Why you need to check your soil & what you need to do

We can't say it enough. Feed your soil, feed your plants! But sometimes, feeding your soil isn't enough. Nutrient density is one thing. Nutrient availability is another.
Soil pH actually has a lot to do with whether or not nutrients are even made available to your plants for uptake. We've provided you with the basics of soil pH and some ideas for you to bring your soil back into balance so your plants can thrive.
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Why checking your soil matters & how to check for soil pH
Gardening experts typically recommend that you check your soil's pH when first starting your garden, and every few years after that. Here's why: pH refers to how acidic or alkaline your soil is, and it's measured on a scale of 0 to 14. The lower the number, the more acidic the soil. The higher the number, the more alkaline the soil. And a value of 7 means the soil is neutral. Understanding the basics of soil pH is important because it is key to nutrient availability. According to Rodale's Organic Life, majority of nutrients in the soil become most available to plants when soil is slightly acidic to neutral, somewhere between a value of 6 and 7. This is the range at which most plants, including vegetables, flowers, and fruits, thrive. A few plants are exceptions, including blueberries and potatoes, which prefer more acidic soil.
The following chart gives you an idea of the relationship between nutrient availability and soil pH:
In addition, according to Lee Reich at Fine Gardening, pH impacts important soil organisms, including earthworms and microorganisms as well. And, like most plants, most soil organisms, which are vital to healthy soil, thrive in slightly acidic to neutral soils. These critters are natural composters, breaking down organic material and feeding your soil, so creating an ideal environment for them is in your best interest.
Adjusting soil pH:
Several factors influence your soil's pH, including the area you live in (developed or rural), what your landscape's natural soil type is (clay, silt, sand), and typical weather patterns. For instance, Rodale's Organic Life warns that in developed areas, the native topsoil is often removed during construction and replaced with non-native soil. So, if you live in an urban or sub-urban setting, you may not be dealing with native soil from the start. Also, in areas with high rainfall amounts nutrients like calcium can leach out of the soil, which usually results in more acidic conditions. Keep the texture of your soil in mind, too. In order to really affect the pH, clay soil will require more amendment material than sandy soil.
All of that being said, the first step to adjusting your soil's pH (or figuring out if it needs adjusting at all) is to get your soil tested, or test it yourself. Without knowing your soil's current pH, you'll just be guessing, which could do more harm than good. Your state's or local county's extension office should be able to give you more information on soil testing. If you opt to use a store-bought kit, read product reviews beforehand and buy multiples to triple-check the results for consistency. DIY kits aren't always as accurate.
The most straight forward way to influence your soil's pH is to use either limestone or sulfur. Limestone is used to make soil more alkaline, and sulfur is used to make soil more acidic. Both come in powdered forms, which you can work into the top few inches of soil at the time of application. However, unless your pH is significantly out of range, we recommend a more natural route for addressing soil pH: Organic matter. Adding sulfur and limestone year after year to your garden may actually do harm. For instance, eXtension says that adding too much limestone can result in the limited availability of certain nutrients, such as manganese, iron, and zinc. So, don't get carried away. If your pH level is within a half point of the optimal range, no lower than 5.5 and no higher than 7.5, your soil may not need amending at all. Grow it Organically actually says that soil pH fluctuates throughout the year by up to half a point anyway, staying more alkaline during cooler months and more acidic during the summer due to bacteria being more active.
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Also according to Grow it Organically, organic matter acts as a buffer for soil, meaning that the pH is less subject to changing in soils with a lot of organic matter present. Plants are generally healthier when grown in soils with high levels of organic matter and they are often able to absorb enough nutrients even if the pH isn't ideal. Overall, organic matter allows plants to better tolerate more acidic or more alkaline soils. Good organic materials to add are compost and aged horse manure. In addition, if you want to lower your soil's pH over time consider mulching with pine needles, which tend to be more acidic. For a quicker more tangible solution, Grow it Organically suggests trying to lower soil pH with leftover coffee: Dilute cold coffee, one part water to one part coffee. Coffee grounds are great to add to your garden as organic material, but the organic acids in the coffee are mostly filtered out during the brewing process.
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