Well, the short answer from a soil nerd (please note soil nerd is not the same as a soil scientist or soil chemist) is that yes it really does matter! Have you ever done the experiment with boiling red cabbage leaves and used that as a pH indicator? It’s a fun science experiment but probably wouldn’t work for determining an accurate soil pH.
People do not always see the benefit of getting their soil tested; however, if you take a good comprehensive soil sample, the information that you get from the analysis is invaluable. Not only will the results keep you from over-applying nutrients, which has economic and environmental benefits, but also it will ensure that your plants have all that they need right at their root tips.
In my opinion, the most helpful piece of information gained from conducting a soil analysis is the soil pH. PH is a measure of hydrogen ion concentration and tells you how acidic or basic/alkaline the soil is. Most vegetable garden plants prefer a pH between 6-7; therefore, acidic soils need to be amended with calcium carbonate (limestone). Acidic soils are indicated with numbers below 6 on the pH scale which ranges from 0 to 14. Soils in the Eastern US are often acidic, but the natural pH will depend on parent material and other soil factors, such as how the soil has been managed, what plants are growing there, etc.
It should be noted that some plants actually prefer acidic soils, such as rhododendron, azaleas, and blueberries. Also, some plant diseases, such as scab in potatoes, are worse at a higher pH. Lowering soil pH (often done by adding sulfur) can take several months and may need to be a multi-step process. It is a great idea to test garden soils in the fall, so pH-altering amendments have time to do their job. Here is a great cheat sheet to help you understand what your soil analysis results mean.
Another reason that pH is important is that it helps determine the availability of soil nutrients. Soil pH is linked to Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC), which is influenced by soil particle size and the type of parent material (rock). Clay soils will have a higher CEC (sites to hold onto nutrient ions) than sandy soils. CEC will be reported on most soil analyses. If the pH is not in the correct range, then many nutrients are not available to plants, even if you have applied ample nutrients. Thus, in order for the nutrients to support plant growth, it’s important to get that pH correct! This will provide both economic and environmental savings. Check out this link for a neat chart showing nutrients available and pH.
The third reason that it is important to check pH is because it can affect soil microorganisms, which are going to thrive at a near-neutral level. If the pH is too high or too low you will see a decrease in the number and activity of good soil bacteria, fungus, and more that help to break down organic matter and do amazing other things in the soil profile. (For more details on this topic, download PDF – Soil Acidity Impacts Beneficial Soil Microorganisms, from Washington State University Extension.)
Common questions about soil pH
Can pH change from year to year?
Some forms of nutrients —commercial fertilizers, compost, composted animal waste (cow, horse, pig, chicken manure), organic matter, the weathering of rocks, and even rainfall can alter pH. Fertilizers, depending on the type used, will alter soil pH at different rates. Refer to this PDF – Fertilizers and Soil pH from the University of California.
Can I use a home soil Testing kit?
I normally steer people away from these types of kits, just because there are so many inaccuracies, especially, if the kits were not stored at the proper temperature and the directions are not followed correctly, then the results may not be 100% accurate.
What about electronic soil testing probes?
I don’t have first-hand experience with these probes. I am sure that they do have a level of accuracy; however, I cannot justify the upfront cost. For most gardeners, soil testing every 3 years is sufficient, so in my opinion, it is easier to just collect the sample and send it to a laboratory.
By Ashley Bodkins, Senior Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Garrett County, Maryland, edited by Christa Carignan, Coordinator, Home & Garden Information Center, University of Maryland Extension. See more posts by Ashley and Christa.
This year, the University of Maryland Extension Master Gardener Grow It Eat It Program celebrates the resource that supports all life on earth – soil! Look for soil education programs offered by your local Master Gardener program, and visit the Home & Garden Information Center website for more information about soil health.