Guest Rant by Phil Nauta, author of Building Soils Naturally: Innovative Methods for Organic Gardeners. Originally published in 2012, this 9-year-old guest rant is STILL one of GardenRant’s top-traffic posts, month after month. We can only conclude that people REALLY need this information!
Soil pH is talked about a lot in the gardening world, but most people don’t understand it, so it’s generally misused.
I’m here to rant about it. To simplify what pH is, it’s basically a measurement comparing how much hydrogen we have in our soil. Counteracting that hydrogen is a handful of other nutrients — mainly calcium, magnesium, potassium, and sodium. The more hydrogen we have, the lower our pH is – the more “acidic” it is. The more of those other nutrients we have, the higher our pH is – the more “alkaline” it is.
The scale goes from 0 to 14, with 7 being neutral, but most soils are between 4 and 9. It’s usually best to have a pH somewhere in the middle. Actually, between 6 and 7 is generally considered ideal, which is often true, but this is where a mistake is often made. If your soil pH is 5.5, the common advice would be to add lime to raise the pH of our 5.5 soil, often dolomite lime.
Dolomite is calcium carbonate and magnesium carbonate. The calcium and magnesium in the lime will probably knock some of the hydrogen out of the way. That will give us less hydrogen and more of these minerals, therefore raising the pH, at least in the short term.
So the problem is not that dolomite lime won’t raise the pH, but that our pH test did not tell us if we actually needed calcium and magnesium. Perhaps we already have too much magnesium. It’s almost certain we don’t need both in the ratio that dolomite lime gives us. Adding more of the wrong nutrient is just going to make things worse. For example, too much magnesium can cause compaction.
Looking at the other end of the scale, some higher pH soils are due mostly to sodium or potassium, and they actually still need calcium and/or magnesium. We wouldn’t know that if we just used the pH number as our basis for liming.
The pH does give us a clue that we may have a nutritional and microbial imbalance in our soil, but this gives us no information as to why that may be so. As such, it’s of very little use to us.
It is not that pH isn’t important to plants and microbes. For the most part, we’re happy to have it be between 6 and 7 to have the healthiest plants.
Knowing the pH value, however, doesn’t help us much with soil management decisions, and it certainly shouldn’t be used to determine how much lime to add to the soil. pH is the result of the elements in our soil, not the cause.
Now, the reason we’re happy with a relatively neutral pH is that most nutrients, particularly the most essential nutrients, are most readily available to plants somewhere in the 6-7 pH range, gradually decreasing as the pH gets further up or down the scale. And a potential problem is that some micronutrients become more available outside this range, especially in low pH soil, sometimes to toxic quantities.
So it’s not that the acidity of a 4.5 pH soil is harmful itself – it’s that most nutrients aren’t as available to plants, and a few may be too available. Further, many microbes can’t live at an extreme pH, so the soil food web will be imbalanced, too.
But plants that are considered “acid-loving” don’t actually love hydrogen. Instead, there are various benefits they may get out of a lower pH soil. They may just need certain trace minerals in abundance, and those trace minerals are more available in acidic soil. Or they may just need a fungal-dominated soil – fungi decrease soil pH, so it may be that these plants don’t care at all about the pH, and they just want their fungi.
Rhododendrons, for example, are often thought of as acid-loving. In reality, they love magnesium, which is sometimes more available at a low pH, and they aren’t particularly fond of calcium. They’ll grow just fine in a high pH soil if they have sufficient magnesium and lots of organic matter. I’ve seen nice blueberry harvests on high pH soils.
Trying to make your soil acidic by applying peat moss or aluminum sulfate doesn’t give the plants the nutrients they need or the biology they need. And trying to make it more alkaline by applying lime may give the wrong nutrients, causing even more problems.
In my view, we need to focus on a more holistic approach to soil management, using high-quality compost and things like rock dust and seaweed in order to give the plants the chelated minerals they need.
And then the other important step is soil testing through a lab, which will not only tell you your pH but also which minerals need to be added. It will rarely be dolomite lime.
When all of these factors are brought in line, the pH will follow.
Hallelujah!! Yes, let’s please talk about soil health, and not simply lean on industry touted cures for symptoms. A good gardeners manifesto should always include the words “Soil Test”! Thanks for this rant!
pH is NOT a measurement of nutrients! It is a measurement of H+ ions and OH- ions! An acid pH = great H+ ions and an alkaline pH = greater OH- ions! Lime raises pH NOT by the calcium alone, it is the combination of CaCO3 (lime) and water (H2O) which produces Ca, CO2, and OH-. So voila! You produced OH- ions, so your pH shall raise!!! I’ve analyzed countless soil reports, and rarely will you find a soil that has “too much Ca and Mg” and an acidic pH. If you’re pH is low, I seriously doubt that Ca is anywhere near “too high”.
Soil health really is about more than pH. Unfortunately, soil tests aren’t always easy to come by – in some parts of Canada, figuring out where you can send your soil for testing can be a nightmare!
As for what I do to try and keep my soil healthy is regular doses of well-rotted compost.
Ya, I’d actually send down to the U.S. I’ve never seen anyone in Canada doing the kind of test I would recommend. If you really want to, A&L at least does a base saturation test, but they’re not focused on organic recommendations. I prefer Crop Services International in Michigan.
Try the agricultural dept at the University of Guelph, in Ontario
I use leaf mold and composted manure in a community garden space that was used by others for the last 30 years. My soil test said that I have a ph of 6.6 and excessive amounts of Phosphorus and Calcium with sufficient amounts of everything else. I need your book to figure out what I should be doing.
Unrelated but do you know if you have family ties to the ghost town of Roxbury NS?
Mulch and compost, so far. I tried a bit of “in bed” composting this year, and I think I’ll do that from now on with the garden waste – easier to trim the veggies right in the garden and bury the scraps!
And I’m with Matt (#2) – it’s hard to find a soil testing place in Canada!
I recommend Mr. Nauta’s book unreservedly – solid science, but highly readable. FYI, I will be reviewing it on my site within the week. A fine addition to any gardener’s bookshelf.
What a great post, very clear and helpful. I would love to read more on this topic! Knowing what’s going on in your soil is one thing, figuring out how best to make it better is another, and more info in this area is useful.
I am a new home gardener, in farm country in Indiana. I don’t trust the soil around my place, and have started with a raised bed, and a vermiculture box. I have also located a raiser of grass-fed beef, who follows organic practices. He will be selling his herd’s manure soon, and I plan to get some.
I need to learn more about how to put it all together to improve the soil in my beds.
Out of curiosity, why don’t you trust your soil? Is it because of the pesticides from the farms or something else?
Yes, the pesticides. I am surrounded by soy and feed-corn farmers, with a very few organic farms popping up within a 10 mile radius of our place.
Hi Jane – I knew it wouldn’t be long before farmers figured out that people would pay to haul their manure away!!
Around where I live they are still just putting signs out “free manure” – I really hope that doesn’t change!
It seems to make sense! I’m also looking for someone who raises chickens right, and has droppings to spare.
I began perennial beds over 15 years ago. Never did any soil testing, plants either made it or not. The addition of compost seemed costly early on. (knowing full well that the cost of re-planting added more unnecessary expense). I now add compost whenever, and however I can. I have become a true believer of compost after I moved our chicken coop from one location to another, shoveling in the area where the hens had lived and couldn’t believe the ease at which I was able to do this. Looking forward to understanding more about the science of the soil. Thank you.
A great and useful rant. We apply a mulch of shredded tree leaves to almost all beds every winter. Haven’t had to amend the soil otherwise since we started gardening and added lots of rock phosphate to make up for the native soil’s low phosphorus levels. Which brings up an interesting point that I wonder if he addresses in his book–native plants love their native conditions. Our southern natives–blueberry, rhododendron, etc.–love the low pH for the reasons he explains and Mediterranean natives–lavender, rosemary, etc.–love their native pH of 8. Knowing where a plant is from gives a gardener a heads up on how to approach the soil amendment question.
Good point, and using native plants is great, but we need to be sure to recreate native conditions if our soil has been disturbed. Knowing where a plant comes from is indeed crucial.
I use chopped leaves, composted manure and also compost in place, turning former corn/soybean fields into cut flower fields. I also do not till the fields, but loosen the soil only where I am planting. I just started several large hugelkultur experiments. The land was originally heavily forested and my intent is to amend the soil as it would have been amended naturally in woodlands.
A great resource for soil information is your local Soil and Water Conservation District. Another great resource would be this book. I hope I win!
I regularly add compost–from my own pile. My pine tree’s needles blanket the entire shredded bark mulch I apply to my ornamental beds. Works well, it seems.
I have to admit that I don’t mulch. I know I should, but I don’t have the materials or space available to create my own and I just can’t deal with the expense — at least not until I can scrape up enough money to fill out my landscaping beds how I would like. Until then, any extra gardening money goes to plants.
Sarah – you could go around in the fall when the folks that don’t better – put all their leaves out in bags to be picked up by garbage trucks.
Putting down free leaves (would be great if you have a mower and could shred them up a bit first) would be a great place to start.
Emphasis on “free”!!
Also, check your local government. I spent far too much on bagged mulch until I realized my county will deliver a pile of leaf or bark mulch taller than me. For $40, it is more than I can use on a huge yard.
I hope this reply counts as a contest entry–I would love to have the book. I currently add compost to my soil, and sulfur to my blueberry bed.
I mulch with shredded hardwood and shredded leaves, and I’ll spread a bunch of compost to everything every other year or so. Sometimes I’ll throw my fruit and veggie kitchen scraps in the back of the flower bed where no one can see them. I guess I’m too lazy to even do composting right.
I do that too. The material degrades well enough that I can add it back to some low organic content, sandy soils and improve their quality. The best part of this careless composting is the number of seeds that survive and sprout in the spring. I have squash, tomatoes and peppers popping up wherever I’ve use the compost. There is no problem transplanting them to sunnier locations or grow them in pots. Cardboard boxes seem to work fine as planters and hold together long enough to harvest vegetables. The cardboard in the boxes can then be used to cover the garden soil surface as mulch to control weeds. If only I can find a sunny hidden spot to avoid my wife’s complaining about the aesthetics,
This makes me think of my poor mother trying to turn her hydrangeas blue by dumping sulfur on them (or whatever they say to use to acidify the soil).
3 are now dead. She’s working on killing a 4th.
Maybe this book would explain the mystery!
Ya, I absolutely understand people wanting to change hydrangea color, but from my point of view (just to be honest), it’s not a great goal.
Your hydrangeas will find the color they want to be. Adding fertilizers multiple times a year forever in order to change that is not a fun or sustainable goal, and isn’t great for the soil.
Many, maybe even most, hydrangeas are not able to change color. Make sure mom has the variety that can and will do this. Hope this helps.
I do a lot of composting in place and in a bin, and shred up leaves and branches in fall and spring for my perennial beds.
Yep! I like to think that compost is the answer to everything! Sadly, I’ve been overworking my soil for the past year or so, and am now taking a step back to replenish it with cover crops, more compost, and some rest.
Compost! I used mushroom compost when I got my community garden plot almost a decade ago, and ever since I’ve been making my own compost. I’m in suburbia and have to use bins — and I have 7 of them at last count. When I moved a garden earlier this year, I moved a lot of the soil, too, to two other gardens.
The only fertilizer I use is a handful of alfalfa pellets for tomatoes when they’re planted, and occasionally some comfrey tea. Other than that, everybody gets compost, and my gardens are thriving.
After I dump out my compost bucket (a five-gallon horse bucket) I hose it out and dump it on my tomatoes. I figure it’s the lazy person’s version of compost tea. 🙂
This sounds like a facinating book!
I have a new yard, where the soil has high acidity, medium lead content, and low organic material content. So far I’ve been trying to fix the low organic content by adding composted manure in the areas I’m working, but I’m not sure what to do about the acidity and whether it will be a problem.
You’re on the right track with the composted manure. The other important step will be to soil test and then add the appropriate minerals to balance the soil. pH will follow. Unfortunately, most soil labs such as the local University extensions are stuck in the old chemical paradigm, so I actually ship mine to Crop Services International. It’s so worth it to get proper recommendations.
i think this is the best post on garden rant i have read in a long time. there was so much useful information, i really want this book now. Gardening here on coastal Alabama, i think i this information is useful in many ways.
Thanks for the great information. I, too, wish soil testing were easier. I learned the hard way not to waste money on diy soil test kits.
Very enlightening. This rant really clarifies the science of soil and why not to run out and add lime. Very informative, as soil is so integral to growing healthy plants. Look forward to reading the book, Building Soils Naturally.
I can tell which are my “oldest” gardens because they have the best soil, need to be watered the least, and it seems that most things just naturally thrive there.
I see soil improvement as my #1 priority, so I gather seaweed when I go to the ocean and mulch with it, or throw it in the compost, each year I put mowed over oak leaves from our yard on the gardens to sit through the winter and feed the worms, and add our homemade compost whenever I have a batch. In the fall, sometimes I just dig holes and bury our kitchen scraps in the garden…especially in newer gardens where I’m not as concerned about disturbing the soil structure, and more interested in getting worms there in the first place. I’ve also used stuff from fungi perfecti to try to increase the mycorrhiza in the soil. Is that spelled right? You know what I mean.
The last year or so I’ve been experimenting with cover crops like the big boys.
At this point I do use a little organic fertilizer and buy a gallon of fish/kelp emulsion, but I look forward to a time when my garden will be self sufficient!
Hi sounds great your right on the money but a garden will never be self sufficient the way we grow so many crop on it that drain the soil content!The best we can do is try naturally as possible to replenish everything!Here is some of the things I put in this year all!I have a huge comfrey hedge I grew many years ago I continually lightly scatter the leaves around the plants during the growing season and bury some in the holes at plantinting time!Depending on which bed I am admending for which crop this is the general list of alot of what I put in my soil mixed in with shreded leaves and then watered with molasses and hydrolized fish water then covered over with a thick layer of leaves to winter over and turn almost the bottom layer to rich soil for next years planting with out even turning the soil before I plant just pull aside the undecomposed leaves and plant what you please!Here is generally what I added to the beds this year all natural products organic:SOFT ROCK PHOSPHATE,AZOMITES,BASALT/GRANITE DUST FROM THE NEAR BY ROCK QUARRY,COW MANURE FROM NEIGHBORS FARM,CHICKEN MANURE AND FEATHERS FROM SAME FARM,POTASSIUM SULFATE,i GRIND UP ALL MY OLD SHEET ROCK WITH A HAMMER AFTER i LET IT ALL GET WET SO PAPER COMES OFF FIRST AND IT CRUMBLES EASIER,ALFALFA GRAIN PELLETS ALOT THAT THEY FEED TO SHEEP $15 FOR 50 LBS.,GROUND OYSTER SHELLS THEY FEED TO CHICKENS $10 FOR 50 LBS.,FISHBONE MEAL,POWDERED AND GRANULATED AZOMITE,PORCUPINE BLOOD MEAL,SCATTER ALOT OF MY COMPHRY LEAVES ON SOIL,ESPOMA 4/4/4 FOR A BOOST OF OTHER STUFF AND THE NATURAL BACTERIAL TYPE STUFF THEY PUT IN IT,A BUNCH OF OLD CORN MEAL i GOT CHEAP AT A FEW DIFFERENT GROCERY STORES,KELP POWDER,SCATTER FRESH SEAWEED ALL ON TOP OF THE SOIL,ALL LEFT OVER FOOD SCRAPS FROM THE FAMILY,PLUS DUG OUT WHERE MY FATHER DUMPS ALL THE FOOD SCRAPS IN A HOLE IN BACK YARD,DANDILION LEAVES,BURDOCK LEAVES:I TRY TO TURN THIS IN THE TOP SIX INCHES OF THE SOIL THEN COVER IT ALL OVER WITH 6 TO 12 INCHES OF OLD FALLEN AUTUMN LEAVES TO WINTER OVER AND KEEP THE SOIL ,MICROBES ,AND WORMS WARM AND HAPPY BY THE WAY I TAKE DRY POWDERED MILK AND SCATTER IT ALL OVER THIS BEFOE I TURN IT IN!SOUNDS LIKE ALOT BUT I DO NOT DO THIS MAJOR INPUT ALL THE TIME THIS YEAR I HAD HEAVILY USED THE GARDEN FOR OVER 3 YEARS AND DID NOT ADD TO MUCH1ONE SECRET IS WHEN YOU GET MANURE FROM UNDER FARMERS BARN DIG IT FROM UP AGINST THE BACK WALL WHERE IT HAS BEEN STUCK A LONG TIME AND MOST OF IT IS ALREADY DECOMPOSED INTO RICH BLAK SOIL ALSO WHEN I WENT TO HORSE MAN MANURE PILE I DUG IT UP WHERE THERE WAS 1000’S OF WORMS AND PUT IT ALL IN THE SOIL 2 YEARS AGO AND NOW THE WORMS ALMOST GOT ME ON A NO TILL GARDEN!THE ONLY REASON I DID IT THIS YEAR IS I NEGLECTED IT FOR A COUPLE YEARS ON ANMENDMENTS AND GREW ALOT OF INTENSIFIED GARDENING IN IT!HOPE THAT HEPS SOME PEOPLE AND I SURE HOPE I GET A PRISE CAUSE I JUST SHARED A WEALTH AND TRESURE OF KNOWLEDGE TO HELP PEOPLE!pLEASE SEND ME AN EMAIL AT SHABECKYCOD@GEMAIL.COM SO I CAN GIVE YOU MY ADDRESS TO SEND ME THAT BOOK I LOVE YOU AND YOUR KNOWLEDGE!I NEED YOUR BOOK TO ASSIT ME FURTHER I HELP MY WHOLE POOR FAMILY BY TRING TO GROW THEM ALOT OF HEALTHY GOOD PRODUCE A HUGE FAMILY AND IM THE ONLY COMMITTED ONE TO THIS PLEASE HELP ME!
I note with interest that you say you have a “huge” poor family. These 2 always go hand in hand. Almost all poor families are large, which is the reason why they are poor. This is one of the worst things we can do to ourselves & EARTH which cannot house our large families anymore. It should be a crime to have a large family in this day & age. So sick of people complaining they are poor but they continue to have more children than they can feed.
Get off of your high horse.
ssosp, I’m with John on this point. Western civilization, at least as it was a few decades ago, is, from almost any standpoint, but clearly as to material well being and freedom, far and away the high point of civilization ever on this planet. And for some time now – a fact you seem woefully ignorant of – we in the West have not been reproducing at a replacement rate. This is going to have a steep retrograde effect on the well being of people worldwide. It is not large families that are our problem, but small ones, and the decline of family, period.
If your point was really that you are against government policies that encourage the poor, especially single women, to have more and more children, I’m with you. Such policies are a huge problem. But the large family in itself is not the problem, it’s the solution.
Having participated in hijacking this thread, by way of apology I will add: I am a gentleman farmer, and Phil is telling me things I didn’t know. Very interesting. But:
1) My problem is my lawn, areas of it. The sort of intensive organic applications favored here are not practical for large areas, or where at you have some good grass and tilling back to bare dirt isn’t indicated.
And, mainly 2) Like so much gardening advice, it’s all very nice, but the rubber doesn’t meet the road. It’s not actionable because it’s not specific enough, and where it is, the recommendations are not readily available in stores or elsewhere and no specific sources are supplied. I may only need to add calcium or magnesium. OK, go to your garden store and ask for either. Good luck. Make sure you apply enough micronutrients, don’t put palm fertilizer on a Sago because it’s not a palm.. Go ask for micronutrients or Sago fertilizer. Blank looks. And the tests I get from my County Agent always indicate liming if the ph is low, and any fertilizer recommendation is like 10-10-10, not single elements, I guess because fertilizer simply isn’t sold the way it is discussed here.
For actionable advice, I’d buy this book. But, based on this artifice, I’d be disappointed. It’s no good knowing what you should do if the tools or supplies are not available to you and the advice is short on HOW, WHERE, FROM WHO, etc. Rock dust? Yea.
Everyone wants spoon feed information… do your own research! Ash or potash comes from the fire pit! Egg shells have calcium… spend $100 dollars and buy a decent soil testing kit and get off your assets and do your homework, people! This is exactly why this country is going to shit in a basket. We don’t make things ourselves, anymore! Or, know jack sicle-cell- enemia! Make compost when you hand take your lawn with a metal tine rake in the fall! This life is a hard work till you die life… if you’re not doing that you’re on the wrong path or doing something wrong because something never comes from nothing or it never comes easy…life is supposed to hurt like a bitch! Learn to like the pain and use it for motivation or set in your chair taking the pills that ease the pain and kill you along the way! Let’s get out there and kick some gardening axz American! Who’s ready? Start today! I’m an eighties child… mess messenger of the 2.3 children era… I always wanted to know how well off we’d have been if we could have found that other sevententh’s of that little shit? Good luck and God Bless … America! Just keep her dailed in, you’ll be alright…people!
sorry I forgot i put alot of my grass clipping always in the garden aswell,it took me 3 years to buy some of these admendments by small bulk it will store for years it is not cost effective to always go to a box store and buy only small amounts the prise is to great so it took me 3 years to buy the correct products that hopefully will last in storage for 5 to 10 years depending what it is and I use it when needed im a commited gardener not only enjoy but healtier by far then the untrusted over prised products they sell at the stores and please do not use chemical fertilizers it poisons the soil and enviorment and kills off all the natural bacteria and healthy fungi needed in the soil to break down the organic matter and assits the proper nutrients to become available to the plants plus almost 80 to 100 % of the erotion problems and bad run off problems of the land are due to chemical fertilization killing the healthy life content in the soil that makes it stable and rich sad to say thats why we have dusty soil many times with bad problems cause of the lack of true workable knowledge and application that they do to the soil that always in the long run destoys it!
Please excuse my ignorance. What are cover crops?
A cover crop is a very short term crop you grow then turn it immediately back into the soil when at its prime this adds natural trace elements and natural fertilizer to the garden!A cuople of examples would be rye grass then turn under od use up all your old legume seeds like all you old bean and pea seed throw in let grow for awhile then turn it all back into the soil this adds nitrogen and other trace elaments cause the legume roots go deep and draw up minerial from deep in the earthes soil! Its A a good way od naurally feeding your soil to benifit you produce crops you need!
Compost for the perennials, of course. The best thing I did for our lawn soil was to happily welcome the clover that arrived – the grass is greenest (even in the drought) and growing best in the areas full of clover.
I mainly just use compost, except for a few types of plants that prefer ash. Other than that, during the cool months when we frequently have a fire (Most of our house has heaters, but one wing just has a wood stove), I dump the ashes into my compost pile. Along with somewhat deterring the dogs, it also adds minerals to the compost.
Perfect timing for your rant. We’re getting ready to refurbish a small area of lawn in our front yard. We keep getting told to lime the area. But no one seems to be mentioning the other obvious problems, like soil compaction. It may be that we do need lime. I just wish we’d get more comprehensive advice.
Whether or not I win this book give away, I’ll be checking out your website!
I’m fairly new to gardening and am slowly discovering the next fascinating topic after the other: veggies, composting, layer gardening, pruning, natives, no-lawn – and now this! This is fascinating! I have a compost and put it in my veggie beds mostly, which do fabulously. I don’t have enough for the whole yard, but just got myself a new lawn mower to make leaf mulch next fall. The soil quality in my yard really differs – around the house, where they built the addition, it is horrible, rock solid gravelly clay, under the pine and older trees and where all the weedy brush used to grow, it is much softer and rich in organic materials, the lawn I’m slowly replacing sits on solid clay. I have a fairly progressive local garden center I frequent, where they do soil testing for free. I should take them up on it! After that, I’d love to read this book 🙂
Everything in my garden gets LOTS of compost, spring and fall, and heavy mulch throughout the summer. Ditto for the vegetables with regular feeding of seaweed emulsion and organic Yum-Yum mix. I also don’t usually remove fallen leaves from the beds until spring. The plants seem to like this treatment and the soil has gone -over several years- from pale brown sandy clay to deep brown loamy soil. Its not yet the rich deep black soil that every gardener covets but it is much improved over what I started with.
Compost and leaves. That’s it.
I regularly mulch, not much else. I’m a new gardener and learning slowly
I just purchased my first house, and so far, all I’ve done to improve my soil is have it tested by the county extension office. Happily, my sandy Florida yard contains more organic matter than I expected! At least now I know what I’m dealing with and can make an informed effort to improve the soil gradually and naturally.
I add compost and mulch. As much as I can make of both on site and then I buy more of both. Living in Southern California, mulch is a necessity.
I would love this book. It is so frustrating being told that I should use non-renewable peat moss for my highbush blueberries to acidify soil. Tried adding pine needles but read that they will not break down fast enough and that I should be adding ammonium sulfate then it seemed that no – aluminum addition is not a good idea and powdered sulfur is what I should use. I would really like to know what is it that blueberries need, not what is a quick and dirty fix.
Thank you for listening to me rant.
By the way compost is for the edibles, only. For the non-edibles, I look for plants that will grow well in my conditions and mulch, mulch, mulch.
My recommendation is to substitute good compost for peat moss and don’t worry about acidifying the soil. It’s a big misunderstanding in the horticultural world (there seem to be a lot of them). If you send your a soil sample to Crop Services International or any other good biologically-oriented lab, and put “blueberries” on the form, they will give you appropriate recommendations.
Can you elaborate on your recommendations for blueberries? I did a soil test and it says my soil is too alkaline for blueberries, and they were definitely not thriving. Conversations with a master gardener and plant center employee led me to try sulfur–they recommended twice a year.
I’m not a blueberry expert or anything, so I don’t know their specific mineral requirements, but what I do know is that it’s not the low pH that they like – it’s going to be certain minerals and perhaps certain fungi. Magnesium is one of those minerals. But before adding that, I would get a soil test through Crop Services International and specifically ask them. More compost will probably be a good thing, along with balancing the main nutrients in the soil and improving the health and diversity of the soil food web. I suggest not worrying about the pH directly, as chasing a low pH is doing everything backwards.
Thanks for this information, very helpful. U Mass. Has a very food soil test. There are several options and well priced. I have found it helpful. Seems like relying on only compost would not provide all that is needed since if the decomposed material is from your plants, you would need some additional nutrients to correct an imbalance.
Seems like I’m with everyone else….compost and mulch.
My property has an area where previous owners had been dumping grass clippings & leaves for many years–I mine hundreds of pounds of this black gold every spring, plus some aged chicken manure from a friend.
Great advice and I’ve never really thought of it like this. For me it’s always compost and manure, and let the rest work itself out.
Thanks everyone for the comments so far and thanks Garden Rant for the opportunity!
Seems like most people are on top of the most important step which is compost and mulch. That’s what the early organic pioneers emphasized in North America. Unfortunately, most of them didn’t talk much about the importance of getting to the right mineral balance in the soil, so there are a lot of organic gardeners with a wonderful humus system going on, but still imbalanced fertility and so suboptimal results. But the good news is that compost and mulch indeed do go a long, long way to hitting your goals.
Feel free to keep your questions and comments coming!
Great post! One correction: the carbonate picks up loose hydrogen ions. The metal ions are just along for the ride.
You’re right Megan, I oversimplified a bit.
I have terrible soil. I work hard adding compost, manure, and fish/kelp fertilizer. I’ve also been tinkering with something recommended by my local organic “Ag” store called Azomite. Results are decent, but I’m never sure how much of my problems link to the base soil or if they are due to my additions. Phil’s book sure would be helpful!
I use a product called Bumper Crop for most of the perennials and mulch well in the spring…people can’t believe I don’t use fertilizer. They’re always asking me how I get the hydrangeas “that” color…and I just say they’re whatever color naturally.
More and more I’m finding that garden writers are making specific and focused reference to the microbial content of soils. This is wonderful progress, and it’s even more wonderful to find your book with such a complete and easily understood discussion of these soil issues. This is so much more accessible and so much less intimidating than the presentation of some of the same issues in our Master Gardener training manual, and should make it much easier for everyday gardeners to put into practice such good information. Thanks for this.
I use compost – I have a tumbler and several worm bins.
I mulch with brown bags covered with mulch in perenial beds and brown bags covered with chopped up leaves in the vegetable and annual flower beds.
I get big brown bags the size of peat moss bales from my neighbor who gets their pine shavings for their horse stalls delivered in them.
In the fall I roam the streets with my truck stopping at driveways and picking up bags of leaves.
A fair amount of work – but Free!
I’m so glad you published this article! I’m preparing some beds this fall to plant blueberries next spring, and I would have done just what Phil Nauta is ranting against – added lime. Now I know better, but I’d love to know more…
Can’t wait to read this book–I’m always eager to deepen my understanding of what’s going on in the soil.
Soils are so complex and I to learn more about them. I recently moved into my first house with my first yard. I haven’t done anything to soil yet, but will be sheet mulching once we replace the rotting fence. I did check the pH when I first moved in and it was right in the middle. If the reader had said otherwise, I wouldn’t have any clue what to do to get my soil to the right level. Thanks for posting this information. I definitely need to pick up a copy of the book.
I use compost, worm castings, and leaves to build my soil. I also like to add comfrey leaves.
I liberate our beloved red wigglers from our worm bin into our container garden.I also use rabbit droppings and alpaca poo along with worm castings fish emulsion,seaweed extract,unsulphered molases,and char from wood ash and aerate with an aquarium pump for a couple of days in a 5 gallon bucket then transfer into our rain barrel. Boil,Boil,Toil and Bounty!!
I work at a retail nursery in Santa Cruz California and do alot of advising to folks and their garden problems. I would love to be more informed on soil science so I can help the gardening public make wise decisions. Will look for this book at my local book shop. Thanks
The one thing I always do in my garden beds, and tell new gardeners who ask, is mulch (with something that will break down, wood chips, chopped straw, cocoa beans – not dyed wood, not rubber mulch), which helps the soil in so many ways. If we take care of the dirt (and everything in it) the dirt will take care of us.
Had no clue about the pH and hydrogen connection. I’ve had a soil test done and in spite of it, I’ve been amending with compost and Dr. Earth fertilizers. I did add a type of sulfur last fall – will use sparingly until the bag is empty and then I won’t buy it anymore. Would love to win your new book. Nell
I’ve been preaching about this for years to anyone who will listen. Soil is, I believe, the most complex science gardeners need to learn about. Would love to win a copy of your book.
It is a well known fact that Atlanta-area soils are typically deficient in Mg and always have a low pH with native unlimed soils around 4.5 (thus our beautiful native azaleas, dogwoods and rabbit-eye blueberries). So although UGA provides fabulous soil testing capabilities of which we avail ourselves every few years, we probably won’t go too far wrong adding dolomitic lime. 🙂
But I would like to read your book.
Very complex subject, great info. I’ve been adding compost and mulch.
I use sheep wool to Improve the soil. It stores water and degrades slowly. My tomatoes with sheep wool in the soil and above the ground grow better and do better on hot days then the sample group with normal mulch.
Living in an area with limestone bedrock, ph is a subject near and dear to my heart as the #3 answer to the ‘why’d it die’ question (after not enough water and not enough sun)
I’ve honestly been too chicken to send in an official soil test, fearing what the recommendations would be. We’ve gotten on with compost and alkaline-friendly plants so far, but I’d love to have some non-depressed looking rhododendrons to go with my rampaging lilacs some day.
Interesting, I don’t know much about this but it makes sense to avoid liming the soil and find a better way to balance the PH.
Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
Our soil used to be rock hard,
But now that’s not true.
We live in a area that was a wheat field 50 years ago. Then it was turned into a playground at the edge of our town. The town grew a bit more and now it is just our backyard. The dirt was a mixture of clay bands and really nice dirt. To improve the soil, we added alpaca, rabbit, horse and other barnyard animal manure from a nearby friend’s ranch who is extremely careful about taking care of their animals. We added worm castings and worm bed material from our worm beds and we add our own yard compost. Instead of raking leaves and giving them to the town to haul away, we added almost 600 32 gallon bags of rotted leaves to the garden area. On top of everything we added some rock dust to help restore minerals that hadn’t been replaced in years. We added some mycorrhizae based material to help jump start the micro organisms.
Our actual lawn is not very large and was really unattractive when we first moved in. When other fertilizers didn’t improve the lawn, we applied some Dr Earth lawn fertilizer and now we have healthy grass with extremely good roots that don’t need frequent watering.
Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
We’re having a great time gardening,
How about you?
Living in the arid west, with soil largely comprised of decomposed limestone, our pH tends to be too high for many plants, rather than too low. We were taught that there isn’t much to be done about it, and to just select plants that can handle what we have.
Interestingly, my garden started at 8.1 and is now a welcome 7, just from irrigating, and the compost I’ve added over the years.
Interesting post. I have never had my soil tested, probably because I’d just keep doing the same old thing: relying on compost and degrading mulch. So far, so good.
Great article. I REALLY would love to win this book! I organize an annual plant exchange at work. Throughout the year I also share gardening bits and events with fellow co-workers. This book would be extremely helpful for our group.
I have improved my soil by adding homegrown compost, leaf mold and mulching with pine needles and bark.
Really great article. I believe that the health of the soil is the most important thing in a garden. I garden in raised beds on acres of sand. We incorporate compost each year and cover crop about half the beds each fall. I am very excited to find this book.
Compost and mulch is about all that I have done. Good enough for my ancestors, good enough for me.
i compost compost compost. i even have a worm composter under my desk at work. reading about soil health is a recent past time — when i take time out from gardening.
I would love a copy of “Building Soils Naturally”. Thanks for a great post; I learned a lot of immediately applicable info!
The best soil tip– actually, the best overall garden tip– is to continually learn as much as you can about how your garden operates at every level. From soil to insects, the more I learn, the more I realize how little I really know. It takes articles like those that I get from ‘Garden Rant’ that help me progress as a gardener. Thank you for that concise, informative and applicable article!!
The only thing that I do to improve the soil is add compost. My plants love it.
this has been very informative, i have used wood ashes conservatively for years along with horse/cow manure, fish fertilizer, composted leaves and wheat straw. it has seemed liked something is lacking as my tomato plants just dont seem to have the stalks i see in other peoples tomatoes. it just may be that i need to get the soil test that i have been neglecting for years. jon
the stalks on your plants are most likely phosphorous deficientcy,get some soft rock phosphate,also get some granite/basalt dust or sand from a rock quarry a whole pickup truck load for $20,if you can afford it get a 44 lb. bag of azomite put the manure on first then put the rock dust on top of it this is critiacally important cause the stuff in the manure friendly bacteria and stuff and the natural acids breaks down the rock dust to make it available to the plants at greater quantities that the plant needs do not forget to put a 50 lb. bag of oyster shells that they feed to the chickens only cost $10 a bag pitch fork all this in together or rototill it to a six inch depht so it is available to the root zone that will not only take care of your small spindly stalk problem but you will have great and alot of tomato produce they need alot of natural calcium slow release over the whole growing season from the oyster shells plus get some powdered milk and just take the powder and put it all around where you are putting your tomatoe and peppers!As far as the stalks and plant growth it is critical in the first 1 to 2 monthes growth they sufficient phosphorous so it will not only have good stalk growth but good blossom set and dease resistance aswell it never catches up is it is starving for phosphorous in the very beginning of its growth hope this helps!
Too many times I hear people say, “My plants aren’t doing well. I should probably add some lime.” They aren’t even going by an awareness of acid or alkaline, just a “common cure” they’ve heard of…like someone feeling a bit ill and automatically asking the doc for antibiotics….scary.
Wow! Great article. I am trying to figure out a similar problem of how to improve phosphorus in the soil without having to ship soft rock phosphate from FL to MT. Seems like there is a better way, I sure do hope that I can get my hands on the book–looks like it has a lot of answers in it!
I still haven’t figured out exactly how we’re going to deal with our dwindling phosphorus supplies. Humanure will certainly be important. I’m still proposing soft rock in the book, with the caveat that this can’t continue forever. There are apparently sources in Idaho, though, which is better for you.
I really enjoyed this rant–very informative! On the question about mined rock phosphate, I have been told to be careful about the type of soil test you have done as the various types of soil tests measure phosphorus differently. Some tests (such as what the University of Maryland did before they closed ten years ago) will include phosphorus in the soil from rock applications but that is not currently available to your plants, while other tests only tell you about the currently available phsphorus in the soil. This implies that when using rock phosphate we need to be aware of the long-term release over many years?
Yes, you’re right on, especially for phosphorus, but really for all nutrients. I actually get what might be called a “strong acid” soil test to help me determine what’s in my soil (and therefore what needs to be added for longer term soil building), and then a “weak acid” soil test that tells me how much of each mineral is actually available to plants right now (and therefore what I need to do to improve nutrient availability rather than just nutrient quantity). So the kind of test done has a big influence on decision making.
Thank you for this illuminating info. I’ve used wood ash sparingly to ‘lime’ my soil and now I’m wondering if this is a bad idea, too! Clearly I need to read the book.
My most recent adventures in soil improvement involved scouring the laneways of lovely partially-decomposed leaf litter (it’s winter here in Oz, so the leaves have had a few months to break down) and haul it back onto my garden. I’m sure the neighbours think I’m mad but they don’t know what they’re missing!
I used to use lime, then I decided to rely on compost – it owrks well for my garden in Brooklyn, but not so well fo rmy Mom’s in the Pocono mountains. Must be another step that it needs so I hope I win your book and it tells me!
I’m pretty new at the gardening game, so I would really enjoy reading this book! I have a compost bin in the back yard, which I throw stuff into, but it seems to take me an awfully long time to get anything out of it. I’m ready to take my gardening to the next level. Thanks, garden rant, for the education!
I use compost when starting a bed and leaves as mulch-not even shredded. Also save & grind my eggshells for the Hosta’s to keep slugs away. Love this website
I mostly use compost but honestly have no idea what I am doing and if it even helps.
At a minimum – you’re not doing any damage!
Seriously – composted leaves, grass, veg. scraps etc – is never the wrong thing to do.
I’m glad to see more articles about soil health. I have a unusual combination of pure sand and rich, loam on different parts of my property. Soil fertility varies in each of the areas. I’ve taken an interest in soil fertility and attended training sessions on the soli food web by Dr. Elain Ingam. My aim is to continue to build soil by adding organic matter in the form of compost and other nutrients from fungi, but also not to disturb the soil by tilling it to allow the organisms in the soil to thrive.. I’ll soon test my soil to get a snapshot of the soil health in each of the different areas of my very diverse property, using the information to determine what to grow as an soil amendment crop.
Allow me to join the chorus: Compost!
Best garden I’ve had was in Yakima Valley, WA – about 6″ of Mt St Helens ash had been plowed into the dog-run by the previous owners’ dog (altho I wonder how good that was for the dog!) and I grew lovely tomatoes and RIPE bell peppers.
I have naturally about 1/8″ of soil here – I bought potting soil and alfalfa pellets, and large pots, the first couple years, then gave up due to heat and having a traveling job. I’m still composting all kitchen scraps just to keep them out of the waste stream, tho, so the next owner (we plan to sell and move back to PacNW this fall, please God) will have a head start if so inclined.
What an interesting post! I didn’t know anything that you talked about here, but it really makes sense. I would love to learn more about this and would love to win your book.
Been farming here for 15 years and never touched a bag of lime. Lots of compost, tons of straw, goat poop, bunny poop, grass clippings and leaves. Just got finished disking under field peas as a green manure. The garden is doing fine..even in a drought my pantry is bursting at the seams with over 700 jars of vegetables. Would love a chance to read this book.
To improve my soil I take my goats for walks on the lawn (on leashes or they’d eat the roses.) They leave goat berries which work quickly into the grass. I also have the lawn mower guys leave the clippings on the lawn. That’s made a huge difference. My flower beds get tons of composted chicken manure (thank you, girls!)
Terry at HenCam.com (where you can see the animals that provide me with the compost.)
We add chicken manure compost and worm compost, but I am adding a couple more beds next year so that I can improve the soil by rotating crops. I’d love to read this book to help me figure out what else I should be doing.
Besides composting, for the most part, we leave our soil alone. We don’t know a whole lot about balancing the chemicals & nutrients for our soil, so rather than screw it up completely, we try to leave it alone and just use the yard-&-kitchen compost on it.
thank you for this thoughtful article. you may have answered this question already. if so, please just direct me to your answer. how would someone, without access to a professional lab, test the soil to find out what nutrients are present and what nutrients are deficient? i would like to begin gardening for our family’s health in the near future, but the soil i may have access to is truly an unknown quantity. thanks for your help.
Hi Jen, I don’t recommend using any of the home soil testing kits you can find at garden centers. They’re just way too inaccurate.
I would mail your soil sample to Crop Services International or another organic/biological lab.
With all these folks talking about blueberries, it made me wonder. If you went to a place that had blueberries growing naturally and used some of that soil in compost, would using that batch of compost help to develop good soil bacteria/fungi for your blueberries?
Absolutely. It’s a great idea to do that for various plants.
Almost but not quite. Saying rhodies do not like acid soil but like magnesium which is more available in acid soil is like people like to be drunk but do not like alcohol………………………………..not totally accurate and somewhat misleading.
Yes sulphur does become toxic over time. But there are many alkaline soils that are alkaline due to their high limestone content. One cannot just simply dismiss lime as a ph remedy. If that is the case then you must dismiss compost as well if it is missing in the soil.
In the end following these arcane guidelines one should only plant what will grow in the existing soil because adding anything is improper.
One cannot exclude organic/natural items like lime and sulphur but say compost is OK
Hi Greg, thanks for your comment. I think you misunderstood my article. I agree that lime is indeed a very valuable tool. What I’m saying here is that pH doesn’t tell you anything about how much calcium or magnesium you have in your soil. A soil test will tell you that, and then you can choose the right rock or fertilizer to add to your soil, which may be calcitic lime or dolomite lime or something that isn’t lime. My point here is simply that liming decisions shouldn’t be made based on pH.
I appreciate the rant on soil health. As a microbial ecologist I take issue with one thing: “The pH does give us a clue that we may have a nutritional and microbial imbalance in our soil”. No, you don’t have an imbalance in your microbes. You may not have exactly the types of microbes that you want to have to grow what you want to grow, but you have the balance of microbes that is right for where you live.
For instance, if you live in an area of dolomite, you have microbial communities adapted to that soil that live there just fine. There is no imbalance until you start to adjust the soil from its natural state in order to grow plants that have difficulties in that area. While I recognize that most of us want to do that at one time or another, your natural soil (without pesticides and other exotic flavorings has the right balance of microbes to grow what normally would grow in that soil.
So what you are actually saying is that if you wish to grow a garden in a dolomite area using plants that don’t normally like the soil conditions that would exist in such an area, YOU need to cause a soil imbalance that will permit these plants to exist in such an area. And that’s perfectly okay.
To put this in perspective, right now I am trying to grow a few native plants in my topsoiled garden (perfectly healthy with no microbial imbalance), but these particular natives like arid conditions and shale (also perfectly healthy soil with no microbial imbalance for them), so if I truly wish to grow them, I will need to replicate the conditions that they need. The same goes for any garden plant that you wish to grow whether it is turfgrass, corn, petunias, lilies or native to your area.
Perfectly said……………………..who are we to assume the soil placed in our yards is “out of balance”? It is perfectly balanced for what grows there already.
Thanks EL, excellent point. Indeed, there’s really no such thing as an “imbalance of microbes.” What I meant is exactly what you said, an imbalance of microbes for what we want to grow.
What I also meant is that there are many human effects on the microbial balance of the soil, so for example a new subdivision on land that used to be a forest may very well not have an appropriate diversity and balance of microbes to support a forest again.
The soil in my place grows only weeds and mesquite because it has all of the natural nutrients removed from it. So naturally I would want to know what nutrients need to be added in order to grow something other than weeds and mesquite trees…like grasses or clovers or a vegetable garden. Rather ridiculous of you to assume that soil is perfect for what it was designed to grow when it has been farmed out of all of its natural nutrients or had them washed away or packed down. I guess you’re well-educated, but a little out-of-touch with the real world.
I was just going to say the same thing- work with what you have! Using amendments to improve drainage is one thing, but changing the chemistry? Is this really “improving”? I think people’s ideas of what they should be growing should change, instead of what they should be doing to the soil.
My only exception comes from soils created by new construction work, like around brand new homes. That soil is the worst of the worst.
I agree Anna. I’m generally referring to growing food, when we often want to change the chemistry and biology of the soil in order to get the healthiest, most nutrient-dense food we can. In an ornamental setting, I’m entirely in favor of using plants that are appropriate to your soil and climate conditions.
In my corner of the world (SE USA), soils are usually acid. Throw in a few area power plants with sulfer emissions and an urban environment with transportation emissions, and our clay soils are even more acid (below 5.5). Used correctly, lime is the first step to create healthy soil for most plants, so that the pH is 6 to 6.5. Once dolomitic lime is applied properly to adjust pH, it will last for at least 6 or 8 years here, if not longer. You are correct that annual liming is most certainly not a good practice.
In my work as a professional horticulturist, I’ve seen many residential properties with soils too acid, and a $5 bag of lime is the best investment the homeowner ever made.
Thanks Terry, it may be that those soils are indeed low in magnesium and calcium. My point here is simply that a pH test tells us nothing about that. A bag of lime will often raise soil pH, but it’s not always the most appropriate choice. It all depends on the actual mineral balance of the soil, and that’s why liming decisions should be based on a soil test, not a hydrogen test.
By adding lime to the soil , you can increase the soils what ?
Acid Level ?
Ph level ?
Water holding capacity
PLEASE COMMENT ANSWER !!
By adding lime to the soil, you are neutralizing both active and potential H+ and Al3+ ion concentrations, which allows the pH of the soil to increase. It will also affect the base saturation of your soil (the amount of basic cations that are held in the soil) by increasing the amount of Ca (if using CaCO3), or a combination of Ca and Mg if using dolomitic lime. You may end up with a higher Ca (or Mg) value in your soil, but that isn’t going to hurt anything as long as you’re providing some form of fertility (whether it be compost, manure, fertilizer, etc). But using the reasoning of ‘You’re going to add too much Ca or Mg to your soil and increase compaction’ is overblown.
It’s not the Ca and Mg that are ‘knocking off’ H+ ions from the soil, but rather the carbonate (CO3) or hydroxide (OH-) that are reacting with free H+ and Al+ and making them into insoluble compounds.
You should definitely use nature to your benefit, but claiming that liming is an ‘industry-touted cure’ is also overblown. Lime is a totally natural, usually organic product that can HELP you maximize the potential of your soil. Don’t just go dump it on; you all seem like you care about your gardens, so go find your nearest agricultural university and use the soil testing lab, or a private one, to determine what your needs are. Soil testing labs shouldn’t be hard to find, even in Canada. Try the University of Guelph for starters.
But, please don’t turn your nose up at lime just because you don’t understand how it can help you.
well said in my article above I forgot to mention that I periodically especially at end of year before wintering over I add a small amount of dolomite lime aswell and in combination of what I do above I have a great garden on most of my produce cause I well balnce all the other elements in the soil at the same time as you stated above if you add alot of leaves type organic manner it tends to acidify the soil some what so I alway add a little of the the dolomite lime along with my oyster shells aswell sorry I forgot to mention I add alot of crushed eggshells to my garden aswell we never thow our food waste to the dump it always goes in the garden or compost hole except for meat or simalar and never pet cat or dog manure bad stuff
In order to improve soil I recommend working with nature. Let plants/weeds grow to help improve the soil. The faster they grow the better. Once they die and get cut of at surface level they can be used as mulch. The root system will also die and provide perfect soil improvement. Don’t expose the soil to sunlight and wind as it reduces the amount of carbon and adds to heat stress.
I wanted to put the old adage don’t guess…soil test! To the test but… My green house contains potted veggies and various potted plants that were showing foliage issues and wanted to consult a testing lab. However the perticular one I chose said that potting soil couldn’t be accurately tested and must contain 50% soil ? So how do you test organically amended potting soils accurately? What exactly is considered 50% soil?
Thanks Phil. I would caution that using soil tests to determine mineral content is not very useful. A soil test showing nutrient levels (P,K, Fe, etc) is just a brief snapshot in time for the soluble components and most mineral nutrients are in ‘stored’ form, slowly released over time, and don’t show up in the test. I never pay attention to the nutrient numbers, just the pH. Get the pH right and the rest will take care of itself with reasonably good soil practices. Gardeners in the eastern USA should be wary of pH below 5.8.
Soil pH determines the nutrient availability to the plants, by affecting the chemical form of the nutrient, and a pH of 6.0 – 6.5 hits the sweet spot in the eastern USA for most garden plants. In overly acid soils (below 5.5), essential metal nutrients like iron, manganese, copper and zinc become too available and can be toxic, while nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium etc can become less available and limit growth
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So a newly plowed/disked 45′ x 65′ garden in Ohio (previously lawn) with acidic, clay soil (rhododendron, large pines, oaks and birch on the property) should receive calcitic lime for the final tilling before planting next week? I want to make the most of a first year vegetable garden while at the same time beginning composting, adding leaves (this fall) and growing a late fall cover crop to till under next spring.
Wow, fantastic blog layout! How long have you been blogging for?
you made blogging look easy. The overall look of your site is great,
as well as the content!
I’m a big fan of coffee grounds. They are gentle enough that you can sprinkle them liberally around plants, and worms love them! Just be careful because they are a bit acidic, so no piles of coffee grounds please. Other than that, it’s compost, compost, compost! I figure the greater the variety the better.
I quite like looking through an article that can make
people think. Also, thanks for allowing me to comment!
I use compost with about 15 ingredients and azomite. Would love to win a copy of this book to improve my knowledge. Thank you!
I simply use distilled water and the test strips from my spa to test the ph level. It’s simple and it doesn’t cost or take weeks to get the test back. Anyone else try it?
Yawn. 9 times out of ten, liming ground that was under a lawn for years and years ( ie any back yard in the Midwest, east, north west, etc) will not only solve your acidity problem, but will replace nutrients that have leached out. In a perfect world I’d have a few yards of perfectly balanced compost reinforced with kelp meal and fish emulsion and worm castings, bat guano, insect frass, and all the goodies. And a green pepper would cost me about 6 bucks. I have about a hundred bell pepper plants each year. The amendments I would need to make my soil sweet enough without lime would cost hundreds or maybe thousands. Lime, btw, is relatively insoluble. Not insoluble, relatively insoluble. It’s awfully hard to add too much lime. But if you do, just don’t lime again. See, mr gardening book author ( self published ?) your neighbors that add lime each year do so because it washes away. You paint a picture of ” ruining soil” with built up calcium and magnesium…. Exactly what level of either is toxic? It must be alot since apple trees regularly grow on chalk. If you have acidic soil, either go the hippie (expensive) route with holistic bla bla organic bla bla…. Gasoline, cocaine, and cyanide are organic btw… Or just get a bag of rock dust ( also known as what? Lime.). Follow instructions. Get some soluable fertilizer. Follow instructions. Save your grass clippings starting now, and leaves in the fall, and sprinkle them with….. Lime!!!! Every time you turn them. Wood ashes work well too…. But yes, adding lime or ashes or even bicarb is worth a shot to lower ph. Soluable things like bicarb are nice for diagnosing a low ph. If you use too much, wash it out like its miracle gro. Lime. It’s not over rated, it’s lime. Yay lime.
Well I guess that is why some of my plants aren’t thriving when I try to amend the pH, time to test the nutrient levels.
I’ve always been intrigued by the science of soil, but this is the first time I’ve actually enjoyed the learning! Your article made a few things clear to me that I’ve been puzzling over for many seasons. As a long term organic gardener, I only use composting & occasional infusions of manure, and didn’t understand why some plantings did better than others, so I’ve been liming…..but no more! Next thing I’m doing is a professional soil test. Thanks so much for the article; I look forward to many more!
I use lots of leaf mold, compost, and worm castings. I do believe in the value of a good soil test report, and try to get a report every time I start a new bed or at the start of each growing season. The reports are free in the US from your local agricultural extension agency.
My extension agency’s reports have almost always recommended I apply lime, and have given me a precise amount. In central NC, where I live, the soils are quite acid. But the reports also provide detailed instructions on N, P, K, as well as information on trace minerals like Mn, Zn, and Cu.
I’m always interested to learn more about soils and soil health. I’d like to see what this book has to say.
A very interesting article. I recently bought a Mosser Lee Soil Master to test my soil in my perennial flower beds because I have a number of plants that didn’t even come up out of the ground!
When I made first made my beds I added many 2 cubic feet bags of Miracle Grow potting soil and mixed it all in with the soil that was there. I also laid down 2 layers of cardboard, wet it down very well and then put 4 inches on mulch on top and again watered it well. I let it set through the winter and then planted my perennials.
This year I made an extension on my garden and used Miracle Grow potting soil and dehydrated manure and mixed it all in then planted perennials and then put 10 layers of black & white newspaper down, wet it well and added 4 inches of mulch on top and again wet it well.
When I dig an area to put in a plant or bulb in both areas I find loads of earthworms in the soil.
After checking the soil with the meter I bought I went to the recommended website for how to fix my low ph. The website said to add limestone to the garden this fall and let it set for the winter then try replanting the perennials that didn’t come up.
So NOW I want your book to see the proper way to fix my soil. And I also am sending of a sample of my soil to be tested!
Adding 30% worm castings to my soil has been a game changer for my plants. You can see a huge variance between the ones that have it and do not. I also water them with tea made from worm castings and now I no longer have to use store bought ferts and the plants are much healthier.
I began composting with worms this year and the garden has really seemed to like it. Trying to educate myself for next year. Thanks for a great article.
I bought a bag of soil and when I opened it had mycellium and tiny pinhead mushrooms in it. I stirred the soil and let it dry out. Now I am having a huge problem with the PH being way low. I use 7.2 going in and my runoff says it is 2.7 The few plants a I have in it look terrible as well. I’m assuming the low PH is a result of the fungus, so my question is should I go ahead and treat with a fungicide? Say Coppercide or Actinovate? Will this help raise the ph to a more neutral zone by killing of the fungus or do you think it will be forever low without adding anything to raise it? Should I raise my water ph in going in in order to have a higher runoff??
wow no fungacide you will kill other friendly stuff,not the water to fast shocks everything,get alot of maple leaves grind up with lown mower alot,mix in cow manure,alot of wood ash to a certian point,two or three 50 lb. bags of ground oyster shells they feed to chickens,lots of grass clippings,and burdock and dandilion leaves if if you can get them rototill this all in the garden and lay back for about a month or so and mother nature will take over and adjust what you just put in to stabilize the Ph do not for get to put alot of corn meal in like you buy at the store it has the ability to feed the healthy bacteria that will eat the bad fungi you loaded your garden with add some 3 table spoons of molasses per gallon of water with fish stuff mixed in to feed the friendly bacteria that is needed to break down your soil also get two 50 lb. bags of alfalfa gran they feed to sheep $15 apiece this green matter feeds the friendly bacteria that is needed to break down the carbon content to give you healthy soil thats about it for now try that !
We used soil microbes to raise the PH. The Microbes simply degrade the organic acid in the soil. Do check out Microbelife photosynthesis plus.
I was google-ing something else and stumbled onto this rant. I realize it is quite old now and no one is paying attention to it anymore, but I can’t hold back the need to comment. In my humble opinion there appears misrepresentation of how pH is related to base cations such as Mg, Ca, K, and Na, as well as the impact of organic matter breakdown on pH. The author mentions rock dust, compost, and seaweed as alternatives. Lime and dolimitic lime are both just mined rock. Decomposing compost and other organic matter, while essential for good soil, will decrease your pH over time – making it more acidic. I’m a big supporter of compost, but its not the answer to acid soil.
Remember to add a wide range of what ever is available to you that is usualy low cost or no cost just need to pick it up and apply to the soil,the thing to remember if you add things that while breaking down cause a little bit of acid build up always add a touch of calcitic lime,and or ground lime shells,also when you apply any rock dust at all no matter what type it is it is best to apply it together with manure because the manure will break down the mineral content of the rock dust what ever type it is and make it available to the plants at a much better useable rate that is very noticable if you do not the rock dust has a little affect but a much greater percentage of better crops if you apply manure with the rock dust especially the soft or rock hard phosphate!put egg shells all them,all used coffee grounds,all fruit skins and rotting apples,skins,cores,old onion skins,peels of potatoes everything its a great balance if you keep it up always year round and for excess just have a hole or bin in back yard and throw all table scraps and peelings ect. in there except for meat ,dog&cat poop no,at end of year dig out hole throw in garden and let it winter over!We could go on forever,small stores,coffeee shops ect. get their coffee grounds and produce waist and compost or bury in garden as a side dress!ect. ect.balance like mother nature a little of everything make sure you some what balance it by adding a small amount of lime yearly and more on the ground oyster shells that they feed the chickens it will not burn the plants it changes the Ph very slowly and breakes down very soily its simple we mimic mother nature slow but sure she adds things yearly with the rain wind water leaves falling animals walking in woods and pooping here and there we mimic all that with balance for the crop we want to grow
I don’t much care for this article/rant it seems as though he doesn’t know much about plant minerals and how they interact in soil. (Al) is not a plant nutrient and potassium is the most mobile plant nutrient so adding it to raise your pH will cause you a lot pain in your bank account if you keep adding it to your soil. Oh, I forgot aluminum will also increase your pH as well by flushing more hydrogen into your soil solution. This is because aluminum charge is a plus 3 while hydrogen is plus 1 taking up colloid space. Sorry, not a fan of Pseudoscience, rant done.
First of all to much aluminum poisons the soil,plus if you use mostly Mother natures products the Ph is close to nutral plus alot of organic material decomposing sometimes make the soil a tad bit more acidic so I add very small amounts of lime tearly and never had a problem cause I am forever sheet compoting my raised beds year after year!And politely to you comment if I am wrong why does my tomato plants never have less then 30 to 50 pounds per plant tear after year and very healthy aswell as my parsnip,carrots,pole beans,cuccumbers,all my squash,and ect>I am only here to help if I can and everything I suggest has been tried and true over my many years of growing my own produce sure hope this helps!God Bless You
Have tried everything published to grow veg in my sq foot garden and in my yard. I have even bought soil in a bag. hoping to improve the soil. Nothing grows except azellia and figs. I’m desperate and this look promising.
very interesting informative reading!! i dont know where i could find a soil testing kit here in australia either actually… but i try to use natives, lotsa manure & homemade compost/leaf litter 🙂 would love to win the book!!
Ahaa, itss fastidious discussion regarding this post at thiis
place at this website, I have read alll that, so now me also commenting at this place.
Really interesting article. I make different composts for different plants. I mix various commercial composts, my own composts, fertilizers, water retaining elements, manure, etc. but how much of my efforts are wasted or misdirected? What I need to know now is how to measure the different soil constituents e.g. it would be useful to know the magnesium levels together with the needs of a given plant before I start treating the soil/plant with epsom salts.
“To simplify what pH is, it’s basically a measurement comparing how much hydrogen we have in our soil versus a handful of other nutrients — mainly calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium and aluminum”
actually pH is the negative log of the H+ concentration in the soil, and pH only measures ACTIVE acidity at the time the test was done. pH in no way measures H+ versus other nutrients. That’s what cation extraction measures…also in order to properly apply amendments you would need to fnd what the total acidity of the soil is….not just the active which is what pH measures
Thank you for explaining that lime is not just the only thing I need to consider . After reading your article i feel it’s important enough to get a professional soil test ASAP, then I can make the proper changes. Thank you Bob
Ugggg. I just added lime to my garden. Without a soil test, I am obviously a beginner – I need your book 🙂
thank you, I was just about to add lime! I have already added seaweed, and compost. I will test for mag. and cal. first.
I read to apply lime to the soil to neutralize cat urine around my honeysuckles. Is there something better? More natural?
Geez. I was looking for lime application advice, my cactus, according to various sources, thrive in a slightly alkaline (7.1-7.5) soil. Now I have a whole new headache. I was just about to settle on dolomite, pellet form. Now I’m wondering what are more available at that level? I kind of hate you now.
What nutrients are more available at that level I meant to say. I know they like more P than N & K…as for the others, I’ve read tons. Nobody said. Just “give them compost, maybe a slow release fert, they’ll be fine”. Maybe they really like calcium? I limed before with composted manure, 5-10-7 slow release, perilite…and they grew HUGE. This time I forgot the lime and they’re all stunted.
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Thank you for this article. I was debating to buy garden lime or not. Then I decided against it and this article helped me confirm my decision.
I am going to use compost, coco fiber, good soil , rock dust, sea minerals to amend my raised beds and it worked wonders last year with my veggies and hopefully it will give the same result this year as well.
I found this when looking for info on correct soil for boxwoods (which, it turns out, need alkyln)
I have been an acid-loving gardener for decades. To consider how to ‘sweeten’ the soil is new to me. To start learning about overall soil health is a boon.
I use leaf mold for compost and soil. It seems to do well the first two or three years, the everything (not just the boxwoods) start to fail.
I have “seen the light’ on soil health, and am So Grateful to have stumbled across this site!! After reading this, am off to read other postings! I exxpect my gardens will be flourishing!
One point to throw in to readers/contributors — ‘mulch’ and ‘compost’ are used interchangeably in replies. They are quite different. Compost is an amendment, mulch is an evaporation/weed barrier of a sort.
And, ‘compost’ is so vague. That is why I stated ‘leaf mold’, and not compost.
Am feeling lucky to have found this site!!
i have not added lime on my farm land in over thirty years On my gut feeling besides being cheap. Now I know why I haven’t done so.
Your description of pH is wrong; pH is the ratio of hydrogen (H+) ions to hydroxide (OH-) ions. It has nothing to do with the other elements you mentioned.
That said, there is a point to your article beyond your incorrect description. You can choose products for pH adjustment based on what other nutrients your soil lacks.
For instance lime (CaOH) adds calcium, gypsum ( CaSO. 4· 2H2O) adds sulfer, dolomite (CaMg(CO3)2) adds Mg.
Forgot to specify: lime and dolomite raise pH, gypsum lowers it.
I may be wrong, but I thought gypsum added calcium without affecting ph.
Until this house, I never had to do anything but add compost and horse manure. I have always been able to put things in the ground and they grow.
We think the land was farmed out before the house was built 30 years ago. Pepper and tomato plants die, I have trouble with seed germination, when I can get beets to grow, they taste terrible, the lawn is all charlie and clover and on and on. So far compost and manure have not touched our soil problems, although acid loving plants like cucumbers and winter squash produce spectacularly.
After 40 years of very sucessful gardening without ever testing my soil….
Clearly I need your book!
Great rant! I don’t remember enough of my highschool chemistry, so I feel kind of lost. My biggest problem is the unavailability of soil tests. I garden almost exclusively in large pots and raised planters, because the 11 palms in my backyard choke out anything I put in the ground. Even if I could send a sample for testing, it’s not feasible to send one for each of probably 75+ pots/beds. I know there is equipment to do this for hydroponics, so why not for soil?