Soil chemical properties

Chemical properties

Soil chemistry is the interaction of various chemical constituents that takes place among soil particles and in the soil solution—the water retained by soil. The chemical interactions that occur in soil are highly complex, but understanding certain basic concepts will better help you manage turf and ornamentals.

Nutrition. Having discussed water relations, it now is a bit simpler to discuss nutrient-holding capacity. Soils hold onto nutritional elements in a way similar to the way they retain water: Positively charged nutrient molecules, cations, are attracted to the negative charges on the soil particles. This is called adsorption. The sites where cations attach to particles are cation-exchange sites Thus, clay retains more nutrients than coarser soils, just as it holds more water, because of the greater surface area (greater number of cation exchange sites) to which nutrients can adsorb. The ability to hold cation nutrients is called the cation-exchange capacity (CEC) and is an important characteristic of soils in that it relates to a soil’s ability to retain nutrients and prevent nutrient leaching. Coarse soils have low CECs, while clays and highly organic soils have high CECs. A sand may have a CEC of under 10—a very low figure—while any CEC above 50 is high, and such soils should be able to hold ample nutrients.

Salinity. Some soils, particularly in arid regions, hold high levels of salt. We discussed earlier how clay soils are more prone to salt buildup, and the same principle applies to arid-region soils. Low rainfall prevents leaching of salts, so they build up in soils. Pan layers, common in arid regions, further inhibit drainage and leaching. Some fertilizers and amendments also can increase salinity.

Soil pH is perhaps the single most important aspect of soil chemistry. Strictly speaking, soil pH, or soil reaction, is a measure of the number of hydrogen ions (H+) present in a solution. In more common terms, it is a measure of alkalinity and acidity. The pH scale runs from 0 to 14. Seven is neutral, 0 is the most highly acidic value possible and 14 is the most alkaline, or basic, value. Most plants grow best in the range of 6.5 to 7.0, which is acidic, but only slightly. The so-called acid-loving plants prefer lower pH, in the range of 4.0 to 6.0. Under 4.0, few plants are able to survive. Slightly alkaline soil is not harmful to most plants (except acid lovers). In strongly alkaline soils, however, nutrient-availability problems related to pH result.

The parent material of soils initially influences soil pH. For example, granitic soils are acidic and limestone-based soils are alkaline. However, soil pH can change over time. Soils become acidic through natural processes as well as human activities. Rainfall and irrigation control the pH of most soils. In humid climates, such as the northeastern United States, heavy rainfall percolates through the soil. When it does, it leaches basic ions such as calcium and magnesium and replaces them with acidic ions such as hydrogen and aluminum. In arid regions of the country (less than 20 inches of rain per year), soils tend to become alkaline. Rainfall is not heavy enough to leach basic ions from soils in these areas.

Other natural processes that increase soil acidity include root growth and decay of organic matter by soil microorganisms. Whereas the decay of organic matter gradually will increase acidity, adding sources of organic matter with high pH values (such as some manures and composts) can raise soil pH.

Human activities that increase soil acidity include fertilization with ammonium-containing fertilizers and production of industrial by-products such as sulfur dioxide and nitric acid, which ultimately enter the soil via rainfall. Irrigating with water high in bicarbonates gradually increases soil pH and can lead to alkaline conditions.

In most cases, changes in soil pH, whether natural processes or human activities cause them, occur slowly. This is due to the tremendous buffering capacity (resistance to change in pH) of most mineral soils. An exception to this is high-sand-content soils, where buffering tends to be low, as we’ll discuss below.

Nutrient availability varies markedly according to pH. This, in fact, is the main reason why pH is so critical. The best pH for overall nutrient availability is around 6.5, which is one reason why this is an optimal pH for most plants.

Calcium, magnesium and potassium are cation nutrients, meaning they are available to plants in a form with a positive charge. As we discussed earlier, these nutrients adsorb to soil particles, especially clay particles. Soils high in clay or organic matter have high CECs. Thus, these soils act as reservoirs for these nutrients and plants growing in them seldom are deficient in the cation nutrients.

Cations do not adsorb permanently to particles. Other compounds that are more strongly attracted to the cation exchange sites can replace them. This is one way that pH affects nutrient availability. Low-pH soils, by definition, have many of their cation-exchange sites occupied by H+ ions. By default, exchange sites holding H+ ions cannot hold other cations. Therefore, low-pH soils are more likely to be deficient in nutrients such as magnesium, calcium or potassium. If cations are not held by particles, they can leach out of the soil.

Soil-solution pH also affects the solubility of other nutrients in the soil. In fact, pH affects the availability of all nutrients one way or another. Therefore, maintaining pH close to the ideal level—6.0 to 7.0 for most plants—is important.

Buffering capacity is the ability of soil to resist changes in pH. Soils with a high buffering capacity require a great deal of amendment to alter pH. This is good if the soil already has a desirable pH, but it can be a problem if the soil needs pH modification. Normally, soils high in clay or organic matter (those that have high CECs) have high buffering capacities. Calcareous soils often have high buffering capacities because lime effectively neutralizes acid—a great deal of acidification may be necessary to eliminate the lime before you can realize a significant drop in pH. Conversely, in lime-free soils, acid treatment can drop pH significantly. Soils also can resist upward changes in pH, depending on their composition. Because buffering capacity determines how much amendment it will take to change pH, this is an important characteristic. Soil labs determine buffering capacity and adjust their recommendations according to the buffer pH.

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