The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

June 23, 2013

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

For the Star Beacon

— 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.

An analogy

Here’s an analogy someone told me that I think defines soil pH well. Let’s say that you and I are seated at a table piled high with nutritious food, but our jaws are wired shut. It wouldn’t matter how much food is on the table or how nutritious it is; we’ll still starve because we can’t get the food into our bodies.

Same thing with soil pH, you and I are the plants, and the food on the table is fertilizer. Soil pH is the wire in the plants’ jaws, and the lower the soil pH the tighter the wire.

Pick one

So, if you had to pick which is more important, pH or fertilizer, it could be argued that pH is more important, since with neutral pH, the plant can at least get whatever nutrients are already in the soil. Make sense? Of course, the point is not to say that one should lime but not fertilize.

Both soil pH and soil nutrient content are important and should be addressed for best plot results.

Raising the pH

So, what if the pH of the soil in which we are planting a plot is too low? The most common method for raising low soil pH is the incorporation of granular or pelletized lime into the soil many months in advance of planting to give the lime time to raise soil pH.

This time frame tends to be a problem for food plot planting. We normally plant in the spring or early summer for a fall and winter food plot making it awful hard to get out there and lime the late winter to be ready for the next spring. You just have to do the best you can and time it as close as you can.

How to know the pH

But how do we know for sure what our pH is, and therefore, how much lime we have, or don’t have, to add?

Simple, do a soil test.

Yes, I know, soil testing is a big pain in the rear, right?

Extra money you don’t need to spend, right? And, even if pH is too low, one can compensate by adding excess fertilizer, right?


Do it right!

Pay attention here folks, get a soil test, not a slurry kit or a probe, but the kind that requires you to dig up some dirt and send it off to a lab, and if you’re planting more than one food plot get one for each plot you are planning on planting. Test kits generally cost around $15-$20, including the lab analysis fee.

Chances are you will more than make that back in lime and fertilizer savings compared to what you’ll have to apply to be sure you cover the bases without the test. Also, adding excess fertilizer won’t make up for inadequate pH.

Remember our earlier analogy, if soil pH is too low, it doesn’t matter how much food is on the table (fertilizer is in the ground) because we (the plants) can’t get it into our bodies if our jaws are wired shut (soil pH is too low).

Important info

The most important things the soil test will tell you are the pH of, and the phosphorous and potassium levels in, your soil. With just that information, you can tailor the lime and fertilizer blend to reach adequate soil conditions.

If you have trouble reading your soil test results, call the company that made the plot mix or call your local county extension agent. The company should have a consultant readily available to help you understand the recommendations in the report. If you can’t get them on the phone, or if they can’t help explain your soil test results to you, then next time buy from someone who takes customer service seriously.  

Soil test kits are available directly from Ag Universities, your local soil and water conservation service and some farm supply stores.

Again, be sure the kit you use requires that soil be sent to a lab for testing and is not a probe or slurry-type kit. Once you get the results just follow the recommended amounts of lime as well as the type and amounts of fertilizer and your plantings may just be knee high by the fourth of July.           


Most hunting situations require the ability to make accurate shots from less than comfortable shooting positions. The difference between being able to capitalize on these opportunities is often tied directly to having practiced similar situations prior to the hunt.

You want to make sure that you are practicing from the same or similar shooting positions that you might encounter on a hunt.

Ups and downs

One of the most common mistakes in shooting positions is shooting out of a tree stand and up or down hills. A very common problem is to raise or lower the bow for the angle of the shot, which usually results in a high miss because of a change in the anchor point.

The correct way to execute that shot is to always draw back level and bend from the waist to accommodate for the angle. This way your anchor point is kept the same and the shot will hit true.

Kneeling or sitting

Shooting from a kneeling or seated position can cause problems as well, especially in seated positions where the tendency is to miss low left for right-handed shooters. This is caused by dropping your bow arm after the shot.

Most people find that pushing toward the target with your bow arm and holding your bow there until the arrow hits the target is a quick fix for that, follow through

Every shot is not going to be perfect so start now to prepare for the worst-case scenario. This way, you’ll be ready when or if the time comes.

Remember, pass it on or it will surely pass on.

Sunderlin is a freelance writer from Geneva. Reach him at