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Testing Soil pH

Mar 29, 2020
pH Problems

Testing Soil pH Levels

Growing a garden is simple. The basic components are abundant outdoors: sun, soil, water, and carbon dioxide. Marijuana cultivation follows the same basic plan, but it typically requires finer attention to detail. Indoors, keeping a few plants growing and thriving in an enclosed and controlled environment is fairly easy to do. The problem comes when a grower cultivates on a larger scale.

Proper lighting and hydration are semi-complex variables to contend with, but soil quality and pH are also important to consider. Even hydroponic systems, while arguably more complex, help to remove some complicating factors involved in establishing and maintaining a growing medium’s quality. Growers should be aware that equipment and maintenance largely determines the scale and scope of production.

As legal marijuana use and cultivation continue to grow in popularity and acceptance, so too has the demand for stable production methods and a reliable supply of high-quality product. Maintaining a secure and healthy product output requires careful attention to all the factors that go into successful cannabis farming. It turns out, soil testing and managing pH levels are as important as regulating light and exposure intervals.

Growing marijuana is best done in a greenhouse or some similar enclosed location. The purpose of this is to help control the timing that triggers the different growth stages of the plants. It also helps ensure that there aren’t any male plants that might accidentally fertilize the females. Accidental fertilization might ruin the entire crop by triggering seed production in the buds.

There are other uses for the cannabis plant that allow a much larger scale production. Cannabis cultivation for both seeds and hemp fiber is best done in open soil and therefore requires the cultivator to know and be able to regulate pH levels through soil testing. Hemp seeds are rich in omega-3 fatty acids and are a healthy “superfood” popular in grocery stores, and hundreds of industries use hemp fiber in clothes, construction, and paper products.

Ensuring that the soil has the correct pH and nutrients is essential for healthy plant development, no matter the strain. Knowing your land and knowing the soil helps to ensure an abundant harvest.

Soil Testing Methods

Each of the different cultivation methods requires different methods of testing the pH of the soil. For indoor growing, the soil is most often tested directly at the pot. With pre-mixed soils, one only needs to test in between harvests or when replanting new seedlings or clones. Managing these potted plants requires minimum maintenance, and you can add most nutrients directly to the pot or the water source.

For field planting, most cultivators use two common methods for soil testing. Each has its benefits and drawbacks and largely depends on the size and makeup of your field. These are random testing and benchmark testing, and each presents challenges.

Random testing

Random testing comprises taking soil samples from various random locations throughout a specific field or plot of land. Growers do this primarily when field yields are inconsistent across a wide area. Because of variations in the mineral content and pH of the soil, one section might produce a higher yield than another, leading to uneven growth patterns across the crop.

The main benefit of random testing is that it can give a clear picture of what fertilizers and treatments a grower might need to apply to individual areas to create uniformity in the crop’s soil.  It is one of the oldest methods of testing, and it is best for fields with an even gradient and consistent soil composition. Factors such as sun exposure, elevation, and irrigation should be similar across the area tested so that the only factor that the cultivator is addressing is the pH and mineral balance levels.

Benchmark Testing

Benchmark sampling is more useful when the geography of the land being cultivated is more diverse. Features such as elevation changes, hillsides, or low-lying sunken areas become the basis for each point when taking samples for each production zone.

A GPS locator is used to record the point where the tester takes each soil sample. Subsequent sampling of these points in the years that follow will help the cultivator establish a strategy for long-term land and crop management. It is a key fundamental resource in managing effective crop rotation in plots with mixed terrain.

This method of sampling helps growers to identify which areas of their land will offer the highest yields and also which areas will benefit most from different fertilizers. It gives the most comprehensive view of a land’s soil composition and its development over several years.

The downside is that this method is more expensive and time-consuming but results in a more thorough understanding of soil pH levels and their effect on cultivation at different elevations and exposures. For large plots of land with different geological features, this method helps to provide data for developing the best plan for land use.

Testing Soil PH

Testing the soil of an entire field can be a time-consuming and costly endeavor. It is imperative then that the samples taken accurately represent the soil in the field being studied. The samples must represent the exact location recorded within that field on the sample log. Failure to record accurately the location of each sample’s extraction can lead to incorrectly raising or lowering the pH of that portion of the field, potentially hampering production quality for years to come.

It is critically important that the tester take special care and proper preparation when collecting samples for soil testing. Let’s look at some best practices to follow when collecting soil samples for pH testing.

  • First, all equipment should be clean and free from stains or any soil taken from other sites. Any residual dirt or contaminants from other extraction locations can drastically alter the chemical composition of a sample. Be sure to clean your equipment and collection trays thoroughly between each sample.
  • Document each extraction site location separately on a log sheet with a unique identifier for each site and each sample. When recording soil pH, it is important to match the data collected from the samples to the exact location they take them from. Otherwise, the data collected from the soil won’t provide the data required to balance pH across the whole cannabis
  • When collecting the soil sample, use a high-quality soil sample probe. Remember to check to make sure the probe is clean before use or you risk contaminating the sample. Insert the probe perpendicular to the ground, held at 90 degrees to the Earth. Be certain that the depth of each probe does not exceed 10 inches, and that they take all samples at the same depth. This will give a consistent representation of the topsoil for each extraction done throughout the sampling.
  • After extraction, place the soil sample into a clean plastic receiving container. Mix the soil thoroughly to create a homogeneous mixture. Be certain to fill out the relevant data sheet accurately and label the corresponding sampling jar or test bag correctly before placing the sample within. Ensure that each jar or bag is tightly closed and secured with the proper label before storing it with the others.
  • Finally, once the tester completes the sample, take the time to clean your equipment carefully before moving on to the next site.

Soil Testing Benefits

The benefits of carefully and consistently monitoring your soil’s pH levels are important. For healthy blooming cannabis, you will want your soil to be somewhere between 6.5 and 7.0. In hydroponic systems, the acidity of the water can drop almost to 6.0 before it becomes detrimental to the plants.

By routinely checking the soil your marijuana is growing in, it helps to produce better quality crops and ends up saving you a ton of money. Testing the soil allows you to know the right fertilizer to purchase and how often to apply it to your crops. This grants you a greater yield of high-quality produce at less expense. By knowing the pH of your fields, you end up fertilizing less often since you have balanced the field already. Fertilizer is expensive, and anywhere a cultivator can cut costs without reducing quality is extra money in the bank.

Soil testing is one of the most important things a grower can do to ensure the quality and longevity of their product. More than just determining the pH balance of their land, it also does the following.

With soil testing, the cultivator learns and records the precise nutrient content of their soil. This allows the grower to identify the nutrients that can help produce a higher seasonal yield and also plan how to replace the nutrients and minerals that the soil is lacking every time you fertilize.

Knowing the right formula that the soil needs reduces the risk of over or under fertilizing the land, which improves the chances for a higher yield, higher quality, and higher profits.

A comprehensive soil survey shows the way the natural landscape distributes nutrients and pH levels across a plot of land and allows cultivators to plan much more providing a clear basis for Variable Rate Application across multiple production zones.

Soil testing also shows the soil’s organic compound (OC) levels which is a primary indicator of soil fertility and overall quality, and it shows the soil’s electrical conductivity (EC) which measures the salt and nutrient content of the soil. Each of these must stay within a certain range for crops to flourish.

By understanding the soil with this much in-depth knowledge, a cultivator goes from being a passive spectator in crop production to an active participant. The data collected allows them to decide about the different fertilizers to use, how often to use them and how much. It truly allows complete customization of the land to produce the highest quality produce possible.

By recognizing patterns in the data and carefully monitoring the growth of your crops, soil testing and analysis allows growers to make in-season changes to nitrogen levels to boost their yields or correct reduced growth.

What To Look for in a Test Kit

When looking to purchase a soil test kit, there are certain things that one wants to look for before purchasing. These kits can range from reasonably priced to expensive. It is important to research each purchase thoroughly before buying it.

Here are some guidelines to be aware of:

  • You want to make sure that the kit tests for pH, organic compound (OC) levels, and electrical conductivity (EC). These are the primary indicators of soil health and fertility.
  • Gives details about the amount of nitrogen, potash, and phosphorus in the soil. This will help determine what type and amount of fertilizer to purchase.
  • Make sure it is easily cleanable and sturdy enough for repeated use.
  • A thorough how-to guide that details the process for testing and gives recommendations is helpful. Many kits come with one.
  • A moisture meter will help with checking for proper water drainage and soil aeration.

Growing plants is easy. Growing plants well is a matter of know-how and preparation. Give yourself every advantage possible. When cultivating any crop at scale, cultivators should look to mitigate the potential for loss at every available opportunity.

Growing any strain of cannabis can be a profitable business venture. Be prepared to work hard and invest both time and money into maximizing your yield. All you need is sunlight, clean water, and good arable land. Creating the best conditions comes down to science. Test the soil, learn the needs of your land and always come out on top.

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