A pH D in Soil? Dirt That Is Neutral, Acid, Or Alkaline

Ilona Erwin

No, you don’t need a doctorate to understand some of the basic differences in soil. One important one to consider is whether the pH is acid, alkaline, or neutral.

What Is pH?

The big H stands for Hydrogen and the little p stands for…well, let’s allow a scientist to explain that:

the “p” stands for the German word for “power”, potenz, so pH is an abbreviation for “power of hydrogen”.

It is a measure of hydrogen ion concentration in the soil and has a scale 0 to 14. The neutral point is at 7. When a reading of less than 7 is given for your soil sample, this means it is more acidic. As the number rises above 7, the soil is increasingly alkaline.

Why is pH Important?

The main importance for gardeners to know the relative acidity or alkalinity of their garden soil has to do with the way it impacts plant growth. It can both affect whether important nutrients are released and available for plants or how well necessary microorganisms can thrive. Either way, the reaction of the soil affects what plants you can grow and how well they grow.

Some plants are widely tolerant, and some much more fickle. The acid loving rhododendrons and heather cannot live well in my neutral to alkaline soil. They last about three years here, so I gave up on them. Sometimes it is just a matter of whether your veggies will produce for you – they like range of just under the neutral mark, usually, 6.0 to 6.5. Depending on each planting, the range can be  anywhere from the potato which likes 4.5 to 6.0 to Swiss Chard which grows in the 6.0 to 7.5 range. Most food plants like to be somewhere in between those two.

How Do I Find Out What My Soil Is Like?

It is easy to find the properties of your soil, and simply depends on how accurate you feel you need to be.

A Home Test Kit

Trial and error, like my losses of azalea-type plants, or observation of what weeds or wild plants are growing can reveal the nature of the soil. The experts at a county extension service can provide very accurate reports, or you can have a useful, if somewhat less exact result from using test kits that are widely available.

I recently had a soil profile done ,by our county extension agency, of my vegetable garden. It said pretty much what I already knew. Turns out, the fertility was higher than I expected.

What you believe you need for success in your garden is up to you, but a home test kit is useful for most of us.

Can I Change The pH?

People famously make their Hydrangea bloom blue through adding acidifying amendments, but if you believe you will make a long-lasting and large change, it is a losing battle. For short-term changes like raising the pH and making the soil more alkaline for better vegetable health and produce, it is useful to add agricultural lime. Wood ashes are also alkaline in nature.

To increase acidity, the addition of  oak leaf mold, pine needles,or peat moss, sulfur or iron sulfate will temporarily work.

It may be necessary to amend your soil annually for your crops and plantings.

Why is it hard to change?

Dirt is created from the underlying rock, and that rock also affects the water. When limestone is underneath, you can bet your soils will be more alkaline or neutral, although climate, like acidic rainfall also brings its own influence on the nature of the soil. These things are out of the gardeners control. We just work with our conditions, we don’t produce long-term change.

We do change such things as the amount of humus (adding compost, etc), creating good environmental conditions (rain gardens, water conservation, etc) and many other matters. But this does not change the fundamentals of the soil material.

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Ilona Erwin, author

Meet the Author

Ilona Erwin

I started working on this website beginning in 1998, when it was part of Ilona's Reflecting Pool. Since then I've branched out into a number of online endeavors and work at writing lots of content for my sites. "Ilona's Garden" remains my primary site and is dedicated to home gardener's success.