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The temperature reached 72 degrees yesterday, just shy of the 75 degree record for our county here in Northern Indiana. What a perfect day to be working in the garden. And what was I doing? I was sitting in Memorial Hospital’s emergency ward getting three x-rays and stitches in the top of my foot, as well as a tetanus shot.

To say this injury was a gardening injury is a little bit of a stretch. But it wouldn’t have happened had I not been testing the soil yet once again. (Monday I conducted my fourth pH test, this time using distilled water. And yet the results remained the same: high pH, somewhere between 7.0 and 8.0, and, as close as I can guess based on the inaccuracies of matching to a color chart, probably nearer to 8.0 than 7.0. Oh, and the second test for nitrogen was the same as well — no nitrogen to speak of.) This is what happened:

To conduct the nitrogen test, I had followed the directions to the letter. I took 1 tablespoon soil samples from three locations in the garden and from depths of four inches. I mixed the soil samples in a drinking glass and thoroughly stirred in 15 tablespoons of distilled water (one part soil to five parts water). After waiting 10 minutes for the mixture to settle, I used an eyedropper to remove the proper amount of water from the mixture, without disturbing the sediment at the bottom of the glass.

And, here’s my critical mistake, I put the glass on a ledge just inside the back door after shaking out the water and most of the mud. It had been my intention to wash the glass right away and return it to the cupboard, but this is a household with two teenage girls, three golden retrievers, and frequent visits from two adult sons, my daughter-in-law Jenni and my two young grandchildren. Somehow, with all of this going on, my attention was diverted and the glass remained on the ledge until yesterday morning when, at about 5:45 a.m., the tangle of golden retrievers at the back door coming in from our first walk of the day caused the jar to fall. It landed on carpet-covered concrete a few inches from my slippered foot, broke and one of the larger pieces ricocheted into the top of my foot.

Miraculously, all of the dogs escaped injury, but I was wounded. It turns out that the skin on the top of our feet is not very thick, and I was pretty certain that the inch-long gash completely cut through all layers of skin. The washroom is just feet away from our back door, so I immediately rinsed my wound by running warm water on it for about as long as I could stand. I could tell that I was going to need stitches. Rinsing the wound seemed to make it bleed more heavily, but thankfully, I was able to stop the bleeding with liberal amounts of antibiotic ointment on a wad of gauze, which I secured with surgical tape.

After I saw the two teenagers (and my daughter Anna’s assistance dog Blue) off to school, Jenni came and drove me to the ER, where over the course of the morning, I was x-rayed and stitched. Little Jaxon, my 21-month-old grandson, was fascinated by all of the buttons and gears in the little room where we waited and was far more well-behaved than any of my children would have been under similar circumstances. On the drive home, he fell soundly asleep. After lunch, I did too. And that was the extent of my day. Entirely unproductive, to say the least.

And so, what’s the moral of this story? I suppose it would be this: don’t use glass when testing your soil, or at least pick up right away after yourself if you do.

Today, thundershowers are expected. I have purchased a 15-pound bag of aluminum sulfate to sprinkle over our garden soil and hopefully lower the pH about to around 6.5. It’s also supposed to add nitrogen as well. I’m doing this reluctantly, because I’d rather not be adding a chemical. But it is a chemical that is supposed to occur naturally in soil. Still, I would have preferred to attempt to lower the pH entirely by mulching with acidic natural matter, like pine needles and oak leaves. I’m hoping, by practicing good mulching techniques throughout the growing season and then through the winter, that we will be able to maintain a mildly acidic level. But for now, it’s aluminum sulfate. (Which, I must say, is rather pricey at $24.99 for a 15-pound bag at a near-by garden center. Unfortunately, I was not able to find anything similar at Home Depot or Menards, which are also within a two mile radius of my home.)

Okay. That blog title sounds a little creepy. But my obsession with my soil and it’s high pH levels may be getting a bit unhealthy. However, if I’m going to put a lot of work (not to mention the investment of good dollars) into this garden for the next six months, I don’t want to shoot myself in the foot before I even get started. Working with soil that’s unlikely to be productive is exactly that.

The thing about high pH levels is that, at a certain level, many nutrients become less soluble in water. And since plants drink their nutrients through their roots, elements like iron, manganese, phosphorus, and zinc become less available to them. Without the right nutrients, they starve.

Now some plants seem to like the higher alkaline soils. Cabbage, probably, would grow really well with my dirt just as it is. However, while we like cabbage in this family, there are a number of other vegetables we would like also. And we have to find a pH level amenable to all of them, with minor adjustments for their differing tastes. By and large, most vegetables do well between pH levels of 6.5 and 7.5. So that’s what we would like to aim for.

I still can’t figure out why I’m getting such a high alkaline reading on this soil. We’re east of the Mississippi, which tends to be acidic and not alkaline. The soil looks good and black, with an abundance of earthworms crawling around beneath the surface. I’ve accepted the fact that our drive probably is or has been a limestone covered drive. (What’s there presently doesn’t look like limestone to me, but even if it isn’t now limestone, I’m certain at one time it probably was.)

I conducted two more soil tests yesterday. One was with soil about 30 feet from where I tested the first time. I also tested for nutrients. This test yielded a somewhat lower pH result – around 7.0. (I’m using one of those inexpensive kits that you mix with soil and water and then match to a color chart.) But I was astounded to see an extremely low result for nitrogen. The phosphorous and potassium levels seem okay — maybe a bit low (again, hard to be precise due to the color-matching aspect of the test). But the nitrogen test failed to show any color at all. Does that mean there is no nitrogen?

That’s when I went over the test directions once again. It appears that I’m not very good at reading directions in their entirety. That’s when I noticed that I was supposed to have mixed together three tablespoons of dirt from three different spots where I intended to garden, at a depth of four inches. I had neglected to dig down four inches. So I headed out to pick up yet another test and proceeded to test the soil once again, taking dirt from three locations at the far end of what I hope will in time be my gardens eastern-most edge (and away from the drive on the most westerly side of the intended garden).
And, for the third time, I again obtained an alkaline result (somewhere between 7.0 and 8.0), as well as nearly medium levels of phosphorous and potassium (I guess gardeners call this “potash”) and, as far as I could see, zero nitrogen.

I am accepting the zero nitrogen test results. The grass in this area of the yard is not very lush. So that seems probable. (But zero?!!) However, I really want to be sure about the pH level before I set out looking for sulfur to bring it down. For one thing, I’m not entirely sure I’ll be able to find sulfur here in an area of the world that seems to suffer more from the other end of the spectrum. But, also, if I’m wrong, it seems as if it could cause me a lot of potential difficulties later. And the pH test is only $1.19 anyway, so it’s a small cost to avert potentially big problems later.

It occurred to me overnight, as I fixated further on my sad pH problems, that I had not used distilled water for the test, as the directions suggested was best. I had instead used bottled drinking water, thinking this would be better than water from our tap, which goes through a water softener. Alkaline soil is often called “sweet” when compared to the “sour” nature of acidic soil. If I can believe what I’ve been reading, evidently farmers of yore literally would taste the soil (hopefully in small amounts) to decide if it was right for their crops. Do you suppose people who bottle water might add a bit of mineral that would push the water toward the sweeter side of the pH scale? I don’t know. But it does seem possible.

So, I have decided that the small investment of yet another pH test and a gallon of distilled water is in order to be absolutely positive of my soil’s pH level before I work to change it.

In the meantime, we’ve begun turning over the soil. Here’s a photo of my older son, Zac, having a go at it yesterday, which was an absolutely gorgeous, sunny day. We were able to get a 10 by 10 foot patch turned over with very little effort.

Zac digs in.

Zac digs in.


I’ve been doing quite a bit of research on soil since my last post.  I’m concerned about the high pH level result that I got yesterday.  If you recall, it appeared to be very close to 8.0, which is not typical for our area.  According to what I’ve been reading, usually soil east of the Mississippi River (that’s us) tends to be acidic, while soil west of the Mississippi tends to be alkaline.

I don’t know how I got it into my head that oak trees can make soil alkaline, but according to multiple Internet sources, the leaves from oak trees should leave soil acidic.  Now, given that we have a lawn, it’s possible that the leaves have been removed to such an extent over the years that they are not getting a chance to compost and return nutrients to the soil in this particular patch of grass.

I think, however, I have a more likely explanation.  We are planning this garden for the sunniest area of the yard, a plot from the back southeast corner of the property extending west along the garage and then following the drive toward the street.  And here’s the important factor:  this is an old farmhouse, and the drive is not paved.  It’s limestone.  That’s right.  I’m betting the lime is what is making the soil alkaline.

So here’s my plan.  First off, I’m going to do a couple of additional soil tests, since for the first test, I simply walked outside down the porch steps and across the drive until I got to the nearest spot we will till and cultivate.  I dug up a bit of dirt, came in and completed the test.  Yup, that’s right.  I tested soil right off the top and about a foot away from our limestone drive.  Hence, the alkaline results.  Since the test was only $1.19, it seems reasonable to do a few more in various spots along the 60-foot length of the garden plot.

However, I have also searched out sources for pine needles which I hope to use as much on the garden this summer.  The needles also can be chopped up and mixed into the soil in the areas where we need to lower the pH.  Pine needles, of course, are quite acidic and would help pull the pH levels down to the more acceptable range of 6.0 to 7.0.  

My son Jacob and I went to pick up six large bags of  pine needles from a kind woman who lives about 2 miles from my house.  She had recently had 60 trees removed from her property, and we were able to get another seven bags of shredded pine that had been left behind.  We will be able to use that in between rows, once we have our plants in the garden in May.

We filled the entire back seat of the car with the bags of pine needles and shredded pine.  Once we got it home, we emptied the bags on the ground behind the garage, to begin the weathering process.C  Clearly we are going to need much more.  Here’s a photo:

piles of pine needles and shredded pine

piles of pine needles and shredded pine

I’ll report later on the additional pH tests.  Keep in mind that this is a learning process for me and that I am likely to make many similar errors in the course of this adventure.  Hopefully, they will all be as easily caught as this one has been.

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