Imagine with me for a second that you have just moved out into the country on a plot a land that is all your own. This land came complete with a quaint 1930's clapboard house in excellent repair a extensive forest and a huge yard that is perfect for the kids and your three dogs with babbling brook just over that hill to cap it off. Everything is perfect except for one thing, there is no garden... yet. So with passion and energy of a person half your age you start to till up the soil to create the garden of your dreams. You go out and buy all sorts of seeds, seedlings and fruit bushes just ready to become a mini farmer in your own right. With great expectation you put these seeds and seedlings in the ground and you await the fruit of your labors.
For the first few weeks everything seems fine the seedling are growing and the seeds are sprouting. But you begin to notice that large parts of your garden are struggling. You try extra watering, applying fertilizer and babying the plants in every way you can think off. Finally exasperated you ask your friend George to come out and take a look. You see George has been a avid garden for many years and he also works as the local natural resources specialist for the government. He come out and looks at your gardens and ask you to take him step by step through how you prepared the sites. So you tell him well first I tilled the ground, and applied a herbicide and a ammonium fertilizer then I bought the seeds and other plants and put them in the ground then after a couple weeks they started dying.
“Ahh I think I know what is going on,” says George.
“Really....That quick” I reply
“Yes” he says.
He begins to point out what plants seem to be thriving the raspberries, onion, peppers and strawberries.
“You see those plants there” he asks. I nod my head yes. “Those plants are either acid loving or acid tolerant species and the ones that I see struggling are plants that need or prefer a neutral or alkaline soil pH.”
I give him a confused look,
“Soil pH what is that?” I ask
“Its the amount of hydrogen in the soil,” he replies “And it looks to me like you have soils that are slightly acidic.”
“Oh I didn't know that” I reply
"Well from what you told me you didn't test for that before you put your gardens here or plant species according to to the soils acidic nature. That is what is causing you problems now you should have tested the soils pH before planting
“Well how do I test my pH” I ask
That’s a good question isn’t it.
How do I test my soil pH?
I am glad to say that testing your soils pH is neither difficult or extremely expensive. There are three common ways to test your soil pH.
All three of these methods have there pros and cons. The Soil pH meters can be very accurate but they need batteries and must be correctly calibrated in order to use them. They are calibrated by placing the meters in calibration solutions that have a know pH and adjusting them according to that meters instructions.
The litmus papers and dyes are more portable and if used correctly can also be very accurate. They can be susceptible to moisture and temperature fluctuations so care must be taken how they are stored and used.
Finally getting the soil laboratory tested is the most accurate but most likely the most expensive option. The nice thing about the laboratory tests is that they can do soil fertility, organic matter and a host of other tests along with the soil pH. When you are first getting started in mini farming or gardening it might be prudent to get a complete soil test done since that will give you a accurate starting point. Information on how to take a sample and where to send it can be found at the local university Extension office or maybe the local NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) office.