Author Topic: living with alkaline soils  (Read 1351 times)

Offline Bobo

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living with alkaline soils
« on: September 04, 2012, 11:25:12 AM »
To all,

ok, I live in Midland Texas (west Texas) and we have a natural soil pH which is around 8.0. The soil sucks so bad that you can mix it with vinegar and get a weak chemical reaction (sounds like rice crispies). This makes most of my gardening most challenging. I've been implementing natural ways to lower my soil pH through the use of sulfur, coffee grounds, and compost tea. I've gotten my soil pH to around 7.0 with these practices but I'm thinking this is about as good as it gets (since the water we have here is also high in pH around 7.5 to 8.0).

ok, so here's the crux of my question... since I don't believe growing blueberries is in my future... what is a good list of plants which do well (or tolerate) in an alkaline environment.
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Offline Terroir

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Re: living with alkaline soils
« Reply #1 on: September 04, 2012, 12:15:58 PM »
We also have alkaline soils here in north central Arizona. The composition of the soil plays a large part in the fertility of the soil, not just the pH. If you have been able to get your pH to 7.0, that is neutral and almost ideal for many vegetables. The range seems to be from about 6.5 to 7.5 where veggies will do well. Vinegar is a strong acid, around 3.0 pH, so will have a visible reaction with an 8.0 or better alkaline. One of your continuing challenges will be the high pH water, which will drive the soil pH back up over time. Coffee grounds act as a pH buffer and can be used up to 25% by volume in your soil. That will be a real help in the long run!

What is your soil composition - clay, sandy, loam, or some combination? Alkaline clay soil is a real challenge to grow in, but a somewhat alkaline sandy loam will produce a lot of food.

One of the first things that I would add to the soil is charcoal or biochar. You are looking for hardwood lump charcoal, NOT briquettes which have petrochemical firestarters and fillers in them. The charcoal adds carbon to the soil, which is important for any garden, as well as improving all soil types, acting as housing for the microorganisms in the soil, and as a sponge for minerals and nutrients to prevent them from washing out during watering or rains.  There are so many benefits of adding charcoal to soil to improve agriculture, there are terrabytes of data and articles on the internet, with much university research. I've personally seen charcoal help so many different types of soil that it is now one of the first tools I reach for when working to improve soil structure and fertility, yet so many people have never heard of it.

I have written a couple of articles about this and the research done on Terra Preta, the Amazonian dark earths that were the original places charcoal was used. You can read part one here - http://www.underwoodgardens.com/516/terra-preta-magic-soil-of-the-lost-amazon/ and part two here - http://www.underwoodgardens.com/526/terra-preta-magic-soil-of-the-lost-amazon-part-ii/.
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Offline Skunkeye

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Re: living with alkaline soils
« Reply #2 on: September 04, 2012, 03:12:05 PM »
One thing I'd do, if you can, is to capture and store as much rainwater as possible, and use that to irrigate.  Using alkaline water will eventually drive the pH back up, so minimizing the use of alkaline well or city water and using rainwater (even "clean", unpolluted rain is slightly acidic) will go a long way toward preserving the lower pH you've managed to build.

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Offline Swampoak

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Re: living with alkaline soils
« Reply #3 on: September 15, 2012, 10:26:09 PM »
If you've gotten the ph down to 7.0 then that is right at neutral. This is preferred for most legumes like clovers, alfalfa and even many beans; but many garden vegetables and fruits prefer a lower, slightly acidic soil. Typically somewhere around 6.0-6.5 is about perfect for most and even the ones that prefer neutral to slightly alkaline can tolerate this.
To get your soil to be more acidic the most common thing to add is sulfur. There are many kinds of sulfur but most are not recommended (at least not from me) because they contain other elements such as aluminum from aluminum sulfate. Aluminum is a toxic metal for humans and other animals to ingest. The best sulfur is just "elemental sulfur". To bring your soil down one full point you need to incorporate approximately 4 pounds of elemental sulfur per 100 square feet. (10 x 10 ft), if my memory serves me right. You can pick up this sulfur at any feed/seed mill, farmers coop or at most garden stores. For a 40 or 50 pound bag for around $20 I think.
And if you wanted to plant blueberries, just make some raised beds with a soil mixture of compost, soil, peat moss and add plenty of elemental sulfur. Test your ph a couple of times every year to make adjustments. for watering if your ph is high (mine is too), I just take a miracle gro spray gun that has the small reservoir on the bottom to put the fertilizer in and I just put in a small bit of elemental sulfur in it. Just remember not too much and don't spray the leaves of the plants because some plants can't take the sulfur directly.

Offline nelson96

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Re: living with alkaline soils
« Reply #4 on: September 15, 2012, 11:38:07 PM »
Since you're pretty neutral now (7 being neutral of course)?  The choices you have already made should eventually work.  You might should look toward improving drainage if you need to change/control it further.  My guess is that you have some nutrient deficiencies. . . .  Whatever you choose, do it slowly.

I have had good luck with cow manure.  It is known for keeping a neutral pH.

I would get your soil tested for nutrient deficiencies and be ready to add fertilizer.  You may have phosphorus deficiencies, especially if you have a lot of calcium in your soil which ties up phosphorus.  You need phosphorus for good root growth.  But that's just a guess, I know nothing about Texas soil.  I'm betting that pH isn't your biggest problem though.

Texas A&M "Soil Sample Test" Form:
http://soiltesting.tamu.edu/files/soilwebform.pdf

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Offline Bobo

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Re: living with alkaline soils
« Reply #5 on: December 02, 2012, 07:57:09 PM »
this test was completed about 1 year ago... as you can see, Phosphorous is NOT a problem... the Nitrogen was low because of the substantial amount of wood mulch that I put in... I'm going to repeat this testing soon to see how things are now.

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Offline halh

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Re: living with alkaline soils
« Reply #6 on: December 03, 2012, 01:13:10 AM »
this test was completed about 1 year ago... as you can see, Phosphorous is NOT a problem... the Nitrogen was low because of the substantial amount of wood mulch that I put in... I'm going to repeat this testing soon to see how things are now.


What brand is the test kit shown!
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Offline Terroir

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Re: living with alkaline soils
« Reply #7 on: December 03, 2012, 07:58:38 PM »
Bobo, be really careful on trying to accurately interpret soil fertility needs from a simple NPK kit. Those are good to get you in the state where the ballpark is, but not much more. If you are lucky, they might get you close to the city where the ballpark is located. The reason is that there is so much variability not only to the extremely tiny amount of soil used in each test, but the age and activity of the chemicals, along with a broad range of interpretation of the results. How it looks 2 minutes after shaking it up is completely different than how it will look 5 or even 10 minutes later.

As nelson96 pointed out, you might be deficient in the amount of available phosphorus, but that won't show up on this test, as it will react to the chemicals used, but won't be bio-available to the plants. That is the reason to get a full-spectrum soil test done by a recognized agricultural soil lab, along with their recommendations. There are a number that are top-notch and reasonable, especially for the home gardener and smaller scale grower.  Here are some that I know and trust - Crop Services International, Dr. Phil Wheeler is an excellent soil scientist and a great guy. Read his page on the Home Garden Program recommendations. International Ag Labs is another excellent resource. I met John Frank at the Acres USA conference a couple of years ago and spent some time talking with him about traditional, non-chemical approaches to building soil fertility over the long term. Another great one that a local biological farmer uses is Texas Plant and Soil Lab, they've been around the longest - since 1938 and work with both Reams and Carey models of soil testing and fertility improvements.

Expect to pay anywhere from $35.00 for a basic test, interpretations and soil management plan to about $70.00 for a more comprehensive one. For getting started, do the basic one, spend some time on the phone asking questions and get some details. You may need to pay for this time, but it will be dollars truly well spent, especially with not guessing on which direction to go, or having to correct mistakes down the road, costing lots more dollars and more importantly, time to get those corrections working in the soil! You don't have to test every year, most labs will say to test every 2 - 5 years, depending on your particular situation and fertility needs.

Way too many people don't really know what they are doing in this area, or simply guess what direction to go in, based on some other schmuck's guess. This winds up costing time and money that is simply wasted, when a few dollars and some time spent with someone who truly knows their business will put you years ahead of your "know it all" neighbor. I've personally seen this happen a lot with our customers, especially when they start getting serious about growing more food on a regular basis - i.e. wanting to feed themselves out of their garden. It's not too hard to get lucky for a year or so, but that luck quickly runs out and the struggles start.
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Offline nelson96

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Re: living with alkaline soils
« Reply #8 on: December 03, 2012, 11:49:52 PM »
As nelson96 pointed out, you might be deficient in the amount of available phosphorus, but that won't show up on this test, as it will react to the chemicals used, but won't be bio-available to the plants. That is the reason to get a full-spectrum soil test done by a recognized agricultural soil lab, along with their recommendations. There are a number that are top-notch and reasonable, especially for the home gardener and smaller scale grower.  Here are some that I know and trust - Crop Services International, Dr. Phil Wheeler is an excellent soil scientist and a great guy. Read his page on the Home Garden Program recommendations. International Ag Labs is another excellent resource. I met John Frank at the Acres USA conference a couple of years ago and spent some time talking with him about traditional, non-chemical approaches to building soil fertility over the long term. Another great one that a local biological farmer uses is Texas Plant and Soil Lab, they've been around the longest - since 1938 and work with both Reams and Carey models of soil testing and fertility improvements.

This is good advice, and I'm not just saying that becuase Terroir quoted me.  You might also look in to a local college with an ag program.  Your case might be a good way to get some help probono and they might use your property (if you're willing) as a field trip site and share their findings.
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Offline Bonnieblue2A

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Re: living with alkaline soils
« Reply #9 on: December 04, 2012, 09:46:37 AM »
Might try to see if you can get your soil to a neutral pH using the Back to Eden method of gardening. Paul Gauschi claims his soil is neutral as a result of using this method (as tested by the state university Agricultural college).

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Offline halh

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Re: living with alkaline soils
« Reply #10 on: December 05, 2012, 11:52:39 PM »
Might try to see if you can get your soil to a neutral pH using the Back to Eden method of gardening. Paul Gauschi claims his soil is neutral as a result of using this method (as tested by the state university Agricultural college).

Living in an arid desert area, coming up with enough material in a cost effective manner to utilize the BtE methodology might prove to be a bit of a challenge... at least it has been the case for me.
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Offline Morning Sunshine

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Re: living with alkaline soils
« Reply #11 on: December 06, 2012, 08:38:07 AM »
I have not tried a vinegar test with my soil - I want to now! - but I know that my soil is alkaline as well.  it is WHITE and not even native weeds/grasses grow much here.
What I did, I dug a few trenches and am making hugel beds in them.  there is a thread here about my project http://thesurvivalpodcast.com/forum/index.php?topic=36930.msg415813#msg415813

it is new since August, so I cannot report any success, but that is my solution!
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Offline Bobo

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Re: living with alkaline soils
« Reply #12 on: December 06, 2012, 09:55:02 AM »
thanks for all the feedback... however, I still never received information on what plants are simply more tolerant to alkaline soils. Any thoughts from the contributors so far?
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Offline nelson96

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Re: living with alkaline soils
« Reply #13 on: December 06, 2012, 10:36:30 AM »
thanks for all the feedback... however, I still never received information on what plants are simply more tolerant to alkaline soils. Any thoughts from the contributors so far?

Asparagus
Beets
Cabbage
Cauliflower
Celery
Carrot
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Offline Terroir

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Re: living with alkaline soils
« Reply #14 on: December 06, 2012, 10:40:30 AM »
We have fantastic results with tomatoes, peppers (hot and sweet), eggplant, melons (cantaloupes, musk, and watermelons), cukes, okra, beets, beans (pole and bush), carrots (they need a looser soil to get long), pretty much anything we want to grow in our alkaline soils. Of course, we have consistently worked on building and improving the soil over the past number of years, but still have to watch the pH as our water has dissolved limestone that gradually raises the pH over time. Our pH is never below 7.0.

From re-reading your original post, I think that you have a great starting point for a hugely productive garden next year. Your challenge will be in maintaining the pH window to keep it producing.
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Offline Twibble

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Re: living with alkaline soils
« Reply #15 on: December 06, 2012, 01:59:12 PM »
I'm in the same area as Bobo.  I planted aloe, lavender, rosemary, and Thai basil.  Aloe and Thai basil were the only things to survive the water restrictions, and I fear the basil is about dead due to the cooler weather.

I'm seriously considering taking all the dirt out of our front flower beds, as I have no idea what is in it, and just starting from scratch once we have the money.
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Offline Bobo

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Re: living with alkaline soils
« Reply #16 on: March 20, 2013, 07:49:40 PM »
thanks for all the comments ya'll.
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