shows men bent over green plants, pulling peppers into baskets
Farmworkers harvest peppers. Photo courtesy: NC Dept. of Agriculture and Consumer Services Facebook page

By Ariel Shipman

Over the summer of 2020, I started a garden. 

When I went to plant my favorite vegetables, they wouldn’t grow well. I wondered why.

I knew how my tomatoes were supposed to look and they weren’t looking like that. When I saw that the tomatoes weren’t growing well, I knew we needed to wait for rain. 

I also knew my soil wasn’t the ideal pH level for any of the vegetables that I planned to grow. I remember what my grandmother told me, so I waited for the rain to come because that is when my acid levels in the soil would become higher.

When I was younger my grandmother would always take me into her beautiful garden. It was filled with so many fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes, mustard leaf and squash. I remember visiting my grandmother and one day I couldn’t find her, so I immediately ran to the greenhouse and there she was, watering all of her new beautiful ferns. She was the person who introduced me to the gardening life. I always loved seeing the differences between all the tomatoes that would grow. However there were days when it started to rain and the tomatoes after the rain seemingly turned yellow. But for what reason?

My grandmother always told me, “When you think about rain, you think about water, and how it’s great for the plants. In reality, the acid levels from the rain usually don’t benefit the plants unless the pH levels in the soil are low.”

The acid gets into the rain as a result of pollution. Power plants, especially those that use coal for firing, create smog, which is acidic. When the rain comes, it washes that acid out of the air, creating something called acid rain. This makes the soil acidic.

What is soil pH you may ask? Soil pH is a measurement of how acid or alkaline the soil is. Soil pH is measured on a scale of 1-14, with 7 as the neutral mark. Most plants prefer a somewhat neutral pH, anything from 6.2 to 7.0.

When the soil is too acidic there are nutrients in the soil, but the plants can’t use those nutrients. When the soil gets too acidic, either because of things such weed killers or because of acid in the rain, the soil gets too much acid and the plants can’t absorb all the good things that come from the soil.

Gardeners usually prefer the neutral mark but they notice when the pH level is off after it has rained for a few days.

In an interview with Nicky Hobbs, who teaches at Columbus Career and College Academy, Nicky told me that the acid rain problem used to be really bad. 

“If you’ll go talk to anyone that’s, um, a little bit older, like I would say in their sixties, seventies, eighties, especially, they can probably tell you more about this, how the tomatoes right now, and a lot of your produce right now that you, that you get from the stores, they don’t have the taste that they once had,” Hobbs said.

Farmers have traded flavor in plants in order to make them easier to grow, he added. 

“But what’s wild is that over the past four to five years, there has been a renewed change in where people in the public are wanting things to have that [00:31:45] old style taste again, where it has the flavor,” Hobbs said. “So what’s happening is a lot of your, um, your companies now are redoing their genetic crossing for their plants to now develop the plants that now have more flavor again versus being easy to grow.”

Most people aren’t aware of it, Hobbs added, but there are some tomatoes that are actually purple, not read. There are also tomatoes that are orange, yellow or even green when they’re ripe.

“And I’m going to tell you, they look ugly, ugly, ugly, the way they are designed,” Hobbs said. “They are not perfectly round. They are all kinds of who knows what the word would be, but they’re not pretty and round. They’re all oblong shape and all got all kind of little growths coming off the side of them and they’re, and they’re a dark color.

“But they’re the old kind and that’s, what’s called heirloom variety, meaning that is from the old kind of plants. And you can also take the seed, save it in the end, and it’ll give you that same plant again,” Hobbs said. “But anyway, they have a much greater variety. So I don’t have to know that.”

Hobbs offered a challenge.

“If you go to any kind of produce stand or Walmart or anything, see if you can find an heirloom variety and track,” he said.

Thanks to Mr. Hobbs and my grandmother I now understand even more than I already did. This shows us that a lot has changed over the years due to demand and climate change. My garden has a more clay-like soil and the pH level in my soil isn’t great so I had to research more about acidic levels and how to reduce and increase them.

So in order for us to have these neutral levels of pH level we had to start going green. 

As funny as it sounds, climate change really affects the way our plants grow and the acidic levels in the soil. When you think about climate change you think about sea levels rising, arctic locations gradually losing ice, and so much more. 

Well, in my local garden when it gets hotter there doesn’t seem to be as much water so the acidic levels tend to become lower and the plants don’t get the nutrients that they need. One way we can all reduce this is by going green. When we stop using as much fossil fuels and start depending on renewable resources we will be better off. 

In my own garden that I started which was inspired by my grandmother we didn’t have the ideal pH level so we had to wait for rain and with the climate change we knew that during the summer we wouldn’t see a lot of it, so we started to use lime, which is alkaline. 

Occasionally rain would come, and overall we saw results but not the ones we wanted. The tomatoes were still yellow and so we knew that it would take a while to get rain so we decided to wait until we got it. That’s when our tomatoes started to come out red and plump! 

I have never been more excited to grow my own vegetables and maybe this will inspire someone out there that knows about climate change and how the effects can really take a toll on the pH levels! 

Go green!

Ariel Shipman’s grandmother taught her, “When you think about rain, you think about water, and how it’s great for the plants.” In reality, the acid levels from the rain are changing her garden’s soil.