A Homemade Soil pH Test

The makings of a homemade soil pH test

I’ve never taken soil samples of my garden or on any farm where I’ve worked.  I have read about and taken classes on testing your soil for pH level and certain nutrients.  For anywhere from $10 – $25 you can send in less than a cup of your soil (usually to a state university extension office) and receive results in the next few weeks on present levels of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium (the NPK of virtually all plant fertilizers – good nutrients to have, but far from all your soil needs to optimally produce healthy plants.)

Alternately, you can look for signs in the garden itself for what the nature of your soil is like.  Certain weeds grow prolifically in soils with higher nutrients, while some prefer to move in after the nutrients have been depleted.  Generally healthy, fertile soils will be home to weeds such as foxtail, chicory, dandelion, lamb’s quarters and purslane.  If your soil is not so healthy and has been stripped of many growing nutrients, it may have daisies, Queen Ann’s lace, plantain, ragweed, thistles or crabgrass.

It’s amazing that nature itself can tell us so many things about the very ground we walk on and eat from, if we will

Color before mixing with vinegar

only take a little time and effort to get to know it.  God’s creation is living, breathing and organic in its very nature.

And red cabbage is no exception.

Red cabbage has a component called flavin, which changes colors

And after

depending on the acidity present.  Bright red indicates high acidity (lower than 7, getting closer to 0 on the pH scale); greenish yellow means a high alkaline content (above 7 and nearing 14 on the scale); while a purplish blend of blue or red indicates a fairly neutral soil pH.

To illustrate this, I mixed equal parts cabbage water with white wine vinegar.  You can see the before-and-after difference.

If you can boil water, you can do this experiment.

First you chop up about 2 cups of red cabbage, place it in a pot and cover with water.  Boil.  Remove from heat to cool to room temperature.

Let the chopping begin

A very unprofessional test for a such a professional mix

While your water is cooling, go outside and gather some soil.  About 1 tablespoon of soil from

A garden sampler

however many areas you’d like to test.  I gathered samples from my newly-planted strawberry bed, a bed I made last year and have grown vegetables in, some buckets of soil I brought home from a community garden dirt pile, and from a bag of potting mix.

Mix each of the samples with a splash of water (distilled is best, for its neutral pH – I used some tap water I let sit out over night so the chlorine could evaporate off.)

Only the potting soil showed an immediate color change (and in hindsight, I believe this was because the components of the potting soil were mixed so as to slowly take up and release water, which slowed the absorption of the cabbage water – good for new seedlings so they don’t become water-logged, bad for proper test results.)

Each had taken on a blue hue overnight

The next morning however, each soil sample showed a deep turquoise tint to the brown water they were initially. Meaning I’m fairly confident that my garden soil falls within the very acceptable-to-plants neutral range on the pH scale.

Happy planting and soil testing!


Maneuvering Humanure

In taking the steps away from dependence (on fuel, on outside food sources, on nameless, faceless people making things in factories we will never see) one goes through many layers of hype, inflated opinions, greener-than-thou judgement and a speck of truth for every log of ambushing agendas.

My own journey has been one from processed white bread, bologna and boxed macaroni with ‘cheese food’, to food-based beauty and skin care, to shopping organically, to discovering my definition of ‘whole foods’, to growing and making things myself and shopping for items as close to their source as possible.

 As a person winds their way through the curves of discovering and implementing sustainability, it becomes less of a ‘level’ issue and more of a holistic thought issue.  As the Australian-born permaculture concept displays so clearly: little waste = little outside input.  The way we think about ‘waste’ in our culture is very wasteful indeed.

So I’ll just cut to chase in this instance.  You’ve all read the title, you all know where this post is going.  You may suspect what is about to hit the fan.

Aside from things like plastic cups, styrofoam bowls, paper plates, car batteries, toaster ovens and CDs, the thing known as “human waste” commonly refers to excrement; our poop and urine.  The term is quite fitting when these by-products of digestion are discarded (into landfills, into incinerators, into our water supply), when people think that when we flush it simply goes ‘away’.  But when the concept of recycling these things is harnessed, “humanure” can be one of our richest organic resources.

One of the tenets of a holistic view is the concept of cycles.  For humans, eating and digestion are both part of a cycle.  Other steps include enriching the soil, growing the food, discarding the post-digestion materials and, in the case of a broken cycle, wasting and polluting.  But in the case of a healthy, intact cycle, (the re-cycling aspect that keeps it all going) is to compost, and return to the soil that which we have taken from it.

Without going into great detail, I am not talking about the “night soil” that parts of Asia are infamous for (the spreading of raw human manure over agricultural fields) which is a known pathogen-spreading method.  But fully composted (meaning combined with adequate dry, absorbent material, and allowed to stand for at least a year with internal temperatures reaching at least 113F) humanure can be a rich source of (FREE) organic matter and (FREE) minerals, like nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus plus calcium and carbon.  Done correctly and well, not a trace of pathogens or harmful bacteria will exist in the finished, composted humanure.

While I’ve used outdoor latrines and squatted in the bushes many times, a compost toilet (as opposed to a ‘composting toilet’, which is the entire system – often quite expensive to assimilate or install) seems to me the best option for stewardship of our resources and ‘micro-husbandry’.  Latrines are a good idea in light of not wasting by flushing, but often carry the dangers of polluting ground water.  Squatting in the bushes, as any dog-walker will attest, is favorite of nitrogen-loving weeds like dandelions.

This simple compost toilet looks much like its cousin, but doesn’t get clogged up or spill over onto the bathroom floor when it’s upset.  As long as you can haul a 20-pound bucket from your bathroom to your compost pile this is a smoothly running system.

First you take a bucket, then you think about how you want to sit over the bucket and you construct a seat (in this case, it looks very similar to a regular toilet.  You then find some absorbent material (weed matter, dry vegetable scraps, cocoa fiber, rice hulls, sawdust – just not from pressure-treated wood which contains chromated copper arsenate, a known cause of cancer and not something you want to end up in your food garden) and keeping a supply nearby, like in another bucket next to the toilet, you line the bottom of the toilet bucket with 2-3 inches of the material to get a good absorbent layer started.  Then each time you use the toilet, simply cover your deposits with another fine layer of material and you’re good to until the bucket gets full and you exchange it for another clean bucket while you take that one out to the compost pile.

When composting the bucket contents, you want to have another good layer of absorbent, dry material covering the bottom and dug out, kind of like a bowl for you to toss the raw humanure into.  Cover that with another absorbent layer (all these absorbent layers are your carbon sources.  The human excrement is high in nitrogen and would take for-stinky-ever to break down and compost; you ideally want a ratio of 30:1, carbon:nitrogen in any compost pile.)  Once you have added consistently to this pile for a year, let it alone and start another pile so this one can get up to temperature and have time to break down, cool down and finish the composting (and disease- and pathogen-killing) process.

You are now ready to use your (FREE) humanure as you would any other compost throughout your garden, ornamental bed or orchard.  Congratulations, you have closed that loop and completed the cycle.

A Few Facts:

The Humanure Handbook, by Joseph Jenkins

-10,000 landfills have closed since 1982; 20% of these are the hazardous waste-contaminated Superfund sites.
-Older, unlined landfills can have a groundwater contamination area of 3.4 miles or more
-Organic materials thrown into landfills are the greatest contributors to global methane emissions; goodbye ozone layer.
-In the west, most of the water we defecate into is purified drinking water
-67% of the world’s households don’t have running water
-Americans use 340 billion gallons of water every day
-In 2000, 55% of US lakes, rivers and estuaries were not clean enough for fishing or swimming according to the EPA
-By flushing soil nutrients down the pipes, we increase our need for agricultural fertilizer – otherwise known as synthetic chemicals.  And so, erosion, nutrient run-off and excessive or incorrect use of these synthetic fertilizers is the largest diffuse source of water pollution.