Soil pH

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Global variation in soil pH. Red = acidic soil. Yellow = neutral soil. Blue = alkaline soil. Black = no data. World Soil pH.svg
Global variation in soil pH. Red = acidic soil. Yellow = neutral soil. Blue = alkaline soil. Black = no data.

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. [1] pH is defined as the negative logarithm (base 10) of the activity of hydronium ions (H+
or, more precisely, H
) 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
), 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. [2] [3]


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; [3] however, many plants have adapted to thrive at pH values outside this range.

Classification of soil pH ranges

The United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service classifies soil pH ranges as follows: [4]

DenominationpH range
Ultra acidic< 3.5
Extremely acidic3.5–4.4
Very strongly acidic4.5–5.0
Strongly acidic5.1–5.5
Moderately acidic5.6–6.0
Slightly acidic6.1–6.5
Slightly alkaline7.4–7.8
Moderately alkaline7.9–8.4
Strongly alkaline8.5–9.0
Very strongly alkaline> 9.0

0 to 6=acidic,7=neutral and 8 and above alkalinity

Determining pH

Methods of determining pH include:

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. [7] 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.

Summary of Method

The pH is measured in soil-water (1:1) and soil-salt (1:2 ) solutions. For convenience, the pH is initially measured in water and then measured in . With the addition of an equal volume of 0.02 M to the soil suspension that was prepared for the water pH, the final soil-solution ratio is 1:2 0.01 M .
A 20-g soil sample is mixed with 20 mL of reverse osmosis (RO) water (1:1 w:v) with occasional stirring. The sample is allowed to stand 1 h with occasional stirring. The sample is stirred for 30 s, and the 1:1 water pH is measured. The 0.02 M (20 mL) is added to soil suspension, the sample is stirred, and the 1:2 0.01 M pH is measured (4C1a2a2).

Summary of the USDA NRCS method for soil pH determination [7]

Factors affecting soil pH

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. [8] [9]

Sources of acidity

Many processes contribute to soil acidification. These include: [10]

Sources of alkalinity

Total soil alkalinity increases with: [12] [13]

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. [12]

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+
or Na+
dominate the soluble cations. [12]

Effect of soil pH on plant growth

Acid soils

High levels of aluminium occur near mining sites; small amounts of aluminium are released to the environment at the coal-fired power plants or incinerators. [14] Aluminium in the air is washed out by the rain or normally settles down but small particles of aluminium remain in the air for a long time. [14]

Acidic precipitation is the main natural factor to mobilize aluminium from natural sources [15] and the main reason for the environmental effects of aluminium; [16] however, the main factor of presence of aluminium in salt and freshwater are the industrial processes that also release aluminium into air. [15] 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). [17]

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. [18] [19] 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. [20] 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. [18] [21]

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. [22]

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.

Nutrient availability in relation to soil pH

Nutrient availability in relation to soil pH Soil-pH.svg
Nutrient availability in relation to soil pH

Soil pH affects the availability of some plant nutrients:

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). [24] When aluminum levels increase in the soil, it decreases the pH levels. This does not allow for trees to take up water, meaning they can not photosynthesize, leading them to die. The trees can also develop yellow-ish colour on their leaves and veins. [25]

Molybdenum availability is increased at higher pH; this is because the molybdate ion is more strongly sorbed by clay particles at lower pH. [26]

Zinc, iron, copper and manganese show decreased availability at higher pH (increased sorption at higher pH). [26]

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. [27] [28] 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. [28] [29]

Water availability in relation to soil pH

Strongly alkaline soils are sodic and dispersive, with slow infiltration, low hydraulic conductivity and poor available water capacity. [30] 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). [31] The higher the pH in the soil, the less water available to be distributed to the plants and organisms that depend on it. With a decreased pH, this does not allow for plants to uptake water like they normally would. This causes them to not be able to photosynthesize. [32]

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. [18]

Plant pH preferences

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 [33] and Plants for a Future [34] 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 [35] 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. [24] Similarly, some calcifuges (plants intolerant of high-pH soils) can tolerate calcareous soils if sufficient phosphorus is supplied. [36] 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. [37]

The table below gives suitable soil pH ranges for some widely cultivated plants as found in the USDA PLANTS Database. [33] 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.

Scientific nameCommon namepH (minimum)pH (maximum)
Chrysopogon zizanioides vetiver grass3.08.0
Pinus rigida pitch pine3.55.1
Rubus chamaemorus cloudberry4.05.2
Ananas comosus pineapple4.06.0
Coffea arabica Arabian coffee4.07.5
Rhododendron arborescens smooth azalea4.25.7
Pinus radiata Monterey pine4.55.2
Carya illinoinensis pecan4.57.5
Tamarindus indica tamarind4.58.0
Vaccinium corymbosum highbush blueberry4.77.5
Manihot esculenta cassava5.05.5
Morus alba white mulberry5.07.0
Malus apple5.07.5
Pinus sylvestris Scots pine5.07.5
Carica papaya papaya5.08.0
Cajanus cajan pigeonpea5.08.3
Pyrus communis common pear5.26.7
Solanum lycopersicum garden tomato5.57.0
Psidium guajava guava5.57.0
Nerium oleander oleander5.57.8
Punica granatum pomegranate6.06.9
Viola sororia common blue violet6.07.8
Caragana arborescens Siberian peashrub6.09.0
Cotoneaster integerrimus cotoneaster6.88.7
Opuntia ficus-indica Barbary fig (pricklypear)7.08.5

Changing soil pH

Increasing pH of acidic soil

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. [38] 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. [39]

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. [40]

Decreasing the pH of alkaline soil

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. [41]

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. [42] [43]

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Acid rain</span> Rain that is unusually acidic

Acid rain is rain or any other form of precipitation that is unusually acidic, meaning that it has elevated levels of hydrogen ions. Most water, including drinking water, has a neutral pH that exists between 6.5 and 8.5, but acid rain has a pH level lower than this and ranges from 4–5 on average. The more acidic the acid rain is, the lower its pH is. Acid rain can have harmful effects on plants, aquatic animals, and infrastructure. Acid rain is caused by emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, which react with the water molecules in the atmosphere to produce acids.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Soil</span> Mixture of organic matter, minerals, gases, liquids, and organisms that together support life

Soil, also commonly referred to as earth or dirt, is a mixture of organic matter, minerals, gases, liquids, and organisms that together support life. Some scientific definitions distinguish dirt from soil by restricting the former term specifically to displaced soil.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Calcium carbonate</span> Chemical compound

Calcium carbonate is a chemical compound with the chemical formula CaCO3. It is a common substance found in rocks as the minerals calcite and aragonite and is the main component of eggshells, gastropod shells, shellfish skeletons and pearls. Things containing much calcium carbonate or resembling it are described as calcareous. Calcium carbonate is the active ingredient in agricultural lime and is created when calcium ions in hard water react with carbonate ions to create limescale. It has medical use as a calcium supplement or as an antacid, but excessive consumption can be hazardous and cause hypercalcemia and digestive issues.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Calcium hydroxide</span> Inorganic compound of formula Ca(OH)2

Calcium hydroxide (traditionally called slaked lime) is an inorganic compound with the chemical formula Ca(OH)2. It is a colorless crystal or white powder and is produced when quicklime (calcium oxide) is mixed with water. It has many names including hydrated lime, caustic lime, builders' lime, slaked lime, cal, and pickling lime. Calcium hydroxide is used in many applications, including food preparation, where it has been identified as E number E526. Limewater, also called milk of lime, is the common name for a saturated solution of calcium hydroxide.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Plant nutrition</span> Study of the chemical elements and compounds necessary for normal plant life

Plant nutrition is the study of the chemical elements and compounds necessary for plant growth and reproduction, plant metabolism and their external supply. In its absence the plant is unable to complete a normal life cycle, or that the element is part of some essential plant constituent or metabolite. This is in accordance with Justus von Liebig’s law of the minimum. The total essential plant nutrients include seventeen different elements: carbon, oxygen and hydrogen which are absorbed from the air, whereas other nutrients including nitrogen are typically obtained from the soil.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Magnesium chloride</span> Inorganic salt: MgCl2 and its hydrates

Magnesium chloride is an inorganic compound with the formula MgCl2. It forms hydrates MgCl2·nH2O, where n can range from 1 to 12. These salts are colorless or white solids that are highly soluble in water. These compounds and their solutions, both of which occur in nature, have a variety of practical uses. Anhydrous magnesium chloride is the principal precursor to magnesium metal, which is produced on a large scale. Hydrated magnesium chloride is the form most readily available.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Agricultural lime</span>

Agricultural lime, also called aglime, agricultural limestone, garden lime or liming, is a soil additive made from pulverized limestone or chalk. The primary active component is calcium carbonate. Additional chemicals vary depending on the mineral source and may include calcium oxide. Unlike the types of lime called quicklime and slaked lime, powdered limestone does not require lime burning in a lime kiln; it only requires milling. All of these types of lime are sometimes used as soil conditioners, with a common theme of providing a base to correct acidity, but lime for farm fields today is often crushed limestone. Historically, liming of farm fields in centuries past was often done with burnt lime; the difference is at least partially explained by the fact that affordable mass-production-scale fine milling of stone and ore relies on technologies developed since the mid-19th century.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Liming (soil)</span> Application of minerals to soil

Liming is the application of calcium- (Ca) and magnesium (Mg)-rich materials in various forms, including marl, chalk, limestone, burnt lime or hydrated lime to soil. In acid soils, these materials react as a base and neutralize soil acidity. This often improves plant growth and increases the activity of soil bacteria, but oversupply may result in harm to plant life. Modern liming was preceded by marling, a process of spreading raw chalk and lime debris across soil, in an attempt to modify pH or aggregate size. Evidence of these practices dates to the 1200's and the earliest examples are taken from the modern British Isles.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Soil fertility</span> The ability of a soil to sustain agricultural plant growth

Soil fertility refers to the ability of soil to sustain agricultural plant growth, i.e. to provide plant habitat and result in sustained and consistent yields of high quality. It also refers to the soil's ability to supply plant/crop nutrients in the right quantities and qualities over a sustained period of time.A fertile soil has the following properties:

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Alkalinity</span> Capacity of water to resist changes in pH that would make the water more acidic

Alkalinity (from Arabic: القلوي, romanized: al-qaly, lit. 'ashes of the saltwort') is the capacity of water to resist acidification. It should not be confused with basicity, which is an absolute measurement on the pH scale. Alkalinity is the strength of a buffer solution composed of weak acids and their conjugate bases. It is measured by titrating the solution with an acid such as HCl until its pH changes abruptly, or it reaches a known endpoint where that happens. Alkalinity is expressed in units of concentration, such as meq/L (milliequivalents per liter), μeq/kg (microequivalents per kilogram), or mg/L CaCO3 (milligrams per liter of calcium carbonate). Each of these measurements corresponds to an amount of acid added as a titrant.

Agrogeology is the study of the origins of minerals known as agrominerals and their applications. These minerals are of importance to farming and horticulture, especially with regard to soil fertility and fertilizer components. These minerals are usually essential plant nutrients. Agrogeology can also be defined as the application of geology to problems in agriculture, particularly in reference to soil productivity and health. This field is a combination of a few different fields, including geology, soil science, agronomy, and chemistry. The overall objective is to advance agricultural production by using geological resources to improve chemical and physical aspects of soil.

An acidophobe is an organism that is intolerant of acidic environments. The terms acidophobia, acidophoby and acidophobic are also used. The term acidophobe is variously applied to plants, bacteria, protozoa, animals, chemical compounds, etc. The antonymous term is acidophile.

Soil acidification is the buildup of hydrogen cations, which reduces the soil pH. Chemically, this happens when a proton donor gets added to the soil. The donor can be an acid, such as nitric acid, sulfuric acid, or carbonic acid. It can also be a compound such as aluminium sulfate, which reacts in the soil to release protons. Acidification also occurs when base cations such as calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium are leached from the soil.

Acid sulfate soils are naturally occurring soils, sediments or organic substrates that are formed under waterlogged conditions. These soils contain iron sulfide minerals and/or their oxidation products. In an undisturbed state below the water table, acid sulfate soils are benign. However, if the soils are drained, excavated or otherwise exposed to air, the sulfides react with oxygen to form sulfuric acid.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Alkali soil</span> Soil type with pH > 8.5

Alkali, or Alkaline, soils are clay soils with high pH, a poor soil structure and a low infiltration capacity. Often they have a hard calcareous layer at 0.5 to 1 metre depth. Alkali soils owe their unfavorable physico-chemical properties mainly to the dominating presence of sodium carbonate, which causes the soil to swell and difficult to clarify/settle. They derive their name from the alkali metal group of elements, to which sodium belongs, and which can induce basicity. Sometimes these soils are also referred to as alkaline sodic soils.
Alkaline soils are basic, but not all basic soils are alkaline.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Acid neutralizing capacity</span> Measure for the overall buffering capacity against acidification of a solution

Acid-neutralizing capacity or ANC in short is a measure for the overall buffering capacity against acidification of a solution, e.g. surface water or soil water.

Soil biodiversity refers to the relationship of soil to biodiversity and to aspects of the soil that can be managed in relative to biodiversity. Soil biodiversity relates to some catchment management considerations.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Base-cation saturation ratio</span>

Base-cation saturation ratio (BCSR) is a method of interpreting soil test results that is widely used in sustainable agriculture, supported by the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (ATTRA) and claimed to be successfully in use on over a million acres (4,000 km2) of farmland worldwide. The traditional method, as used by most university laboratories, is known variously as the 'sufficiency level', sufficiency level of available nutrients (SLAN), or Index(UK) system. The sufficiency level system is concerned only with keeping plant-available nutrient levels within a well studied range, making sure there is neither a deficiency nor an excess. In the BCSR system, soil cations are balanced according to varying ratios often stated as giving 'ideal' or 'balanced' soil. These ratios can be between individual cations, such as the calcium to magnesium ratio, or they may be expressed as a percentage saturation of the cation exchange capacity (CEC) of the soil. Most 'ideal soil' theories stress both approaches.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Freshwater acidification</span>

Freshwater acidification occurs when acidic inputs enter a body of fresh water through the weathering of rocks, invasion of acidifying gas, or by the reduction of acid anions, like sulfate and nitrate within a lake. Freshwater acidification is primarily caused by sulfur oxides (SOx) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) entering the water from atmospheric depositions and soil leaching. Carbonic acid and dissolved carbon dioxide can also enter freshwaters in a similar manner associated with runoff through carbon dioxide-rich soils. Runoff that contains these compounds may incorporate acidifying hydrogen ions and inorganic aluminum, which can be toxic to marine organisms. Acid rain is also a contributor to freshwater acidification. It is created when SOx and NOx react with water, oxygen, and other oxidants within the clouds.

Seventeen elements or nutrients are essential for plant growth and reproduction. They are carbon (C), hydrogen (H), oxygen (O), nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K), sulfur (S), calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg), iron (Fe), boron (B), manganese (Mn), copper (Cu), zinc (Zn), molybdenum (Mo), nickel (Ni) and chlorine (Cl). Nutrients required for plants to complete their life cycle are considered essential nutrients. Nutrients that enhance the growth of plants but are not necessary to complete the plant's life cycle are considered non-essential. With the exception of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, which are supplied by carbon dioxide and water, and nitrogen, provided through nitrogen fixation, the nutrients derive originally from the mineral component of the soil. The Law of the Minimum expresses that when the available form of a nutrient is not in enough proportion in the soil solution, then other nutrients cannot be taken up at an optimum rate by a plant. A particular nutrient ratio of the soil solution is thus mandatory for optimizing plant growth, a value which might differ from nutrient ratios calculated from plant composition.


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