How to Use A Tester, Strips, Vinegar, or Cabbage to Test Your Soil pH

Soil composition can have a significant effect on the success of your garden. Some plants require a slightly acidic environment, while acidic soil will hurt other plants’ growth. 

However, knowing how to test soil PH and what your specific plants prefer will do you little good if you have no idea what pH the soil is! Doing a soil test is an essential step for any gardener.

There are multiple methods for testing your garden soil pH, depending on your available materials and equipment. This article will look at the general steps for testing your soil pH and the more specific instructions for different methods. Let’s get started!

Preparation: What do you need to get your soil tested?

1. Determine What pH Your Plants Need

Before you start testing your soil, it’s good to know what pH your soil needs to be – natural, acidic, or alkaline. The majority of garden plants need neutral soil or one that is only slightly acidic PH to thrive. This PH value ranges from PH 6 to PH 7.

There are exceptions to this rule as not all plants like the same conditions. Other needs acid soil or more alkalinity (basic) environment. 

Here are some garden plants, fruits, and vegetables that lean to one side of neutral on the soil pH scale.

Acids Loving Plants:

  • Blueberries
  • Blackberries
  • Azaleas
  • Magnolias
  • Rhododendrons
  • Eggplants
  • Carrots

Alkalinity Loving Plants:

  • Asparagus
  • Beets
  • Ferns
  • Lily of the Valley
  • Lavender
  • Lilac

The plants in these lists are noted to tolerate and still thrive in more acidic PH or more alkaline soils. However, most of them would grow in more neutral soil and have a decent range for the soil pH they will tolerate. 

To create a successful garden, the most crucial thing before planting is researching your plants’ preferred soil pH to see what range they won’t handle.

2. Pick a Soil Testing Method

Once you know what you are planting and what soil conditions and PH you are looking for (alkaline or acidic), it is time to test soil PH. Your chosen method will depend primarily on what you have on hand and how much effort you can devote to the test. 

As described in the article, some of these methods can also give you more detailed results than others.

There are multiple methods, including:

  • Digital/Analog Meter
  • Test Kits
  • Test Strips
  • Testing with Home Materials

This article will go over the steps for all of these methods to decide what works best for you. So stay tuned.

3. Choose an Area to Sample

pick an area to sample for soil ph

After settling on the best soil tester, you will need to pick an area to sample. In most cases, you will collect soil samples or dig a hole in the desired location.

If you have a moderate-sized property, you will want to measure the soil pH level in multiple locations since it can vary quite a bit. Some areas can be more alkaline and some more acid. You may discover that you need to start planting certain plants in different areas to ensure they are in their optimal pH zone.

4. Get a Jar of Distilled Water

All of the below methods require adding water to your soil to take the soil pH measurement. 

While you can use tap water, you should pick up a jar of distilled water for your tests to get the most accurate results. As it has no additional components, the PH of Distilled water will have a perfectly neutral pH of 7.

Water with added minerals may not be neutral.

How To Test Soil pH with a Digital or Analog Meter?

One of the ways to test your soils is through digital and analog devices. They are great because they are easy to read and produce accurate results. Some meters come with additional features, such as testing soil moisture and temperature. 

However, choosing this method will cost you money as digital and analog soil pH meters range from $10 to $30.

The difference between a digital and analog device is how the results are displayed. A digital device uses a digital display with numbers, while an analog device uses a needle and scale.

It may be tempting to stick your soil pH meter in the soil to get a fast result, but this method is far from the most accurate. 

Here are the steps for testing soil PH to get the most precise result:

  1. Take a small amount of soil sample from the garden. It is best to dig down to where your plants’ roots will be and take the soil from there.
  2. Remove any dirt, such as rocks and twigs. The soil sample should be purely soil.
  3. Put the soil in a glass and add equal parts of water. Stir together and let sit for around fifteen minutes.
  4. Give the soil and water a final stir, and then insert the digital meter. Watch the screen for your pH reading.
  5. Depending on your garden’s size, repeat steps 1-4 for the other areas you wish to sample. Always clean off the meter between samples to avoid contaminated results.

You can also get an accurate reading with a digital meter without taking the soil out of the garden. This works best when done with a digital meter with needles or a stick. 

Here are the steps for that.

  1. Dig a small hole in the desired area of your garden. Make sure it is deep enough to be where the plant’s roots would be.
  2. Clear the area of as much debris as possible.
  3. Pour water into the hole and mix until you have a muddy mush.
  4. Stick your digital meter in the ground about 2 to 3 inches deep. Check the number on the screen for your soil pH readings.
  5. Repeat these steps in various areas of your garden until you have a general ballpark idea of the whole garden.

Best Meter pH Testers

If this method sounds appealing, you probably want to know what digital meter you should buy. Here are some of the best digital pH testers on the market.

VIVOSUN Digital PH Meter ($25)

No matter what you need to test your soil pH, the Vivosun pH meter has covered it. 3-in-1 Plant moisture sensor meter can test soil moisture, light and pH. This is an all-around pH meter designed to test soil pH in various circumstances. It will deliver accurate and easy-to-read results when testing the soil pH level in your garden.

3-in-1 TDS Meter: Measurement Range 0-9990ppm, 0-9990µs/cm; Accuracy ± 2%, 0.1- 80.0 °C, 32.0-176.0 °F.

Sonkir Soil pH Meter MSO2

Sonkir Soil pH Meter

Sonkir makes various PH meters, and their MSO2 model is one of the best meters out there. It can test soil for 3 different things: soil moisture, light, and pH. Most of all, switching between these modes is easy with just the push of a button.

This analog display meter costs around $16 and is made to ensure both accuracy and durability. It features a double-needle probe for better accuracy. The needles are extended to ensure that you can test the pH at the roots.

How To Test Soil pH with a Test Kit?

Besides meters, you can also buy test soil kits to measure the pH range of your soil. The advantage of test kits over meters is that they can also check your soil’s nutrient availability. If you want a detailed analysis of your soil nutrients, then a test kit may be the way to go.

The best way to ensure you use your test kit to its fullest advantage is to follow the kit’s instructions! Some test kits use test tubes and specific chemicals to make their tests, but you can also get kits that involve mailing your soil sample into a lab. 

Some test kits can also get quite detailed and may require some advanced knowledge.

Here are the steps for using a basic test tube pH kit

  1. Collect a soil sample.
  2. Remove any debris.
  3. Place your soil sample in a test tube and add water. Stir until you have mud.
  4. Add the specified chemical from your kit and consult the directions to understand your results.

Best Soil pH Test Kits

With so many different test kits out there, you may wonder how you can decide which one to get. Here are some top options.

Luster Leaf 1605 Rapitest Digital Soil Test Kit

Luster Leaf 1605 Digital Soil Test Kit

This test kit uses a digital reader to make things more accessible. The reader analyzes the color of your test sample and gives you precise, easy-to-understand results. Besides pH, this kit also allows you to test your soil’s nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium content.

This kit also comes with information about what different plants prefer to help you interpret the data your test produces. This kit costs around $35 and comes with enough stuff for 25 tests, 10 for pH precisely.

Whitetail Institute Laboratory Soil Test Kit

Whitetail Institute Laboratory Soil Test Kit

If you have some patience and want highly detailed and accurate results, then this mail-in kit from Whitetail Institute may be for you. For $15, you can have someone else do the hard work for you and probably get better results than you could.

The Whitetail Institute guarantees results within one week and will even give you some advice along with your results. This is an excellent choice for gardeners who may be unsure about what to do with all the information these tests can produce.

How To Test Soil pH with Test Strips

Test strips are the final and most straightforward product you can buy to test soil pH. Test strips display a color change based on the pH readings of the substance they are immersed in. Their results are not as precisely displayed as a meter or test kit, but they are easy to use and accurate.

Different pH test strips have a diverse range. When buying your stripes in the gardeners’ store or online, it is good to check for what pH range they can test and how many color options there are. The more colors your strips can turn, the more precise the results.

Here are the steps for how to test soil ph with strips

  1. Gather your soil sample and clear it of debris. Place it in a clear container.
  2. Add the same amount of water. Stir well and leave it to rest for around 30 minutes.
  3. Using a coffee filter, pour the sample to catch the soil in the filter, and the water is transferred to clean glass.
  4. Dip your soil pH test strip in the water. Observe the color change and consult the chart that came with your strips to determine the pH level.
  5. Repeat steps 1-4 with additional samples.

Best pH Test Strips

Here are some of the best test strips to test your garden. When selecting test strips, make sure they are designed for soil tests, as there are test strips for testing the pH of many other things.

Garden Tutor Soil pH Test Strips

Garden Tutor Soil PH Test

For only $13, this option from Garden Tutor comes with 100 test strips. These strips can measure pH ranges from 3.5 to 9.0, which is more than the range you can expect to find in a garden.

Besides the test strips, this purchase also comes with a booklet explaining the test results in detail and offer advice on how much pH level needs adjusting.

Soil pH Test Strips from FUNSW

FUNSW Soil pH Test Kit

Like the Garden Tutor option, FUNSW’s strips also come with 100 to a bottle for around $13. However, these strips have a wider range, testing the entire pH scale from 0 to 14.

How To Test Soil pH with Vinegar and Baking Soda

If you don’t want to buy anything, you can also test the garden’s soil pH with some things you probably already have in your home: vinegar and baking soda. 

baking soda

Learning how to test soil pH with these items will not get you a number on the pH meter. Still, it is a suitable method if you simply want to know if your soil leans acidic or alkaline without spending money.

How does vinegar test soil pH?

The principle behind this method is that vinegar is an acidic substance while baking soda is an alkaline substance. Thus, alkaline soil will react with vinegar, and acidic soil will react with baking soda.

Here are the steps for testing your soil’s pH with vinegar and baking soda

  1. Collect a soil sample for your garden. Dig deep enough to be where the plant’s roots would be.
  2. Remove any sticks and stones from the sample.
  3. Place the sample in a bowl or glass.
  4. Add water and stir until the soil become mud.
  5. Now add ½ a cup of vinegar and give a slight stir. If there is a reaction like bubbling or fizzing, your soil is in the alkaline range.
  6. If nothing happens, you now need to test for your soil acidity. Repeat steps 1-4 to prepare another sample.
  7. Now add ½ a cup of baking soda and stir. If there is foaming, bubbling, or fizzing, your soil is in the acidity range.
  8. If you complete both of these tests and see no reaction, your soil is in the neutral range.

How To Test Soil pH with Red Cabbage

red cabbage

One of the great ways to test soil pH is to use red cabbage. This process will not only tell you if your soil is alkaline or acid, but it is also a cool science experiment. 

This is an excellent way to test your garden’s pH and teach your kids about pH at the same time!

How to make a red cabbage indicator?

  1. Chop up a cabbage and boil it in water. This will work far better if you use distilled water.
  2. Thanks to the cabbage, the boiling water reaction will turn red or violet after about 10 minutes. At this point, you can stop boiling and strain the cabbage so that you have your purple water remaining.
  3. Put some of your water in a clear container. Do not use all of your water at once, as you can use it to test multiple samples from your garden.
  4. Take some soil from the chosen area in your home garden. Make sure it is free of debris and taken from several inches below the surface.
  5. Stir the soil sample into the purple water. If the soil begins to look blue/green, then your soil is base/alkaline. If the color alters to pink, then your soil is acidic. Like with the vinegar and baking soda, if nothing happens, then your soil is neutral.

How To Make Soil Acidic?

If you discover through your testing that your soil is alkaline, you may have a problem. Many plants are not particularly tolerant of pH higher than 7. 

While you can try your best to select plants that can handle the alkalinity, you can also make soil amendments and push the level back towards neutral.

There are also chemical fertilizers you can use that will make your soil more acidic. Fertilizers, including added nutrients like ammonium sulfate, ammonium nitrate, and sulfur coated urea, will make your soil more acidic. You can also find organic fertilizers if you are growing vegetables.

If you find a fertilizer with ammonium sulfate, read the instructions carefully. This substance is quite strong and can burn some plants.

Some people also add compost to soil, making it more acidic. Still, this process is gradual and involves adding compost for many seasons. 

Suppose you need to make soil amendments to container soils to become more acid. In that case, you can add a little bit of vinegar to your plant’s water to make it more acidic quickly.

How To Make Soil Alkaline?

Most plants are more tolerant of slightly acidic soil. If your soil has higher acidic levels or if you are planting something that is not tolerant of acidity, you may need to alter your soil to make it more alkaline.

The special ingredient for making the soil more alkaline is lime. Lime is an alkaline base substance that can be safely added to soil to increase the soil pH. You can usually buy lime as a soil amendment wherever you get your regular gardeners’ supplies store.

Add lime to your soil and then retest the pH until you have achieved the desired pH. Know that plants which prefer acidic soil are highly intolerant of lime because of its alkaline nature. 

If you are planting one of these plants, keep any added lime away from that area. 

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