Soil pH is a measure of the acidity or basicity (alkalinity) of a soil. Soil pH is a key characteristic that can be used to make informative analysis both qualitative and quantitatively regarding soil characteristics. pH is defined as the negative logarithm (base 10) of the activity of hydronium ions (H+
or, more precisely, H
aq) in a solution. In soils, it is measured in a slurry of soil mixed with water (or a salt solution, such as 0.01 M CaCl
2), and normally falls between 3 and 10, with 7 being neutral. Acid soils have a pH below 7 and alkaline soils have a pH above 7. Ultra-acidic soils (pH < 3.5) and very strongly alkaline soils (pH > 9) are rare.
Soil pH is considered a master variable in soils as it affects many chemical processes. It specifically affects plant nutrient availability by controlling the chemical forms of the different nutrients and influencing the chemical reactions they undergo. The optimum pH range for most plants is between 5.5 and 7.5; however, many plants have adapted to thrive at pH values outside this range.
Precise, repeatable measures of soil pH are required for scientific research and monitoring. This generally entails laboratory analysis using a standard protocol; an example of such a protocol is that in the USDA Soil Survey Field and Laboratory Methods Manual. In this document the three-page protocol for soil pH measurement includes the following sections: Application; Summary of Method; Interferences; Safety; Equipment; Reagents; and Procedure.
The pH of a natural soil depends on the mineral composition of the parent material of the soil, and the weathering reactions undergone by that parent material. In warm, humid environments, soil acidification occurs over time as the products of weathering are leached by water moving laterally or downwards through the soil. In dry climates, however, soil weathering and leaching are less intense and soil pH is often neutral or alkaline.
The accumulation of alkalinity in a soil (as carbonates and bicarbonates of Na, K, Ca and Mg) occurs when there is insufficient water flowing through the soils to leach soluble salts. This may be due to arid conditions, or poor internal soil drainage; in these situations most of the water that enters the soil is transpired (taken up by plants) or evaporates, rather than flowing through the soil.
The soil pH usually increases when the total alkalinity increases, but the balance of the added cations also has a marked effect on the soil pH. For example, increasing the amount of sodium in an alkaline soil tends to induce dissolution of calcium carbonate, which increases the pH. Calcareous soils may vary in pH from 7.0 to 9.5, depending on the degree to which Ca2+
dominate the soluble cations.
Plants grown in acid soils can experience a variety of stresses including aluminium (Al), hydrogen (H), and/or manganese (Mn) toxicity, as well as nutrient deficiencies of calcium (Ca) and magnesium (Mg).
Aluminium toxicity is the most widespread problem in acid soils. Aluminium is present in all soils to varying degrees, but dissolved Al3+ is toxic to plants; Al3+ is most soluble at low pH; above pH 5.0, there is little Al in soluble form in most soils. Aluminium is not a plant nutrient, and as such, is not actively taken up by the plants, but enters plant roots passively through osmosis. Aluminium can exist in many different forms and is a responsible agent for limiting growth in various parts of the world. Aluminium tolerance studies have been conducted in different plant species to see viable thresholds and concentrations exposed along with function upon exposure. Aluminium inhibits root growth; lateral roots and root tips become thickened and roots lack fine branching; root tips may turn brown. In the root, the initial effect of Al3+ is the inhibition of the expansion of the cells of the rhizodermis, leading to their rupture; thereafter it is known to interfere with many physiological processes including the uptake and transport of calcium and other essential nutrients, cell division, cell wall formation, and enzyme activity.
Proton (H+ ion) stress can also limit plant growth. The proton pump, H+-ATPase, of the plasmalemma of root cells works to maintain the near-neutral pH of their cytoplasm. A high proton activity (pH within the range 3.0–4.0 for most plant species) in the external growth medium overcomes the capacity of the cell to maintain the cytoplasmic pH and growth shuts down.
In soils with a high content of manganese-containing minerals, Mn toxicity can become a problem at pH 5.6 and lower. Manganese, like aluminium, becomes increasingly soluble as pH drops, and Mn toxicity symptoms can be seen at pH levels below 5.6. Manganese is an essential plant nutrient, so plants transport Mn into leaves. Classic symptoms of Mn toxicity are crinkling or cupping of leaves.
As discussed above, aluminium toxicity has direct effects on plant growth; however, by limiting root growth, it also reduces the availability of plant nutrients. Because roots are damaged, nutrient uptake is reduced, and deficiencies of the macronutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium and magnesium) are frequently encountered in very strongly acidic to ultra-acidic soils (pH<5.0).
The effect of pH on phosphorus availability varies considerably, depending on soil conditions and the crop in question. The prevailing view in the 1940s and 1950s was that P availability was maximized near neutrality (soil pH 6.5–7.5), and decreased at higher and lower pH. Interactions of phosphorus with pH in the moderately to slightly acidic range (pH 5.5–6.5) are, however, far more complex than is suggested by this view. Laboratory tests, glasshouse trials and field trials have indicated that increases in pH within this range may increase, decrease, or have no effect on P availability to plants.
Strongly alkaline soils are sodic and dispersive, with slow infiltration, low hydraulic conductivity and poor available water capacity. Plant growth is severely restricted because aeration is poor when the soil is wet; in dry conditions, plant-available water is rapidly depleted and the soils become hard and cloddy (high soil strength).
Many strongly acidic soils, on the other hand, have strong aggregation, good internal drainage, and good water-holding characteristics. However, for many plant species, aluminium toxicity severely limits root growth, and moisture stress can occur even when the soil is relatively moist.
In general terms, different plant species are adapted to soils of different pH ranges. For many species, the suitable soil pH range is fairly well known. Online databases of plant characteristics, such USDA PLANTS and Plants for a Future can be used to look up the suitable soil pH range of a wide range of plants. Documents like Ellenberg's indicator values for British plants can also be consulted.
However, a plant may be intolerant of a particular pH in some soils as a result of a particular mechanism, and that mechanism may not apply in other soils. For example, a soil low in molybdenum may not be suitable for soybean plants at pH 5.5, but soils with sufficient molybdenum allow optimal growth at that pH. Similarly, some calcifuges (plants intolerant of high-pH soils) can tolerate calcareous soils if sufficient phosphorus is supplied. Another confounding factor is that different varieties of the same species often have different suitable soil pH ranges. Plant breeders can use this to breed varieties that can tolerate conditions that are otherwise considered unsuitable for that species – examples are projects to breed aluminium-tolerant and manganese-tolerant varieties of cereal crops for food production in strongly acidic soils.
The table below gives suitable soil pH ranges for some widely cultivated plants as found in the USDA PLANTS Database. Some species (like Pinus radiata and Opuntia ficus-indica) tolerate only a narrow range in soil pH, whereas others (such as Vetiveria zizanioides) tolerate a very wide pH range.
Finely ground agricultural lime is often applied to acid soils to increase soil pH (liming). The amount of limestone or chalk needed to change pH is determined by the mesh size of the lime (how finely it is ground) and the buffering capacity of the soil. A high mesh size (60 mesh = 0.25 mm; 100 mesh = 0.149 mm) indicates a finely ground lime that will react quickly with soil acidity. The buffering capacity of a soil depends on the clay content of the soil, the type of clay, and the amount of organic matter present, and may be related to the soil cation exchange capacity. Soils with high clay content will have a higher buffering capacity than soils with little clay, and soils with high organic matter will have a higher buffering capacity than those with low organic matter. Soils with higher buffering capacity require a greater amount of lime to achieve an equivalent change in pH. The buffering of soil pH is often directly related to the quantity of aluminium in soil solution and taking up exchange sites as part of the cation exchange capacity. This aluminium can be measured in a soil test in which it is extracted from the soil with a salt solution, and then is quantified with a laboratory analysis. Then, using the initial soil pH and the aluminium content, the amount of lime needed to raise the pH to a desired level can be calculated.
Amendments other than agricultural lime that can be used to increase the pH of soil include wood ash, industrial calcium oxide (burnt lime), magnesium oxide, basic slag (calcium silicate), and oyster shells. These products increase the pH of soils through various acid–base reactions. Calcium silicate neutralizes active acidity in the soil by reacting with H+ ions to form monosilicic acid (H4SiO4), a neutral solute.
The pH of an alkaline soil can be reduced by adding acidifying agents or acidic organic materials. Elemental sulfur (90–99% S) has been used at application rates of 300–500 kg/ha (270–450 lb/acre) – it slowly oxidizes in soil to form sulfuric acid. Acidifying fertilizers, such as ammonium sulfate, ammonium nitrate and urea, can help to reduce the pH of a soil because ammonium oxidises to form nitric acid. Acidifying organic materials include peat or sphagnum peat moss.
However, in high-pH soils with a high calcium carbonate content (more than 2%), it can be very costly and/or ineffective to attempt to reduce the pH with acids. In such cases, it is often more efficient to add phosphorus, iron, manganese, copper and/or zinc instead, because deficiencies of these nutrients are the most common reasons for poor plant growth in calcareous soils.