I’m always looking for quick tips to make my gardening chores easier. I ran across a couple of gardening hacks about testing your soil pH without a kit and I thought I would try them out and see what I need to do with my garden. Let’s do a little kitchen chemistry!
You can measure your pH level by pouring white vinegar over a couple of teaspoons of soil. If it does not fizz, then you can turn a couple of teaspoons of soil into a mud mixture and pour baking soda over it. You can also use red cabbage by simmering it with water, straining the blue/purple juice, and pouring a couple of teaspoons of soil into the juice. The color will give you a good idea of your soil’s pH level.
Read on for a more in-depth explanation of how to use household items to determine your soil’s needs.
Why Should You Care if Your Soil Is Alkaline or Acidic?
Knowing your soil pH is the key to understanding if essential minerals will be available to the roots of your plants. You will also know which soil “amendments” are best for your garden (Here are the whys and the hows of improving soil structure, in short: 4 Reasons to Improve Garden Soil.)
What’s more, you will be able to determine if all the hard work you put in your yard or garden pays off. For instance, if the soil is too acidic or too alkaline, nutrients will have a hard time dissolving in water and reaching plants’ root systems.
As a result, plants outside the range for a particular crop will struggle and stress out, leading to poor harvest from one year to another. Most beginner gardeners will try to fix the issue by applying store-bought chemical fertilizers in a desperate bid to address what they believe is just a nutrient deficiency.
However, improper soil pH affects not just nutrient availability in soil but also vegetable crops to absorb the nutrients already present in the soil. So, instead of recklessly applying fertilizers to fix the issue and potentially causing fertilizer burn and other problems while you’re at it, measure the soil’s pH first to see whether that is the real issue.
So, a quick amendment to achieve the best soil pH for your plants and seeds to thrive can be added just in time.
Plus, fungi are less likely to affects your plants if the soil is alkaline and dry enough (below pH 4.5, expect plenty of fungal issues). Soil is too acidic under pH 7 and too alkaline above pH 7. Most plants thrive in slightly acidic soil (pH 5.5 to 7) so reaching a balance is of the essence in gardening matters too.
So, testing your garden’s soil pH is critical for the well-being of your plants in the long run. You’ll need to consider not only soil pH but soil texture as well (a no-fuss DIY method to determining the soil’s texture is the “mason jar test.“) But soil pH is the critical indicator of the health status of a garden.
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The pH of your soil will determine which plants grow better in your garden and which ones will struggle (without amendments).
According to The San Francisco Chronicle,
If you live in an area with alkaline soil — which has a pH above 7.0 — you have two options. You can either take measures to lower the pH, or you can choose plants well-suited to growing in alkaline conditions. If you take the latter path, you have a wide variety of plants to choose from.”
You can lower the alkalinity of your soil by adding organic materials like pine needles, peat moss, and composted leaves. You should always make small changes, over time -so make your soil amendments and wait for it to work before making any more.
According to the article, Your Garden’s Soil, in Mother Earth News, “Raising the organic matter content of the soil will usually move the pH of both acidic and alkaline soils toward the neutral range. This is because organic matter plays a buffering role, protecting soil from becoming overly acidic or alkaline.
Finished compost usually has a near-neutral pH, so regular infusions of compost should be the primary method you use to improve the soil with extreme pH issues. If your pH readings are only slightly acidic or slightly alkaline, compost and organic mulches may be the only amendments you need to keep your crops happy and your garden growing well.”
Learn two homemade soil pH testing methods
#1 – You Can Test Your Garden Soil pH with Vinegar and Baking Soda
Fortunately, you can test your garden soil pH without a soil test kit for a fraction of the price. Collect 1 cup of soil from different parts of your garden and put 2 spoonfuls into separate containers. Add 1/2 cup of white vinegar to the soil. If it fizzes, you have alkaline soil, with a pH between 7 and 8.
If it doesn’t fizz after doing the vinegar test, then add distilled water to the other container until 2 teaspoons of soil are muddy. Add 1/2 cup baking soda. If it fizzes you have acidic soil, most likely with a pH between 5 and 6.
If your soil doesn’t react at all it is neutral with a pH of 7 and you are very lucky!
This test was fun to do. After I added the vinegar there was no reaction in my bowl and I thought my kitchen science experiment didn’t work.
Then I added distilled water to another bowl of soil and poured on just a sprinkling of baking soda. Instant fizz! So much fizz that I could see it immediately and hear it working. There’s no doubt – I have acidic soil in my new garden.
#2 – You Can Do a Red Cabbage Water pH Test at Home
Measure 2 cups of distilled water into a saucepan. Cut up and add 4-6 red cabbage leaves. Simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and allow it to sit for up to 30 minutes.
Strain off the liquid – which will be purple/blue. This will have a neutral pH of 7.
To test: Add 2 teaspoons of garden soil to a jar and a few inches of cabbage water. Stir and wait for 20-30 minutes. Check the color. If it turns reddish/pink, your soil is acidic. If it is sea blue/ yellow-green, your soil is alkaline. Neutral soil is usually purplish/blue.
Don’t add too much soil to each jar as the cabbage juice may turn grayish-black and you’ll need to redo the test. Here’s a chart with what colors you should expect for each pH reading.
Important Notes Before You Start Off
- Why is it important to use red cabbage in this test? Unlike white cabbage, red cabbage contains a coloring compound, anthocyanin, which turns yellowish green when in a basic (alkaline) environment (pH > 7.0) and reddish pink when in an acidic environment (pH < 7).
- You can use the red cabbage pH test to test your tap water hardness. Hard water is usually alkaline (pH 8 or more) due to the minerals in it. That’s why it is critical to perform the cabbage soil test with distilled water, which has a neutral pH.
- Tap water or well water may be too alkaline while rain water may be too acidic (it usually stands at 5.6 pH) for this DIY soil pH test.
- Before you start testing the soil, you can test the pH of various ingredients around the house and garden in small cups to see which color is associated with which pH number: Egg white has pH 8, baking soda (1 tsp) has pH 8.4, black tea – pH 4.9, cow’s milk 6.5 – 6.7 pH (depending on how it’s treated), potatoes – pH 6.1, vinegar pH 2.5, coffee grounds are very close to pH neutral (6.8) so they are often used as a natural buffer in the cabbage soil test (after 30 minutes they should turn the cabbage juice clear).
Is Red Cabbage Better than Litmus Paper or a Digital Meter?
Surprisingly, the answer is yes. Litmus paper is paper treated with a mix of dyes derived from lichens, which change colors depending on the pH.
While litmus paper has little color variety (red for acidic conditions, purple for neutral, and blue for alkaline conditions), red cabbage has a much wider range of colors, which can help better estimate the pH in the soil.
Also, the red cabbage soil test is believed to be even more accurate than digital meters as it has some clear advantages:
- Unlike a meter, the cabbage test allows the soil to soak in the juice and release elements that after interacting with the anthocyanin in the cabbage juice will lead to a more accurate result;
- Cabbage doesn’t require calibration after each soil sample; even some of the most expensive digital meters need to be calibrated before each test, as a result, you can test as many soil samples as you wish at the same time;
- It is cheaper (around $1 versus $15-$200).
Acidic Soil-Loving Plants
There are quite a few fruit and vegetable plants that thrive in acidic soil. These include (I’ve added the optimal soil pH for each plant):
- Blueberries (soil pH 4.5 to 5.5)
- Beans (soil pH 6.0 to 7.0)
- Broccoli (soil pH 6.0 to 7.0)
- Beets (soil pH 6.5 to 8.0)
- Bok choy (soil pH 6.5–7.0)
- Garlic (soil pH 6.0 to 7.5)
- Kale (soil pH 5.5 to 6.5)
- Lettuce and other leafy greens (soil pH 6.0 to 7.0)
- Parsley (soil pH 6.0 to 7.0)
- Peas (soil pH 6.0 to 7.5)
- Potatoes (soil pH 4.8 to 6.0)
- Onions (soil pH 6.0 to 7.0)
- Spinach (soil pH 6.0 to 7.5)
However, you should do some research before adding these plants to your garden as some may love acidic conditions while others may only tolerate them.
You could also consider crop rotation as acidic soils tend to become depleted of critical nutrients such as phosphorus and packed with elements that may prove poisonous to plants, such as aluminum. (Here’s a critical post by Preparedness Mama on properly feeding your soil – SMART Composting: Turn Your Spoil into Soil)
You can also read more on crop rotation and why it is a must for any organic vegetable garden in our “Vegetable Families and Crop Rotation” post.
If you want to know more about soil conditions and prep for houseplants you can read more at “Optimum Ph for Houseplants”.
Alkaline Friendly Plants
If your soil tests slightly alkaline (pH between 7 and 8) you’ll be able to easily grow these vegetables without making amendments:
- Artichoke (soil pH 6.5 to 7.5)
- Asparagus (soil pH 6.0 to 8.0)
- Brussels sprouts (soil pH 6.0 to 6.8)
- Cabbage and Chinese cabbage (soil pH 6.0 to 7.5)
- Cantaloupe (soil pH 6.0 to 7.5)
- Grape vines (soil pH 5.5 to 8)
- Leeks (soil pH 6.0 to 6.8)
- Lima beans (soil pH 6.0 to 7.0)
- Mustard and other leafy greens (soil pH 5.5 to 6.8)
- Orange (soil pH 6.0 to 7.5)
- Peach tree (soil pH 6.0 to 7.0)
- Spinach (soil pH 6.5 to 7.5)
- Sugar beets (soil pH 6.0 to 8.0)
- Swiss chard (soil pH 6.0 and 7.0)
- Turnips (soil pH 5.5 to 6.8)
Here’s a handy list of delicious but insanely low-maintenance perennials every gardener should not miss: 5 Delicious Fruits and Vegetables You Can Plant Once And They Will Keep Coming Back Every Year.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do you correct pH in soil?
The easiest way to correct your soil’s pH level is to get some acidic fertilizer and apply it according to the written instructions. Regardless of which product you choose, it is important to follow the instructions to a pulp, even if it means buying extra equipment like a special spreader or applicator to get it right. The reason is that one brand of fertilizer might be more concentrated than others, so over-applying would cause a massive spike in the pH levels.
What happens when soil pH is too high?
When a plant’s soil pH increases, which is what would happen when its food’s pH is too high, the plant’s ability to absorb certain nutrients is disrupted. As a result, some nutrients cannot be absorbed properly. The soil’s high pH prevents the iron present in the soil from changing into a form the plant can absorb. In short, it basically deprives plants of important nutrients. Do yourself a favor and fertilize the soil so that the pH will always be as close to neutral as possible.
Does water pH affect soil pH?
Soil can be affected by water depending on its texture. Soil particles that are smaller, like clays and clay loams, are more influenced than coarse, sandy soils. Fine-textured soils have a higher number of very small particles called colloids. These colloids are sites where positively charged ions are retained. The ability of soil to retain these ions is called its cation exchange capacity. Ions in the soil solution are exchanged with ions on the colloidal particles. Negative ions in the soil solution have less influence on soil pH. In short, yes, soil can be affected by water pH but it depends on the type and even on how deep the water has managed to penetrate.
To Wrap It Up
Knowing the pH of your soil will help your plants grow by absorbing nutrients better from the soil. Their ability to do it depends on the nature of the soil and its combination of sand, silt, clay, and organic matter.
The makeup of soil (soil texture) and its acidity (pH) determine the extent to which nutrients are available to plants. Use these 2 ways to test soil pH and have a great garden this year.
Hi, I’m Gabriela and I’m a prepping freak with a knack for frugal living – as if you could have one without the other. I’m also interested in all things DIY, green living, and homesteading. I’ve been dreaming of a self-sufficient, one-acre organic farm ever since I realized how fragile urban life really is. It takes one push of a button for millions to be left without running water. It takes no more than a four- to seven-day disruption in a city’s food supply for complete mayhem to break out. So, I’m now dutifully working toward keeping my loved ones safe when the brown matter (inevitably) hits the oscillating ceiling device, but I also like to share what I’m learning with fellow likeminded folks as I go.