There’s a little known fact about what Goldilocks did before sitting down to each Little Bear’s porridge. It’s true – she took a stroll through their gardens, and tested the soil pH. Papa Bear’s soil was too alkaline – 9.2! Mama Bear’s was far too acidic – 3.5. Baby Bear’s garden, though? Just right. A perfectly neutral 7.1.
Silly stories aside, if you want to have a garden to work in or if you wish to decorate with plants, shrubs, or trees, you’ll want to have a healthy yard. And every healthy yard starts with good soil. Without healthy soil, plants across all varieties may struggle and not grow to size or quality.
The fast track to determining your soil’s health is sending it in for testing or testing it yourself. These tests will give you various analytics that describe the characteristics of your soil. For example, how much organic matter your soil has, different levels of nutrients, whether it is sandy or clay, and its pH. If you’ve lived here in Colorado long enough, you’re probably more familiar with backyard beaches than lush tropical oasis’s. Which is why testing your soil, either through a lab or on your own, is so important! So, before you do anything in that space, think about what you’re going to grow there, and what your soil needs to make it happen! For example, if you’re looking to install new plantings or sod during a drought, you’ll have to have your soil tested before you can get a permit to water outside the restrictions. When you are amending your soil you must also keep in mind the type of plants you want to grow. Certain plants prefer more acidic soil, like blueberries and azaleas.
How to test the pH level in your soil yourself
To test your soil’s pH levels you’ll need a simple pH test probe. Visit your hardware store or home décor store, or order one online. They can be had for as little as $45.
- Dig a small hole in your yard: make sure the hole is 5-10 centimeters deep.
- Use your hands or a small tool to break up the soil. Remove any twigs or rocks.
- Fill the hole with distilled water. Don’t use tap water (it’s usually too alkaline) and don’t use rainwater because it’s acidic.
- Insert the pH test probe into the mud at the bottom of your hole. Test the probe first to ensure that the batteries are charged and it’s functioning.
- Leave the pH tester in the mud for 1-2 minutes then take a reading. Consult the chart below to find the pH level of your soil. A reading near 7 is neutral.
- Repeat these steps in several different areas where you plan to place a garden or fauna.
If you’re the MacGyver type and would rather employ a more natural method, you can test pH levels using red cabbage and boiling water.
Professional Soil Testing
If you’d rather have a professional test your soil, Timberline offers basic soil testing. However, if you would like a more comprehensive test, the Colorado State University Soil Lab offers 2 different test with 4 different additions to choose from. CSU offers a routine garden and landscape soil test that evaluates the soil fertility status for growing lawns, gardens and topsoil as well as a manure, compost and potting soil analysis. If you’re interested in taking the test one step further, they can test the texture of your soil, as well as the percentage of sodium, chromium, molybdenum, cadmium, and lead, and the carbon/nitrogen ratio.
You may be asking yourself now: how do these affect my lawn?
First, knowing the texture of your soil can help you manage water. Having a high clay percentage means you should water more often, but with less water. Sandy soils need more water, more often. The hydrometer (texture) addition to the soil test can help you decide how to water more efficiently.
The sodium test evaluates the SAR, which is the ratio of sodium to calcium, potassium and magnesium in your soil. A high concentration of sodium can prevent water from penetrating your soil and prevent aeration around the roots. It is also very detrimental to plant growth.
Chromium, Molybdenum, Cadmium & Lead
Heavy metals are often found in industrial waste areas. Soil in Denver and other municipal areas have been affected by smelters and gas refineries, so soil tests are valuable for gardeners. Especially if you are planning to grow edibles, knowing the metal content can prevent your vegetables from being contaminated with dangerous chemicals. Heavy metals can cause nutrient deficiencies as well.
If you’re noticing that your turf is yellowing or very splotchy, you might have an abundance of carbon. Nitrogen deficient plants turn yellow and they may not flower or bear fruit. Especially if you use manure to fertilize your lawn, a carbon/nitrogen evaluation can help you determine what balance is needed.
How to change your soil pH level
Consult with a specialist before doing anything to your soil. The most common way to increase the pH of acidic soil is the use of agricultural lime, which you can purchase at farm stores, most hardware stores, and outdoor or gardening centers. You may also be able to use burnt lime, oyster shells, or firewood ash. Another vital addition to your soil is organic material. You can have a sandy soil that has a great PH but if you don’t add organic material your plant material will not thrive.
For soil high in alkaline you can apply aluminum sulphate or more simply you can build a compost and use the excess. You can also use manure or plant feed.
Keep in mind, you will have to continue to amend your soil. Since pH is naturally occurring in the area you test, the changes will not be a one-time fix. Here at Timberline, we will typically bring in good soil when planting or installing sod. That is the only way to prevent frequent amendments.
If you would like us to test your soil for you, we are happy to do so and we can also provide soil amendments if you wish. Contact our experts today and we can get started!