Friday, November 30, 2012

Problems with Acidic Soils: Lime Can Work Wonders

Note: pH is the measurement of the soils acidity/alkalinity. The pH scale is from 0 to 14 with 7 as the neutral point; below 7 is acidic, above 7 is alkaline. Here are a few common pH examples:

  • Extremely acid:  lemon-2.5; vinegar-3.0; stomach acid-2.0; soda pop-2–4

  • Strongly acid:  carrots-5.0; asparagus-5.5; cabbage-5.3

  • Slightly acid:  cow's milk-6.5

  •  Neutral:  saliva-6.6–7.3; blood-7.3

  • Slightly alkaline: eggs-7.6–7.8

  • Moderately alkaline: sea water-8.2; sodium bicarbonate-8.4

  • Very strongly alkaline: soapy water-12; household bleach-12.5

Concerning the pH of soils, there is a preferred range in which plants will grow best. Most soils in Hawaii, as in other parts of the country, are acidic. Extremely acid soils can have a toxic effect on many plants. One common problem is excessive aluminum and manganese becoming soluble in the soil adversely effecting plants.  Acidic conditions can also change the type of microorganisms living in the soil. This will affect the amounts of nitrogen, sulfur and phosphorus available to the plants since the microorganisms breakdown these nutrients into plant-available forms.

These acidic soils will benefit when lime is applied. As an amendment, lime in its various forms can raise the pH of the soil and eliminate a number of problems.
Ground limestone is almost pure calcium carbonate and comprises the largest percent of lime used in the United States. It is usually the cheapest form of lime. Limestone with significant amounts of magnesium carbonate is called dolomitic limestone (dolomite), containing approximately equal parts of magnesium and calcium carbonate. Dolomite works well especially if the soil has a magnesium deficiency.

Hydrated lime, another form, is one and a half times more effective at raising the soil pH but is also more caustic, and therefore,  hazardous to handle. (Protection for the skin and lungs is recommended.) Excessive amounts of hydrated lime can cause a pH shift towards a highly alkaline condition. Conversely, when using dolomitic lime, it is difficult to apply too much as long as it is thoroughly mixed into the soil.

When purchasing lime, a fine powdered lime, about 60-100 mesh, is the fastest acting grade available.  However, being a fine powder, it is a potential eye irritant under windy conditions. It will also cake rather easily, and when improperly mixed, it will stratify forming a layer that can burn roots and repel water.

A coarser limestone (similar to salt grains) is also available and is easier to handle, but its disadvantage is that it is slower acting.  In summary, incorporating lime as an amendment in any of its forms can make a big difference in acidic soils.