Heirloom Expert: Know Your Soil’s pH

If you struggle growing particular veggies in your garden, try getting a soil test to make sure your patch of earth has a level pH balance.

By Doug Oster


Fall 2012

Carrots in ground

Many times when we see root crops that won’t head up, the problem can often be traced to a pH imbalance.

Photo by Fotolia/Lukas Gojda

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I have good luck growing tomatoes, peppers and even some cabbage, but I have trouble with things like beets, radishes, and carrots. What’s the problem and what can I do?

The first order of business is to get a soil test from your local county extension agent. They are inexpensive and can often be found at good garden centers and nurseries. You’ll be asked to collect soil samples from the garden, and then send them to a place that will analyze the material.

The results will tell you what nutrients to add to the garden for optimum results. You’ll learn about the fertility and pH levels of the garden.

When I was growing up, my dad would lime the yard each season just like all the neighbors. He was sweetening the pH of the soil, a common practice in the east. But he had no idea how much lime to apply. Was he using way too much or way too little? Without a soil test, there’s no way to know. It’s critical to know what the pH of the garden is. Many times when we see root crops that won’t head up, the problem can often be traced to a pH imbalance.

Amending the soil with organic matter like compost can only help. Root crops enjoy a light, fertile soil, so adding well-aged animal manures or something else good will make the plants happy.

Radishes love cool weather, so if they’re planted too late sometimes they won’t head up. Since they only take about a month to reach fruition, plant some now in early fall. Radishes provide more than the root though. The greens are wonderful when sautéed with some butter and garlic. If the plant doesn’t head up, that’s OK, let it go to seed. The flowers are pretty, attract beneficial insects and the young seed pods are a tasty treat. When company visits, I love adding the pods to a salad for a little surprise. They taste just like the root, but with less zing. ‘French Breakfast Radish’ is one of my favorites along with ‘Chinese White Winter Radish.’ The latter gets 7 inches long and will hang in there until a hard freeze.


Doug is the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Backyard Gardener (www.post-gazette.com/gardeningwithdoug) and co-host of The Organic Gardeners radio program on KDKA.