Understanding Soil Health and and the Importance of Soil Testing

ProPlugger Co - Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Soil Sampling ToolImagine you've been busy working all day and haven't had a chance to eat. When you finally get to the door of your favorite restaurant, you pull the handle only to find that the door is locked. Through the window you can see the staff busily preparing food, but try as you might, you are unable to get anyone's attention. It's easy to imagine how frustrated you'd be.

Surprisingly, your lawn and garden may be facing this same desperate situation. If the pH level in your soil is either too high (alkaline) or too low (acidic), then the nutrients that your lawn or garden desperately need could be present in the soil but unable to be absorbed by the plant’s root system. Getting your soil's pH right is the key, so to speak, to the restaurant's door.

Click here for soil sampler tool.

What is pH?

ProPlugger pH chartClick the chart (right) to find USDA soil testing services near you.

Soil pH is the measure of the acidity or alkalinity of your soil. It is measured on a scale of 0 to 14 with the lower numbers (0-6) representing more acidic soil and the upper numbers (8-14) more alkaline or base soil. Balanced or neutral soil has a pH in the middle (7). The pH scale is logarithmic, where every change in 1 on the scale equals a change of 10 times in magnitude of the acidity level. For example, if your soil has a pH of 6 and your neighbor’s has a pH of 7, then your soil is 10 times more acidic than your neighbor's soil.

When a soil’s pH is either too high or too low, the grass or plants growth will suffer (see nutrient availability chart above). For example, Zoysia Grass (aka Zoysiagrass) thrives in slightly acidic soils with a pH of between 6.0 and 6.5. If the soil has a higher or lower pH, then the Zoysia turf will be thin, pale and weed infested.

If the homeowner is unaware of the soil’s pH but sees only a thin, weak stand of turf with weeds, they are likely to start using fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and even fungicides to chase symptoms instead of dealing with the root cause of the problem.

All of these “treatments” are expensive and do little to remedy the root cause of the problem. Worse, they also kill millions of beneficial organisms which are vital for healthy soil, further weakening the lawn.

First Step: Test Soil pH:

Soil Sampling Tool

Soil Sampler Tool

The first step to testing your soil's pH is to pull soil samples from your lawn or garden. The 5-IN-1 Planting Tool makes a great soil sampler tool, making this part of the job quick and easy without requiring you to bend over. It pulls sample plugs from 2" to 6" deep and can pull up to a dozen before needing to be emptied.

Once you have your soil samples, you can test them yourself using a test kit available at local lawn and garden retailers. You can also have the samples tested by a professional testing service or your state agriculture extension service. They can test for pH as well as various major and trace minerals and organic content. The important thing is to get to know your soil, starting with its pH level. Understanding your soil, and what it needs, is the first step to take on the road to a healthy, lush lawn and a vibrant garden.

How to Adjust Your Soil's pH

Critical Steps:

  • Find out what the optimal pH level is for your target grass or plant.
  • Measure your soil’s pH, comparing it to the desired level.
  • Adjust the pH up or down as needed (see below)

Balancing pH "The Great Neutralizer":

ProPlugger Compost to balance soil pHThe most beneficial method for adjusting your soil's pH is adding organic material, such as compost, to your soil every year. This method can be used to bring both acidic and alkaline soils to a balanced pH level, while increasing microbial life and improving the structure of your soil.

Raising Soil pH:

Raising pH quickly can be accomplished by adding a lime to the lawn. Pelletized Limestone is relatively fast acting, easy to handle and readily available at lawn and garden centers. Make sure you follow label directions carefully.

Lowering soil pH:

Lowering pH is a slower and more challenging process. Again, the best method is to consistently add organic matter to you soil. Another method used to lower the soil pH is to add sulfur to the soil which, over time, is changed by soil bacteria into sulfuric acid. It is important to remember that both methods require considerable time to effect the desired change, but  only organic material, added to your soil, simultaneously increases the overall health of the soil.