“I’d like to test our soil this year”, Resident Gardener announced one day last winter, “it would be good to know for sure what our pH is”.
“Alright” I agreed, “I’m pretty sure it’s slightly acidic, but I’ll pick up one of those test kits next time I’m at the feed store.” I’d thought of our soil as slightly acidic for as long as I could remember. I had a vague wisp of a memory relating to a soil test in the remote past, maybe twenty or so years ago. So long ago that I remember absolutely nothing about the actual act, other than I had a hunch our soil had turned out slightly acidic. This ‘slightly acidic’ nature of our soil was by this point really just a legend, valley lore so to speak.
I checked out the kits that week during my feed store visit, and wow, $29.99!?! For a couple little plastic test tubes, maybe 50ml of coloured liquid, and a booklet? Yeesh. THAT wasn’t gonna happen, not without some research into more fiscally responsible options.
That evening I went online and looked into it. I could buy that feed store kit from lots of suppliers, but I could also, I discovered with delight on a prepper website, buy enough pH test strips for a couple hundred soil tests for under $10. Jackpot! I placed my order, making sure I chose the pH 4.5-9.0 ones, not the 0-14 ones that are too broad spectrum for meaningful soil testing. And I went for the free shipping of course. I could wait.
My new pH test strips took forever to get here, on the slow boat from China, and of course by the time they arrived it was spring, we had a pandemic starting up, and I had a package from China in my hands. Ulp. I shook off my paranoia, rationalizing that any virus would never have survived that long ocean voyage anyway.
A couple days after my test strips arrived, in a free moment, I pulled up the prepper website and read the article again. I had the test strips, what next? Damn! I needed distilled water! I thought for a moment about distilling some, quickly discounting the idea as far too labour intensive, and decided I would just have to pick some up from Crappy Tire. I slung my homemade face mask around my neck, and off I went to brave the retail jungle.
Unfortunately, Crappy Tire does not sell distilled water, only de-ionized water. Argh. Back to the drawing board. Where could I get distilled water? Enquiring minds needed to know! Maybe the drug store? A few days later, I donned my face mask again and ventured out to our local drugstore, where…victory! They had tons, in four litre jugs, for a couple bucks each! Woo hoo! I was in business, and still way ahead compared to that pricey kit. Sure it had taken me more than a month of waiting for the mail, plus two trips to stores during a pandemic, but I finally had everything I needed. It was time to play scientist.
“Slice four to six inches vertically into the soil” read the prepper article, “remove a slice and put it into a bucket. Crumble well, removing all rocks and twigs, then measure out one cupful into a container.” I levered the first wedge of dirt into my bucket, crumbled and cleaned it, and measured exactly one small mason jar full into the first of the five yogurt bins, one for each major garden. I lidded and labelled it, then moved operations on to the next spot. Blueberry patch, raspberry patch, big garden, tiny house garden, agridome. Once I had all my cupfuls of dirt in labelled yogurt bins, I returned to the carport where I had stashed the distilled water. A mason jar of water went into each bin, and then I gave each a good thorough shaking.
“Wait half an hour” the prepper website advised, “the dirt will settle, leaving clear water at the top into which you will dip your test strips”. But at the end of half an hour, the contents of my bins still resembled lumpy chocolate milk. We were going to have to leave them overnight. “That’s clay soil for ya!” RG cheerfully observed as I carefully stacked the bins on the deck stairs, one per step, up tight against the railing so traffic could get by.
A couple hours later as I was sitting in my chair reading, a kerfuffle broke out on the deck and RG called me down, urgency colouring her voice. Liza had been following her up and down the deck stairs as RG collected her seed potatoes for planting, and her floofy wagging tail had knocked over one of the yogurt bins. My blueberry patch test sample was now a small mud puddle at the foot of the stairs. So off I went again, to dig up a fresh one. Since I was at it anyway, I figured I might as well go up and grab the orchard sample I’d overlooked the first time out. Up against our valley’s east side, sandwiched between the driveway and the road, we were pretty sure the orchard was planted on fill brought in when the house was built. The soil in that area was a completely different colour and texture from the rest of our muddy valley. What pH would it be? I was sure it would differ radically from our rich black valley bottom soil!
I gathered the two samples, added the distilled water, labelled, lidded and shook them, then tucked all six bins inside my truck bed, where they could hang out safely away from puppy dog tails until the next day. Surely the dirt would have settled by then.
Yesterday was the big reveal. It was finally time for our muddy valley to give up the secrets of her soil acidity. Oh the excitement! We solemnly assembled in the carport, lined up the six bins on the tailgate, carefully removed their lids, and dipped the first two test strips into the the first sample. Uh huh…and it looks like…ph 6.5. Slightly acidic. Ok. Onto the next one. Uh huh, uh huh, looks like….Ph 6.25. Slightly acidic. Ok. And so it went. Every single sample, even the light red orchard soil! Between 6.25 and 6.5. Slightly acidic.
But wait! These results seemed so…close. Were our test strips bona fide? We needed a control! RG ran upstairs and got a bowl of baking soda in water and a bowl of lemon juice in water. We dipped and peered at the test strips. Oh yeah, they worked great! Look at those colours!
It had been a long journey, fraught with unforseen obstacles, but we had finally confirmed it. Our muddy valley soil is…wait for it… slightly acidic. A bit of an anti-climax I know, but boy, it’s sure a good thing I didn’t spend all that money on an expensive feed store soil test kit! Plus I have the means to conduct a hundred more soil tests, should I ever want to. Probably not, but it’s good to have options, you know?