandy.

If the soil pH is lower than the target range for a particular plant, limestone would be recommended. Whether you use pelletized, ground or granular limestone, the application rate would be the same. Once the target pH is reached, a maintenance application of 50 lbs/1000 sq ft would be applied every other year to maintain it.

If the soil pH is higher than desired, sulfur recommendations are made. Typically only powdered sulfur is available locally but granular sulfur could be mail ordered. Aluminum sulfate can be substituted for sulfur and used at a higher rate. Check out this list of preferred pH ranges for many common plants.

Monitoring your soil pH is essential to ensure that it is falling within the range best suited for the vegetation you are growing. The Standard Nutrient Analysis performed at our lab gives you a pH value, a buffer pH value, a lime/sulfur recommendation, available micro & macro nutrient levels, and a fertilizer recommendation. For more information on pH, you can contact Dawn or myself (Joe) at the UConn Soil Nutrient Analysis Lab (www.soiltest.uconn.edu)!

Test, don’t guess!

Joe C.

 

lime-bag-homedepot

Bag of Lime

Many Connecticut residents spread limestone on their garden beds and lawn as an annual ritual. Why do we do this? Some do it because their parents did it, or the guy at the garden center told them to and sold them the limestone. How much should be purchased and applied is another mystery to most. The real answers of limestone’s why, how much and when lies in the science of soil.

Soil is made up of sand, silt, and clay. The percentage of each of these three determine the soil’s texture, which will determine how the water will move through it, or hold on to moisture. More clay equals wetter soils; more sand, better drainage. The sand, silt and clay are tiny pieces of rock, broken off of bigger pieces over much time by weathering. The rocks that makes up much of Connecticut has a naturally low pH in the 4.5 to 5.5 range. Other areas of the country and world have different rocks with different pH ranges. Acid rain falling onto the ground lowers pH levels, as does the action of organic matter decomposing which produces organic acids. Even the normal function of respiration by plants mixing oxygen and water together produces carbonic acid in the soil. More acid equals lower pH. No wonder why we need to test, monitor and fight the natural tendency of our soil to stay in a low pH range.

Most plants we want to grow require a pH range of 6 to 7. This means we have to change the pH to grow plants like grass, tomatoes, peppers, squash or garlic by adding limestone which raises the pH level. The only plants consistently happy with our native range are native plants! They have evolved in the local soil. This is why blueberries, oak trees and mountain laurel fill our forests and wild areas. Pines are another tree preferring our lower pH.

Why do the grass and vegetables prefer the 6 to 7 pH range? Because more of the nutrients that these species of plants need are available when the soil pH is in that range. The easiest way to think of pH is it is a measurement of the amount of hydrogen ions in the soil. The more hydrogen ions, the more acidic the soil is. The pH of the soil affects the availability of all plant nutrients. Just as plants have ideal moisture and light requirements, they have a preferred pH range as well.

The pH range numbers 0 to 14. The middle is neutral at 7. Pure water has a pH of 7. 0 is acid or bitter; 14 is alkaline or sweet. Old time farmers used to taste the soil to determine if it was bitter (acid, low) or sweet (high, alkaline). I am glad we have pH meters and laboratory soil testing equipment now!

0_________________________________________7_____________________________________14 Acid (Bitter)                                                                           Neutral                                                                  Alkaline (Sweet)

Soil pH levels also affect other life in the soil such as insects, worms, fungi and bacteria. The soil is alive with more than just plants. It is an entire ecosystem sustaining many life forms all interacting with each other. The pH level is probably the most important place to start when trying to provide the best environment for whatever plants you are growing.

Have your soil tested for pH and nutrient levels at the UConn Soil Nutrient Laboratory www.soiltest.uconn.edu. Have the $12.00 basic test for Home Grounds and Landscapers done. Forms and directions are on the website. We will be offering free pH only tests at the CT Flower Show February 23-26, 2017. A half cup of soil is needed. If you don’t have snow covering your ground now, go gather some soil now and hold it until the show. Once you know the pH of your soil, we can tell you how much limestone to apply in the spring. Fall is the best time to put down lime as it needs about six months to fully react and change the soil pH. Never put limestone down on frozen or snow-covered soil to avoid it running off to areas you didn’t intend to lime, like the storm drain. Limestone will not soak into frozen soil.

ph-meter

pH Meter

-Carol Quish