How To Test Soil pH Without A Kit

On the table are a box of baking soda, a bottle of vinegar, two jars filled with a soil sample, and a jar filled with distilled water.

To get the most out of your plants and crops, you need to know the soil pH of your garden. Soil pH matters while nourishing your plants as fruits and vegetables prefer different soil pH levels.

pH level is the deciding factor whether a plant will grow or not in your garden. It also means the scale of potential hydrogen in your garden, measuring how many hydrogen ions are in your soil. To make it simple, it is the measurement of how alkaline (sweet) or acidic (sour) your soil is.

Knowing your soil pH will help you plan your garden and make your plants grow to its best potential. Plants not sitting in its ideal pH level might not survive as they prefer a different level of acidity or alkalinity.

Checking the soil pH when preparing your garden soil is the right way to check your soil pH level. Doing it this way will allow you to amend the soil to provide your plant’s requirements and also realize when the crops are already reaching their maturity.

The reason why soil pH matters a lot in gardening is that when the pH is too low, it can cause stunted root growth and interfere with the plant’s uptake of nutrients. And when it’s too high, the high soil acidity may be packed with elements that are poisonous to the plants.


Test Soil pH Without A Testing Kit


To see how acidic or alkaline your soil is, a soil pH test is done to measure the number of hydrogen ions in the soil water.

You can, of course, send a soil sample to a reliable soil testing lab for a pH test. However, there are quick and simple ways to test if your soil is acidic or alkaline without purchasing the costly soil test kit.

You can create your own homemade soil acidity-alkalinity test with items commonly found around your home.

You’ll need these following items:

  • A small amount of soil as sample
  • White vinegar
  • Baking soda
  • Water- using distilled water is highly recommended, as using tap water may not be neutral and may affect the quality of the test results.
  • 3  containers

To get nearly accurate results even when getting the test at home, it is also necessary to get a clean sample of soil.

  • Dig several holes about 4-6 inches deep in the area you want to plant, collect a small amount of soil that will serve as your sample.
  • For the soil sample, remove any existing debris like rocks and make sure to break up hard compacted soil.
  • Combine all the soil samples gathered from each hole and mix well.
  • The combined soil will serve as your soil sample when making your pH test at home using different methods.

Test Your Garden Soil pH with Vinegar

A soil pH test using vinegar is to measure soil alkalinity.

  • Place a small amount of sample soil in a jar.
  • Add an adequate amount of distilled water and shake the jar until the mixture turns muddy.
  • Add ½ cup of vinegar and observe the mixture for some reaction. 
  • If the soil starts to fizz or get foam, your soil is likely an alkaline.

Do the pH Soil Test at Home with Baking Soda

A soil pH test using baking soda is to measure soil acidity.

  • Place a small amount of sample soil in a jar.
  • Add an adequate amount of distilled water and shake the jar until the mixture turns muddy.
  •  Add ½ cup of baking soda and shake thoroughly, and observe for the mixture reaction.
  • If the soil starts to fizz or get foam, your soil is acidic.

Summing-up:

If your mixture does not react with any of the tests, your soil is likely neutral.

The Red Cabbage Soil pH Test

A bulb of red cabbage cut in half.

The soil pH test using cabbage juice is to measure both the soil alkalinity and acidity in a single method.

Many believe the red cabbage soil test to be more precise than digital meters because of its advantages like the following:

  • The red cabbage contains anthocyanin, a pigment that turns yellowish-green in an alkaline environment where pH is greater than 7.0 and a reddish-pink with acidic conditions with a pH less than 7.0.
  • The red cabbage test allows the soil to soak in the cabbage juice, and after consolidating with anthocyanin, release elements that lead to a logical soil pH test result.
  • The red cabbage pH test is also excellent in measuring your tap water hardness. Tap water is most likely alkaline with a pH measurement of 8 and sometimes more than that scale due to the minerals in it.
  • Rainwater, on the other hand, has a 5.6 pH measurement, which is acidic. That’s why it is essential to do the red cabbage soil pH test using distilled water, which has a neutral pH.

Here’s How to Do the Red Cabbage Soil pH Test:

  • Pour 2 cups of distilled water into a clean saucepan.
  • Add a cup of diced red cabbage into the pan.
  • Simmer the mixture for about 5 minutes.
  • Remove the pan from heat.
  • Let the mixture cool down.
  • Strain the liquid into a container and set aside.
  • The cabbage juice should look like a bluish-purple.
  • Pour ½ of the juice into a separate container.
  • Add 2 teaspoons of the sample soil to each container.
  • Stir the mixture thoroughly.
  • Observe any color changes to both containers filled with cabbage juice and soil.
  • It usually takes 30 minutes to see the results.
  • If the liquid turns yellowish-green, your soil is alkaline.
  • If the liquid turns reddish- pink, your soil is high in acidity. 

Vinegar, baking soda, and red cabbage juice DIY tests will provide a way to determine your soil pH range, although it is considered as less precise than laboratory methods.


Amend Your Soil for Optimal Growing Conditions

A small amount of peat moss on a wooden table.
Image by: groworganic.com

Now that you know the pH level of your soil or at least have a rough estimate on what plants to grow in your garden, you can now add amendments necessary to balance the soil pH level and provide optimal growing conditions.

Soil amendments are sometimes confused with fertilizers, but these components represent a different and essential role in the plant’s growing cycle.

Amending your soil also means boosting your growing media by adding some materials necessary to balance the current pH of your garden soil.

An amendment also reduces soil compaction, helps retain moisture, and allows sufficient aeration giving way to the water and nutrients to reach the entire plant roots.

Fertilizers add nutrients to the dirt while amendments, on the other hand, modify the current conditions of the soil itself.

Experts call the soil physical modification a tilth, which is a favorable soil condition that implies healthy growth, allowing the crops to thrive.

Also, a soil with good tilth encourages other functions, such as water infiltration and aeration, which benefit both crop and environment. Good soil is often aggregation because it promotes advantageous processes.

Soil amendment should be mixed thoroughly into the soil to do its work. It is less effective and will interfere with water and air movement in reaching into the plant’s root if you merely bury them under the soil.

Knowing which soil amendments are best for your garden is essential. Doing so will allow you to determine if all the hard work you’ve put in your garden pays off.

Common soil amendments include:

  • Mushroom Compost

Mushroom compost is a mixture of straw, peat moss, chicken manure, hulls, corn cobs and other organic components. Often used for one round of growing and an amendment for the backyard garden.

  • Sphagnum Peat Moss

Sphagnum peat moss is an excellent water absorber and often used to amend the soil by slowly releasing onto the plant roots. It modifies compacted soil, provides adequate aeration, and helps prevent the leaching of nutrients.

Composted manure, such as chicken dung and more, adds organic matter and helps increase the soil water retention. It provides Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium to your plants.

  • Lime

Lime contains calcium carbonate and magnesium carbonate.

When added to the soil, lime works to increase the soil’s pH, making the soil less acidic and more alkaline.

Although lime contains essential nutrients for the plants to grow healthy, it’s not a substitute for fertilizer.

Its primary role is to modify soil pH and neutralize soil acidity, which can improve the availability of plant nutrients.

  • Sulfur

Sulfur is an element used as a soil amendment to decrease the pH or acidity of the soil. However,  sulfur reacts slowly to the media, which is why you should not expect quick modification.

It will take a few months and even longer to alter soil pH to the desired level since the process of sulfur oxidation is the result of microbial activity.

  • Perlite

Adding perlite to your clayey and compacted soil can increase aeration without altering the soil pH. Perlite is a lightweight particle that holds moisture readily available for the plants to use.

Its size and shape give way and provide better airflow to the plant roots. An annual application of perlite for about three years can significantly improve the condition of your clayey soil.

  • Gypsum

Gypsum is a calcium sulphate highly regarded as beneficial for breaking up compact soil, especially clayey soil. Its primary uses are to eliminate excess sodium in the soil and is excellent in adding calcium.

  • Worm Casting

Worm casting encourages plant growth more than any natural product available in the market.

They’re water-soluble, making them the most potent soil amendment that is absorbed by the plants, right after you fed them.

Casting enhances your soil almost instantly. In addition to that, they have high nitrogen potency, potash and calcium.


How Soil Turns Acidic Or Alkaline

There are a few reasons why your soil is acidic or alkaline, and knowing such factors may help you understand why they are in those conditions.

Local climate will give you a hint of what is likely the pH of your soil.
In high rainfall areas, soils are often acidic, and alkaline soil, on the contrary, is usually found in low-rainfall areas.

Symptoms of Acidic Soil (low pH)

Here are some additional clues to determine whether your soil is acidic.

  • If weeds and moss fill your garden, it is a sign that you need to raise the pH.
  • Research shows that these culprits thrive in acidic soil and indicates that your plants are suffocating in acidity and need a pH boost.
  • Another hint to look out for if your soil needs a pH boost is when fertilizer doesn’t seem to work progressively.
  • Spending a fortune adding fertilizer to your plants, yet all that hard work will be in vain if the soil pH is not raised.
  • The proper soil pH helps the fertilizer to perform its function. It also helps release the soil nutrients making them readily available for your plant to use.
  • Feeding your plants with fertilizer, not in the right pH, will prevent fertilizer from executing its fullest potential.

Symptoms of Alkaline Soil (high pH)

  • Pale, yellowing of leaves and dying plants, are all the results of high pH in your soil.
  • When the pH of your soil reaches the scale of 8 and above, your plants will not be able to absorb micro and macro-nutrients.
  • Unable to absorb the nutrients will result in unusual purple leaves, rust spots, and dead brown spots.

Alkaline Friendly Crops

Artichoke with two flower buds.

Adding organic materials like peat moss, composted leaves, and pine needles can lower the alkalinity of your soil. Amending your soil by making small changes can give an ideal pH level over time.

If you live in an area surrounded by alkaline soil, you have two options to have a successful garden. You can choose to lower the alkalinity of your garden soil or get plants well-suited to growing in alkaline conditions. If you opt to take the latter option, here are a few varieties of plants you can choose from.

  • Artichoke
  • Asparagus
  • Austrian Pine
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Cabbage and Chinese cabbage
  • Cantaloupe
  • Grapevines
  • Honeysuckle vine
  • Lavender
  • Leeks
  • Lima beans
  • Lilac
  • Mock orange
  • Mustard and other leafy greens
  • Orange
  • Peach-tree
  • Spinach
  • Sugar beets
  • Swiss chard
  • Turnips

Acid Loving Plants

A cluster of blueberries on a farm.

Here are a few acid-loving fruit and vegetable plants that thrive well in acidic soil.

  • Azaleas
  • Blueberries
  • Beans
  • Beech trees
  • Broccoli
  • Beets
  • Bok Choy
  • Daffodils
  • Garlic
  • Kale
  • Lettuce and other leafy greens
  • Magnolia
  • Parsley
  • Peas
  • Potatoes
  • Onions
  • Spinach

However, it is best to do some research before adding them to your garden. Some may love acidic conditions, while others may merely tolerate them.

Considering a crop rotation is one of the smart ways to garden in acidic soil. Acidic soil tends to deplete essential nutrients like phosphorus. Also, they are packed with elements like aluminum that are poisonous to plants.


Considerations of the Soil pH

The pH range in the soil indicates acidity and alkalinity, but in saying that, most garden plants grow best in neutral or slightly acidic soil.

Some plants became tolerant of certain soil conditions, but if the soil pH is too high, it can be hard for your plant roots to absorb the available nutrients fully.

On the other hand, if the soil pH is too low, the plant roots may take up nutrients excessively. It will make the digestion process harder and may result in an overload system, causing the plants to weaken and die.

If you’re not sure about your soil pH, you can test it with one of the inexpensive DIY soil pH tests we’ve shared above.

However, you may also want to confirm the results in a reputable soil testing lab and receive recommendations on how to correct the pH of your soil.

Lime is another exceptional solution you can use to raise the pH of your soil. This element is less potent, making the raising process slow. It may be slow, but this may be a perfect match for you.

However, the amount required depends on soil texture as clayey and sandy soil need more than others. Wood ashes and oyster shells can also make acid soil more neutral.

Sulfur, on the other hand, is the least expensive choice to lower soil pH, but sometimes, experts also recommend ferrous sulfate and aluminum sulfate instead. Iron in ferrous sulfate can aid plants with poor health.

If your soil is too acidic or alkaline, and you need to alter the pH level by more than one point on the scale, it is always best to ask for the help of a professional.

Experts in this field will analyze the test results and perform an on-site evaluation when necessary to determine whether the soil can be corrected successfully.

Improving the drainage of your soil is another excellent remedy to boost the pH levels in your garden because poor soil drainage causes the buildup of bicarbonate in your garden soil.


Final Thoughts

Failure to determine the soil pH before planting, particularly on a new garden, can cause poor to no produce at all.

Knowing the right pH of your soil will help you determine the right types of crops that are likely to thrive well in your garden.

Another thing to take note is that soil may contain sufficient nutrients, yet the plants are unable to flourish due to disadvantageous soil conditions. Soil fertility and pH are essential for the crop’s healthy growth.

Correcting a soil pH usually takes a slow process and may require a few repeat treatments, so don’t expect a quick soil pH fix. However, try combining treatments, and doing so is often proven effective.

About Benita Abucejo

Hi there! My name is Benita Abucejo. What can I say? I truly love spending my days in the outdoors, specifically in the garden. Gardening has always been a strong passion of mine since I was a little girl. It has brought me so much joy and happiness that it is definitely safe to say that I will be a gardener for life. For a period of time, I was able to work with people who are into home gardening and I found it to be quite beneficial to my physical health, as well as my mental well-being. Here at Seasonal Preferences, I am going to share with you my experience and ideas so that you can fulfill yourself with the same satisfaction and happiness. Of course, if you have ideas, I would love to hear those as well! Being creative in the garden can really be quite fascinating so let's share our experiences and be the best gardeners we can be. With that being said, thank you for dropping by and please leave me a comment on one of my posts if you would like to get in touch!

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