May 5, 2013

Acid or Alkaline? Consider Nature’s Design for Your Soil. ~ Matthew Warner

Photo: Sara Lingafelter

One of the most important factors for healthy plant growth is the pH of the soil.

The pH level is an indication of the balance of acidity and alkalinity in our soil. When the pH balance of our soil does not match the desired balance of a plant, that plant will suffer and not be able to thrive.

There is no such thing as a good or bad pH level for soil. Different regions have different pH levels and that is what determines which plants grow and thrive there. For example, pine forests grow in soils with very low pH. Pine trees thrive in acidic soil because the nutrients they most need are made available in acidic conditions. On the other hand, oak trees prefer a higher pH or more alkaline soil. The nutrients that are important to oak trees are more readily available when the pH level is relatively higher.

Both pine and oak forests are of vital importance to our overall ecological system, and it would be irrational to claim that one is more important or more ideal than the other. In nature, the plants that are most important to the environment of a certain region set the pH tone for all the life in that area. In pine forests, you will find plants who have learned to live and thrive in an acidic environment. In an oak forest, you will find plants that have adapted to thrive in alkaline conditions.

Of course, in the world of landscape and gardening we are tempted to manipulate the pH of our soil to suit the plants that we desire to grow. There are various organic materials that we can add to our soil to alter its pH level. We can add dolomitic lime to raise our soil’s pH making it more alkaline, or we can add elemental sulfur to lower the pH and make it more acidic. Yet in the spirit of co-existing harmoniously with our natural surroundings, there are a few things we should consider before doing so.

As our species has fallen out of alignment with nature, we tend to forget our symbiotic roles in our environment, and in choosing a place to live we rarely, if ever, consider whether or not the local ecological system will support us and if our presence will naturally support our local environment. Instead, we manipulate our surroundings to turn them into what we need, in spite of the impact it will have on the planet as a whole.

Before we took up residence in our homes and yards, there were other creatures that have been living and thriving there for a very long time. Our soil is home to a myriad of microorganisms, whose presence and function literally create the local environment from the ground up. The microorganisms in the soil determine the plants that grow, which determine the insects that come to inhabit that space. Those insects that work in conjunction with those local plants then create a food source for larger animals such as lizards, birds and other larger insects. This is how an environment is created and is the essence of what we think of as a “food chain.”

If we attempt to alter the pH level of our soil, even with organic or “natural” substances, we are undermining the complex ecology at the very base of our environment just to create the landscape we desire.

By drastically changing the acidity or alkalinity in our soil, we could unconsciously wipe out entire systems of microorganisms and cause a great disruption in our local ecological systems. Furthermore, since we are battling a system that is far grander and more complex than we can imagine, any amendments to pH would be short-lived, as the environment perpetually strives to reestablish its own balance. This would require an indefinite need to re-apply the amendments again and again, making the whole process grossly unsustainable.

However, when we become conscious of our symbiotic relationship with the environment and actualize our role in our ecological surroundings, we can create mutually beneficial and gratifying solutions to these issues. There are ways to create beautiful natural environments, edible landscapes and aesthetic paradise in our living spaces without infringing on the complex and vital process of nature.

Native Plants

Selecting, planting and growing native plants is the answer to virtually any question that could ever be asked about natural organic gardening. The plants that are native to our local area have spent centuries learning about and adapting to the unique nutrient conditions and biological populations of our local soil. They are our gardening gurus and anything we want to know about growing the right plants begins with them.

Blueberry bushes like acid soil, so I planted this one in a cedar grove and mulched it with needles and straw

Instead of using overpriced and inefficient laboratory testing, just take your cues from the plants already growing in your space.

Once you know what pH is preferable to those plants, then you can select other plants, shrubs and trees that share those preferences. There are widely varying soil conditions all over the world, and there are beautiful ornamental and edible plants in all those differing conditions. With some research, you can find plants that suit both your desires and the requirements of your local ecosystem.

If your local soil is more acidic, then you could easily grow nutritious banana plants and exquisite bamboo, among countless other selections. If your local soil is more alkaline, you could grow refreshing, creamy coconut palms and gorgeous rose bushes.

Of course, as homage paid to your native gurus, try selecting plants that are also native to your region and environment. This will be a step towards restoring our ecosystem and reintegrating our place within it.

No-Till Gardening

What about wanting to grow all of our own fruits and vegetables? How can we work within the confines of our local soil to grow a wider range of nutritious foods that might not be native to our particular location or ecological conditions? The answer is simple. When the soil pH does not support the growth of typical garden crops such as tomatoes, lettuce, melons, cucumbers, etc., then all you need to do is build your own.

A great majority of edible fruits and vegetables that we grow in our home gardens all enjoy a pH that is balanced yet slightly on the acidic side (6-7). Fortunately, this is the general pH of well-composted soil. When we compost kitchen scraps and yard waste, the bacteria and microorganisms that break down and decompose it provide a product that falls within that “magic” acidic range.

When we try to alter the natural pH of our soil we have to till the ground and apply certain amendments. The process itself is detrimental to the life within the soil and also releases excess carbon into the atmosphere every time we do it. Yet, if we leave that soil alone, we can use no-till gardening techniques to create a new layer on top of the preexisting earth. This creates a separate soil environment that does not overtly interfere with what it already there and will provide an ideal medium for the plants we desire.

There are many amazing no-till techniques that we can utilize for this purpose. They provide an unending list of benefits to us, our plants, our wallets and our environment. We can use these methods to create a blank slate and produce whatever soil conditions best suit the plants that will feed and shelter us.

While creating the new soil, try to avoid using amendments—even organic ones—and instead progressively plant vegetation that will gradually create the pH you need for the foods you’d like to eat. You could add coffee grounds to the new soil for more acidity or dolomitic lime for more alkalinity, but both will have to be continually reapplied as the bacteria in the soil exhaust their effects. Instead, use plants to influence the pH change at the biological level; the change will be much more sustainable.

If we carefully observe and respect the natural conditions and ecological workings of the space we live in, we can have the garden paradise we desire while still contributing to the healing process of the planet. If we consider all life forms and understand our place in the greater ecosystem, then our decisions become more rational and our work becomes much easier. By working with the environment rather than trying to “fix” or “amend” it, we can let go of so many of the chemicals, techniques and institutions that are depleting our bank account, energy levels, and ecological harmony while co-creating a natural paradise all across the planet.


Matthew Warner is a Whole Food Nutritionist and Physio-Ecological Wellness Counselor who has been teaching whole food healing and sustainability for over 6 years. His own personal background and experiences, coupled with his extensive knowledge of physiology, chemistry, metaphysics, ecology, permaculture and psychology, give him very effective tools to treat and heal cravings, addictions, irrational thought patterns and emotional attachments that can become a great impetus on the road to vibrance and vitality. Matthew integrates his diverse background in natural health science, permaculture, yoga, energy healing, and philosophy to bring a unique and truly wholistic approach to teaching and writing. His projects are carefully designed to not only teach but to empower the audience by cultivating an intuitive connection that breeds deep personal realization and renews our intimate personal relationships with our environment and all other physical aspects of our greater Self. Above all, Matthew considers it his greatest responsibility as a teacher to live the principles he is teaching. Visit him at www.NaturesPilgrim.com.

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