Soil pH or Suffering for Science

Our first chemistry lab is on the books. “Measuring Soil pH” was completed on Tuesday afternoon. Since the calendar said it’s the first week of fall, I thought we’d do our lab work outdoors. Glory be! We almost melted. soil-ph-collage-1

Dobby followed us around as we took soil samples. I’m not sure what Hermione was up to. Holly supervised from her spot in the shade. She turned out to be the smart one.

soil-ph-collage-2
L: Dobby plays a game of hide and seek.  R: Holly cools her heels in the shade.

Barely one third of the way through and we dragged our cups of soil, jug of distilled water, and sundry materials inside to complete our analysis in the cool of the air conditioning. But the damage was already done.  We’d stayed outside a little bit too long. We finished out the day with heat headaches and fought off the I-almost-died-of-heat-stroke drowsy spells. September strikes again!

We sampled our soil in three distinct locations and used three methods to determine pH. The results of our experiment were less than exciting. The soil appears to be pretty much neutral overall, and just barely acidic in the bed containing the hydrangeas. This supports our hypothesis of only slight acidity due to their blooms being a very pale blue.

Our first method was to use pH test strips. This required a re-do as we struggled to get an accurate litmus reading on muddy paper. The re-do involved using coffee filters to strain the soil/distilled water mixture, or what we called our “mud.” We also used cabbage juice, baking soda, and vinegar to measure pH.

The noxious odor from boiling a head of red cabbage made us feel like real scientists… you know… the brave souls who suffer for the sake of advancing knowledge. We suffered through the stench, and through Kathryn’s hilarious “scientific observations” of what boiling cabbage actually smells like. The dog was brought up at least once in comparison, and a few other things I’ll not mention here among decent company.

No results from any of our methods indicated anything other than a mid-range neutral pH: no brilliantly colored litmus paper; no bubbles in the mud solutions; no change in hue for the purple cabbage water. soil-ph-collage-3

Out of sheer boredom we divided our unused cabbage juice and played around with it, pouring baking soda into one sample and vinegar in another. Those colors were nice. We litmus tested those solutions, too, which verified that our test strips do work. Apparently it’s just our soil that’s boring.

While neutral soil is good news to gardeners, it does little to impress a teenager who hopes for the most exciting experiences chemistry has to offer. So what’s the moral of this story, besides Soil Sampling Is Not Big Fun? Don’t trust September in the Deep South… it’s just August’s ugly step-sister. And don’t forget to crack a window before that cabbage comes to a rolling boil.

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