When it comes to planting stuff, we spend a lot of time thinking about the right amount of rain, the highs and lows of the climate, and the best place for getting adequate sunlight. Soil often gets overlooked, or it gets a rather rudimentary addition of bagged compost or topsoil from the garden center.

Of course, the soil is vitally important to the success of plants. It’s where the roots get all the nutrients necessary for our trees, shrubs, flowers, and vegetables the thrive. Delving further into that, it’s the soil pH that is responsible for making those nutrients available. Too high or too low, and certain nutrients become locked up and inaccessible.

Luckily, there are some quick natural solutions for raising the pH level in the soil to make it more alkaline (good for brassicas), as well as lower the pH level to make it more acidic (great for berries). Better yet, we can condition our soil over time to have a moderate pH number more in tune with what we are trying to grow.

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Raising the pH

The lower the pH level of soil, the more acidic it is. In general, plants like mildly acidic soil, something in the mid-sixes (6.2-6.8). Except for plants that a particularly acid-loving, if soils are below this level, they likely have too low a pH level. Anything below 5.0 is too acidic for just about everything, save blueberries.

If the pH balance is way too acidic, it can be raised using lime or wood ash. Sandy soils will require much less than loamy, and clay soils and different types of lime/ash will require different amounts. It’s usually best to err on the side of too little than too much.

Some common plants that like soils with a higher pH and which might require the pH number to be raised include all types of brassicas (cabbage, broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts, bok choy, turnips, etc.) and dry-climate plants (aloe vera, prickly pear, olive trees, pomegranate, etc.).

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Lowering the pH

The higher the pH level the more alkalinity in the soil, with 7.0 being neutral and anything above it being alkaline. Once soils get to a pH of 9.0 or higher, they are far too alkaline for plants to be successful. Lots of nutrients become impossible for plants to absorb when soil alkalinity is too high.

If extreme alkalinity is a problem, the natural remedy for a quick drop in pH level is either sulfur or peat moss. With sulfur, it’s important to look for an organic source to keep chemicals out of the garden, and with peat moss, it’s important to make sure it comes from sustainable sources.

Most plants like mildly acidic soil, but some plants thrive in acidic soil. Perennial acid-loving plants include blueberries, evergreens, azaleas, hydrangeas, daffodils, and oak trees. Vegetables that dig acidic soil might be sweet corn, cucumbers, squash, and tomatoes.

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Cultivating the pH

The best option for creating a well-balanced soil with mild acidity is to cultivate it. Rather than adding something very alkaline (wood ash or lime) or something acidic (sulfur or peat moss) as a quick fix, it’s better to slowly adjust the soil so that it doesn’t require these products to balance out.

To do that, it’s a matter of adding either compost or plenty of organic matter, such as natural mulches, over an extended period. Well-balanced compost—essential just decomposed organic matter— generally has a pH just below 7.0, and this is the ideal starting point for planting most things.

The trick, then, is to simply add plenty of compost every year and mulch with a good mix of natural materials: grass clipping, shredded leaves, aged wood chips, pine needles, straw, etc. Over time, adding compost to soils that run to the extremes of acidic and alkaline will move closer to neutral.

The Right Balance

In all honesty, unless the pH balance of a soil moves towards the extremes, higher than 8.0 or lower than 5.5, it generally won’t cause a huge issue. Plants are resilient and do learn to adapt, so the goal would be to further neutralize soil over time rather than with extreme amendments. Who would have guessed it! Compost and organic mulch are great for the garden.

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