The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio


June 23, 2013

Outdoors Insider, with Dale Sunderlin: What exactly is soil pH?

The last couple of columns have addressed food plots, liming, fertilizer, planting and the all-infamous pH levels.

Most people understand the several steps involved in prepping the soil but when it comes to the pH level new bees to the food plot process seem to get lost and usually ask, “What exactly is soil pH, and why is it such a big deal?”

I know I did and for that matter, I still don’t fully understand it, but I know one thing for sure, if it’s not right, your plantings, no matter what it is, just are not going to grow to it’s full potential.  

Thankfully, the answer is relatively simple if the person giving the explanation does not unnecessarily overcomplicate it. I have asked the question of experts at outdoor shows I’ve attended, and while some field it well, others seem more concerned with their egos than with educating others.

The latter reveal themselves rather quickly with scenarios like the following:

An ‘expert’s’ opinion

Myself and a group of hunting buddies approached a booth at an outdoor show, the deer and turkey show in Columbus, and one of the group, usually me, asks the resident “expert,” “By the way, everyone keeps saying that soil pH is so important. What exactly is soil pH?”

In response, the “expert” puffed himself up and says, “Well, pH is a measure of soil acidity!”

The hunter, being myself, exhibits the reaction most common to such answers, a glassy-eyed stare. Sensing an opportunity to demonstrate his expertise, the “expert” continues, “Well, let me try to put it in terms you can understand. pH is a measurement scale from 1-14, with the lower numbers being more acidic and the higher more alkaline.”

Daaa, what’d he say

Now, we deer hunters hate to show weakness in front of our buddies; and so rather than look even dumber in front of my fellow hunters, I just looked at nodded at the “expert,” said no more, and left not knowing any more than I did before the encounter.

The scenario didn’t have to end that way. The “expert” could have done my buds and me a great service and probably locked in a customer to boot, had he been less concerned with his own image and more with educating others.

So, being honest, my question was still, what the heck is soil pH? Or better yet, what does pH mean to us regular folk who are planning on planting a food plot for deer?


Simple terms

Now since then, I’ve done as much research as I can on it and this is the best I can come up with. For our purposes, soil pH is nothing more than an indicator of how well a plant can get nutrients out of the soil in which it is growing.

That’s it.

It’s nothing more complicated than that.

Plants are like any other living thing in that they thrive in a limited range of environmental conditions. Different plants have different soil-pH ranges in which they are best able to get nutrients out of the soil. Some plants, for example some garden ornamentals, do best in relatively acidic soil, say a pH of 4-5. Not so with most deer-plot plants.

The numbers vary a bit depending on who you talk to and the brand of seed you use but generally most deer-plot plants are best able to get nutrients out of the soil when the pH is around 6.5-7.5, which some refer to as “neutral pH,” basically, in the middles of the 1 to 14 range.

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