How to Conduct a Soil pH Test at Home

digging soil up in a garden

The Spruce/Claire Cohen

Project Overview
  • Working Time: 30 - 45 mins
  • Total Time: 30 - 45 mins
  • Skill Level: Beginner
  • Estimated Cost: $20

As a home gardener, it's important to test soil pH because certain plants have specific pH requirements and won't thrive unless the soil pH falls within a particular range. pH measures the level of acidity in the soil and it affects a plant’s ability to absorb nutrients. If the soil pH level falls outside of a plant's recommended range, all the plant food and fertilizer in the world won’t help -- the plants can’t absorb nutrients.

Technically speaking, a soil pH test measures how many hydrogen ions are in the soil. On a scale of 1 to 14, a pH less than 7.0 is acidic, 7.0 is neutral, and anything higher than 7.0 is alkaline. Acidic or alkaline soil isn't necessarily bad; it all depends on the plants you're growing. Most plants can adapt to soil pH ranges from 6 to 7.5, but some plants have distinct requirements. For instance, blueberries require acidic soil in the range of 4.5 to 5.5 to produce berries while lavender tends to do best in alkaline soil about 8.0.

When to Conduct a Soil pH Test

Testing your soil's pH should be an item to include on your fall garden task checklist. Testing pH in the fall enables you to take steps to correct the pH before the next spring planting season. And, fall is a good time to note any weeds that have grown throughout the summer, which can also give you clues about your soil pH. For instance, dandelions, wild strawberries, and plantain proliferate in acidic soil while chickweed, Queen Anne's lace, and chicory favor alkaline soil.

Performing a soil pH test in the fall gives you plenty of time to plant a nitrogen-fixing cover crop (for mild winter climates) or to revise next year's planting plan to suit the pH reading. In the case of alkaline soil, you can lower the pH by adding organic materials, such as peat moss. Acidic soil can be neutralized by adding lime. The type and quantity of soil amendments depend on how much the pH needs to be raised or lowered.

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Learn How to Conduct a Soil pH Test

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Hand trowel
  • Clean glassware
  • Liquid measuring cup

Materials

  • Distilled water
  • Coffee filter
  • pH testing kit
  • Vinegar
  • Baking soda

Instructions

Testing pH Using Kitchen Supplies

An acidic solution generally reacts when it's added to something basic. You can use vinegar (acidic) and baking soda (basic) for a do-it-yourself quick pH reading of your soil. This do-it-yourself test will reveal whether the soil is relatively acidic or alkaline and is recommended for those who have healthy gardens that might benefit from a little more targeted care.

Note

Soil testing labs provide more complete and accurate results than do-it-yourself home methods. Soil testing labs provide a complete analysis of soil composition including percent of organic matter and major and minor nutrients as well as pH level.


  1. Dig for a Soil Sample

    Using a hand trowel, dig four to six inches below the soil surface to obtain a soil sample. Dig in several locations in your garden bed to obtain an average soil sample representative of the area.

    digging up soil
  2. Clean the Soil

    Remove stones, sticks, and other debris from the soil. Be sure to break up any large clumps.

    removing sticks from soil
  3. Add Soil and Water Together

    Place approximately one cup of soil into a clean glass container, and add enough distilled water to turn the soil to mud.

    adding water to soil
  4. Add the Vinegar

    Add 1/2 cup of vinegar and stir the mixture. If the soil fizzes, foams, or bubbles, your soil is alkaline.

    adding vinegar to the soil
  5. Repeat the Process if No Bubbling Occurs

    Take a soil sample, clean it of debris, place it into a clean container, and use distilled water to turn it into mud.

    adding water to soil
  6. Add the Baking Soda

    Add 1/2 cup of baking soda and stir. If the soil fizzes, foams, or bubbles, your soil is acidic.

    adding baking soda to soil

Testing pH Using Soil Strips

Testing with vinegar and baking soda can indicate which end of the pH scale your soil is leaning. But for an exact measurement, a soil pH testing kit provides more definitive results. You can purchase testing kits at most garden centers and through local cooperative extension offices.

  1. Dig for a Sample

    Using a hand trowel, dig four to six inches below the soil surface to obtain a soil sample.

    Digging for a soil sample

    The Spruce / Almar Creative

  2. Collect the Soil

    Place one to three teaspoons of soil in a clean glass. Remove sticks, stones, and other debris.

    Collecting the soil in a glass bowl

    The Spruce / Jayme Burrows

  3. Pour in Distilled Water

    Fill the glass with distilled water to the same level as the soil sample.

    Pouring distilled water into the glass bowl

    The Spruce / Jayme Burrows

  4. Agitate the Soil

    Vigorously stir or swirl the mixture. Let the solution rest for 30 minutes.

    Agitating the sample with water

    The Spruce / Jayme Burrows

  5. Drain the Sample

    Pour the soil sample through a coffee filter and into another clean glass. Make sure that you are capturing the solids and allowing the liquid to pass through.

    Straining the sample through a coffee filter

    The Spruce / Jayme Burrows

  6. Use the pH Test Strip

    Dip the test strip into the liquid. Pay close attention to the instructions on how long to leave the strip in the liquid. When the strip turns color, compare the color to the chart on the manufacturer's packaging to determine the pH.

    Dipping the pH test strip into the liquid

    The Spruce / Jayme Burrows

  7. Repeat the Process

    Repeat the process several times with samples from different parts of your garden to determine an average pH.

    Repeating the testing process

    The Spruce / Jayme Burrows

Soil pH Testing Tips

If you test your soil using vinegar and baking soda and neither test produces much of an effect, your soil is probably in the neutral range. No further testing is needed.

You can mix soil from several different samples of a small garden for the vinegar-baking soda test. However, if you have a large garden, it is better to test several samples separately.

If it's difficult to successfully grow anything in your garden beds or your lawn is not thriving, it's best to send a soil sample to a professional soil testing lab to obtain a complete soil analysis. Based on the test results, the experts will make specific recommendations for soil amendments.

Article Sources
The Spruce uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Soil Testing. University of Maryland Extension Website

  2. Soil testing and soil testing labs. Umd.Edu.

  3. Reducing Soil PH. Wisconsin Horticulture.

  4. “Soil Sampling Instructions.” Rutgers.Edu, https://njaes.rutgers.edu/soil-testing-lab/pdfs/home/Home_and_Landscape_-_Soil_Sampling_Instructions.pdf

  5. Soil Testing Laboratory. Rutgers.Edu.