The lone voice of horticultural reason

Inexpensive, Accurate Soil pH Testers

 Testing your soil is an essential step if your goal is to become a competent, successful gardener – and don’t let anyone tell you any different! Before you start investing time and money into creating a garden and landscape, knowing your soil’s natural nutrient content is extremely helpful to new gardeners, since this information will tell you if you need fertilizer or not, and if you do, will tell you how much of what nutrients to add. The same test will tell you your soil’s organic content, which could mean the difference between purchasing ten yards of bulk compost and spending two days tilling or spading it in, or simply buying a few bales of peat moss and raking it over the top in an hour.

Most crucial is testing for pH. In my commercial landscaping business, I’d say the number of plant installations I perform where I don’t need to adjust the soil pH runs about fifty percent, meaning that one out of every two yards I work at has a soil pH that isn’t going to be conducive to healthy plant growth.

All this information can be gained for fifteen to twenty-five dollars by submitting a soil sample to your local Extension university’s soil lab, or the commercial lab they recommend if your university doesn’t have one. How some gardening experts have been quoted of late as saying that soil testing is something better skipped by homeowners is beyond me. Do you want to learn about gardening or not? It all starts with your soil.

It IS true that what type of soil you have – dense clay, part clay, sandy, loam, mineral, and various combinations thereof – can be accurately judged from experience. And in terms of fertilization, hitting everything with a basic 10-10-10 granular organic fertilizer once in the spring is often sufficient, or not fertilizing at all if you have soil that you can tell has decent organic content, either naturally, or after you tilled in all that organic material. If plants don’t perform well, start fertilizing. If all hell still breaks loose and plants die, get a lab sol test.

That is, assuming you know your soil pH. Problem is, you can’t look at soil and tell its’ pH. pH – the level of acidity or alkalinity – is crucial for gardeners to know. On the pH scale, 7.0 is neutral, below 7.0 is acidic, above 7.0 is alkaline. Some plants prefer varying degrees of acidic soil (azaleas, blueberries, many evergreens) while some prefer alkaline soil (monkshood, crown vetch, coral bells). Plants won’t always fold up and die if the pH is off by a half-point or even a full point – coral bells will be fine in slightly acidic soil, a pH of say, 6.6 or 6.8. But you’ll see them suffer if your soil, unbeknownst to you, is very acidic, say down below 6.0. You’ll get leaves and flowers and a few berries if your blueberries are growing in neutral soil (7.0), but add soil sulfur and peat moss to lower the pH to 5.5 or 6.0 and in a few seasons you’ll have blueberries coming out of your ears.

Now, on to the Top Pick product. Remember, you’re dealing with a Norwegian, ask me what time it is, I’ll tell you how to build a watch. Two years ago while visiting the fine Cleveland Botanical Gardens, I spied a simple soil moisture-light-pH meter in their gift shop (pictured above), and bought it. It seemed too good to be true, I think it was around twenty bucks, and if the pH readings proved accurate, it would be a hell of an addition to my gardening arsenal. I can tell by digging a hole with a shovel what form of soil I’m dealing with, and its approximate organic content. It’s a skill you will also acquire. Then, if you could know the pH in a snap by using this simple meter, hey, in a lot cases, you’ve completed your own soil test.

Turns out it’s very accurate. I’ve tested soil pH with this meter at job sites where I have also submitted a soil sample to the U of MN soil lab, and the meter is very accurate. It doesn’t tell you the exact pH reading, I can’t tell if a soil is 7.2 or 7.3, but the needle on the face is going to let you know if the soil pH is about 6.0, or 6.5, or neutral, or 7.5, or 8.0, etc. And that’s all you need to know when it comes to pH. Is this soil acidic, slightly acidic, neutral, alkaline, or too alkaline?

OK, so, what is the brand name and how do you buy it, you ask. No idea, at first. I threw away the packaging and this meter has NOTHING on it in terms of manufacturer, website, or phone number. Onward to good old Google, and still nothing. I tried “pH testing meters,” “soil meters, “ soil pH meters” and kept running into technical devices costing $300. Finally, a hit on a site that featured the tester I had purchased (it’s made in China) but you could only order them in bulk, looked like a Chinese site, from reading the convoluted copy, turns out it was a factory direct wholesaler. I doubted any of you would be interested in purchasing 500. I phoned the Cleveland Botanical Center and the buyer was out, so I left her a message and went back to Googling. Then, bingo.

The following link will be worth your while reading down this far. I suppose I should have added another picture to break up all this copy, OK, here’s one of a driftwood monster I came upon that had climbed ashore in Northwest Ontario:

Google finally led me to this great soil site hosted by an astute gardener named Robert C. Harris. This is what I love about the Internet, here’s a guy with years of experience in gardening, his passion became the study of soil, and he creates this great independent gardening site concerning soil and soil testing out of the goodness of his heart. AND he sells not only my device but many others. On his Home Page, he tells it best:

“Most gardens disappoint their owners because they fall so short of the pictures in books, magazines and on seed packets. And often it is not from lack of effort from the disappointed gardener – just misdirected effort. Get the soil right first and your garden really will explode with color and beauty. Get the soil right first and the rest becomes so much the easier. Get the soil right first and you will save so much time and money.

That’s why I created this web site. I’ve worked with soil for many, many years. But yes, I too started out learning the hard way – plenty of money, lots of planting, disappointing results. But through my personal and professional gardening careers I’ve learned to understand soil. Yet even now I can still be drop-jawed at the transformation some simple soil correction has achieved in a garden.”

My kind of man, and here’s the link to his site:

From the Home Page click “Soil Testing” then “Soil pH Tests” then “Soil pH Meters”to get to his on-line store. I’m taking you the long way because it’s interesting reading along the way.

It appears you can buy meters that test only pH. Better yet. My version includes a moisture setting that I never use – I know when it’s time to water – and a light meter, that I also never use. Know what time of day it is, look at your shoes, there’s your light meter.

Don Engebretson
The Renegade Gardener