Colorado Master Gardenersm Program Colorado Gardener Certificate Training

Colorado State University Extension

CMG GardenNotes #222

Soil pH
Outline: pH, page 1 pH and nutrient availability, page 2 Managing alkaline soils, page 2 Lowering the pH, page 3 Raising the pH on acid soils, page 3 Home pH test kits, page 4

Soil pH is a measurement of the acidity or alkalinity of a soil. On the pH scale, 7.0 is neutral. Below 7.0 is acidic, and above 7.0 is basic or alkaline. A pH range of 6.8 to 7.2 is termed near neutral. Areas of the world with limited rainfall typically have alkaline soils while areas with higher rainfall typically have acid soils. In Colorado, the majority of our soils are on the alkaline side, having a pH of 7.0 to 8.3. Soils with a pH of 7.5 and higher generally have a high calcium carbonate content, known as free lime. In some mountain soils and older gardens that have been highly irrigated and cultivated for many years the pH may be in the neutral range (6.8 to 7.2). Many gardening books list the preferred pH for common plants (generally 6.0 to 7.2). For most plants, however, what is preferred and what is tolerated are not related. Most garden and landscape plants tolerate pH of 6.0 to 7.5. The exception is acid-loving plants, like blueberries, azaleas, and rhododendrons that need acid soil. Blue hydrangeas also require a pH lower than 5.0 to induce the blue flower color. [Figure 1]

Figure 1. Soil pH and Plant Growth
Soil Reaction pH >8.3 7.5 Plant Growth Too alkaline for most plants Iron availability becomes a problem on alkaline soils. 6.8 to 7.2 – “near neutral” 6.0 to 7.5 – acceptable for most plants

Alkaline soil Neutral soil Acid soil

7.2 7.0 6.8 6.0 5.5 <4.6

Reduced soil microbial activity Too acid for most plants


place a heaping table espoon of cr rumbled dry soil in a cup. Fo or details. the major problem with high pH is iron n chlorosis. 2 Iron chloro osis is commo on in Colorad do due to the alkaline a soils. On soils s with free lime l .3 7 and/or with h free lime cann not be adequat tely amended for f acidloving pl lants like blueb berries.5). In near-n neutral pH soils s rich with organic matter and d without free-lime. Soils wit th a pH above 7. Pla ants are less tol lerant of dry so oil conditions when w the pH is s high. If f the soil-vin negar mix bu ubbles. In Colora ado. This is effective in many m partsof Textbook the count try. zi inc and mangan nese become less available Figure 2. . This occurs as irr rigation leaches s out some naturally y occurring elem ments (calcium m and magnesiu um) contributin ng to the highe er pH. azaleas s. The growth of o plants that se ecrete weak aci ids into the soi il may also con ntribute to a gra adual pH change. . Moisten M it with h vinegar. the soil has free lim me.p and Nu pH utrient Ava ailability Soil pH is an importa ant chemical property p beca ause it affects s the availability of nutrients to plants an nd the activity y of soil micro oorganisms. refer r to CMG GardenN Notes #223. phosphorus. At extremel ly high pH. manage the so oil by giving ex xtra attention to o increasing th he organic matt ter. Ava ailability of nutrients based on soil pH Nitrogen Phosphorus Potassium Sulfur Calcium M Magnesium Iro on M Manganese Boron Copper and Zinc c M Molybdenum M Managing Alkaline Soils S In Colora ado soils with moderate to hi igh alkalinity (p pH above 7. and rhododen ndrons. 222-2 . using organ nic mulches. Lower ring the pH ks talk of sulfu ur applications to lower a soil l’s pH. a gard dener will no ot effectivel ly lower the t pH. Iro on Chlorosis. gardener rs may find a slight decrease d in soil l pH over many y decades. To test for free lime. an nd light frequent irrigation. However it is not effect tive in many Colorado C soils s due to high le evels of “free lim me” (calcium carbonate) c fou und in the soils s. The T influence e of pH on nutrient availability is i illustrated in i the Figure 2.

5 to 6.5 29.5 to 6. and the desired pH are used to determine the amount of elemental sulfur needed. lowering the pH. but it is not recommended as a soil acidifying amendment because of the potential for aluminum toxicity to plant roots.5 4.0 33. Iron sulfate can also be used to acidify soils. Elemental sulfur is one chemical that can be used to lower soil pH. The soil type. However. usually within three to four weeks following application. Incorporate sulfur to a depth of six inches. It may take several months to over a year to react with the soil. Fertilizers – Use of ammonium sulfate or urea as nitrogen fertilizer sources will also have a small effect on lowering soil pH in soils without free lime. The amount to add depends on the cation exchange capacity (nutrient-holding capacity) of the soil.5 7. Fertilizers that contain nitrogen in the nitrate form will have a slight effect to increase the pH. at ten pounds per 1000 square feet (maximum rate for crop application) may lower the pH from 7.5 3. The positive effects of acid peat will last a few years.5 8.3 and/or with free lime cannot be adequately amended for acid-loving plants. but unless other measures are used.5 to 6.3 to 7. clayey soils and soils with a pH 7. Do not apply more than nine pounds per 100 square feet in a single application. Raising the pH on Acid Soil On acid soils. existing pH. the pH of the soil will eventually increase. Soil higher in clay will have a higher cation exchange capacity and will require more materials to raise the pH.5 8. (see Table 1).0 to 6. For example. do not use these fertilizers at rates greater than those required to meet the nitrogen needs of the plants. If the soil pH is not in the desired range. The pH will be driven up with the high calcium in our irrigation water. Acid sphagnum peat incorporated into the soil prior to planting will help provide a favorable rooting environment for the establishment of acid-loving plants in near neutral soils. Soil with a pH above 7. 21-0-0. Test soil pH again 3 to 4 months after initial application. Table 1. The soil test will give recommendations on application rates 222-3 . reapply.2 Iron sulfate 1 Effective only on soils without free lime. A laboratory test called buffer index measures the responsiveness of the soil to lime applications. ammonium sulfate fertilizer.5 to 6. split applications to avoid excessive levels of soluble salts. the pH can be raised by adding lime (calcium carbonate).5 8. (See Table 2) Aluminum sulfate will also lower pH. This material reacts much faster than elemental sulfur. If higher rates are required. 2 Higher rates will be required on fine-textured.0 12. Pounds of Sulfur Needed to Lower Soil pH1 Material Sulfur pH Change 7.0 to 6.2.3 and above.5 8. the following products may help lower the pH. Incorporate peat at the rate of one to two cubic feet per plant.On soils without free lime. which is based on the soil’s clay content.5 Pounds per 100 Square Feet2 1. do the vinegar test.

by a grant from the Colorado Garden Show. retired) o o o o o o Colorado Master Gardener GardenNotes are available online at www.0–5. increase limestone application rates by 20%. Home pH Test Kits In alkaline soils. On soils with 4 to 5% organic matter. (USDA-ARS. can change results. Colorado State University Extension.000 square feet) Existing Soil pH 5.D. Copyright 2002-2011. If hydrated lime is used. in part. the more rapidly it becomes effective in lowering and pelletized limestone and assume a soil organic matter level of approximately 2% or less. • Avoid the use of hydrated or burned lime because it is hazardous to both humans and turf (can seriously burn skin and leaves). Dolomitic lime contains both calcium carbonate and dolomite [MgCa(CO3)2]. CMG GardenNotes may be reproduced. Inexpensive kits do not calibrate closely enough on alkaline soils to be meaningful..5–6. The finer the grind. Revised December 2011 222-4 .S. All Rights Reserved. Adrian Card and Carl Wilson (Colorado State University Extension) and Jean Reeder. Ph. Table 3 gives an estimated amount of lime to apply to raise a soil’s pH. Department of Agriculture and Colorado counties cooperating. Colorado State University. Inc. Most home soil test kits are designed for acid soils. Table 3. However.5–4.0 3. home pH kits have questionable value. Authors: David Whiting.000 square feet. On most soils.0 5. ground. on sandy soils low in organic matter. without change or additions. • Individual applications to turf should not exceed 50 pounds of limestone per 1. Extension programs are available to all without discrimination. such as how much water and the pH of the water used in the sample. U. both are generally satisfactory. for nonprofit educational use. crease application rates in the above table by 50% and apply no more than 10 pounds of hydrated or burned line per 1000 square feet of turf. It varies in how fine it has been ground.5 Sandy 20 30 40 50 Loamy 25 40 55 70 Clayey 35 50 80 80 • Lime application rates shown in this table are for dolomite.based on the buffer index rather than just the pH.4–5.5 3.0 for Turf Lime Application Rate (pound per 1.cmg. dolomitic lime may supplement low magnesium levels. and small changes in techniques. Colorado Master Gardener training is made possible. Calcitic lime mostly contains calcium carbonate (CaC03).colostate. No endorsement of products mentioned is intended nor is criticism implied of products not mentioned. Limestone Application Rates to Raise Soil pH to Approximately 7. Lime is commonly sold as ground agricultural limestone.

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