Decoding the Mystery of pH in the Garden
Did you know that beer, Swiss cheese and soil are all related? That's right. They are kissing cousins. The pH of things is one of the mysteries of daily life. It comes up when the conversation turns to beer making, swimming pool water, dairy products or garden soil. This degree of acidity or alkalinity, is expressed as a number is called pH. What's really being measured is the concentration of hydrogen (H) ions -- the more hydrogen ions there are, the more acid the thing being measured is.
If it sounds like a foreign language, don't worry. Fortunately, a clever scientist developed the pH scale. It runs from 0 to 14, where neutral is right in the middle at 7.0. Less than 7.0 is acidic (sour) and more is alkaline (sweet). Lemon juice, for example, has a low pH of 2.0 while baking soda measures a high 8.5. Take a look at the scale below to see pH values for common items:
What pH means to you, the gardener
Did you get all that? Don't worry. Let's take a look at pH from a practical gardening standpoint. Remember, below 7 is acidic; above 7 is alkaline. The good news is that most home garden plants prefer soil that's a little on the acidic side, around 6.5. Exceptions include potatoes and rhododendrons, which thrive in 5 or 5.5, and many desert plants that grow well in soil having a pH of up to 8.0. (See chart below). Thankfully, plants are usually pretty forgiving and will be happy as long as the reading is close. But some plants do have more specific requirements.
Why is pH is so important in gardening? Because soil acidity or alkalinity directly affects plant growth. If a soil is too sour or too sweet, plants cannot take up nutrients like nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). And plants need specific amounts of those compounds--just like we need proteins, carbohydrates and vitamins to grow--to thrive and fight off disease and stress. Let's look at it another way...
Nutrient uptake and pH
Have you ever been disappointed with the performance of your vegetables or flowers, even though you gave them the best care you could? Truth is, pH might have been the problem. Plant roots absorb minerals such as nitrogen and iron only when they are dissolved in water. Now if this soil "soup" solution (the mixture of water and nutrients in the soil) is too acid or alkaline, some nutrients won't be dissolved, and as a result, they are unavailable to plants. They are said to be "locked up."