Bicarbonates and Salts: Understanding This Often-Confusing Part of Soil and Nutrient Management

One of the most significant issues in the turf industry is the impact of bicarbonate salt on irrigation water and soil health. Everyone is talking about it. Many are listening but not comprehending what exactly is going on.

What do salt and pepper have to do with bicarbonate salt issues? There is more happening in this picture than you may think. Let’s look at this illustration a bit closer.

salt and pepper

First, we see two piles of white substances. One is salt, and the other is sugar. Both shakers are squared and angled on the bottom and cannot stand at an angle without some outside force helping them. The pepper shaker is in sugar and is not standing at an angle because sugar is round in structure and therefore won’t compact enough for the shaker to become embedded in the pile. You can try this all you want, and it is very difficult to get the shaker to balance. However, the salt shaker is embedded in a pile of salt and will balance on its angled corner because the salt is more angular and will compact enough to support a large object, even on its angled side.

Bicarbonate in water and soil acts much the same way as in the salt illustration. Only, in the case of bicarbonate, insoluble salts are being created. These insoluble salts are angular by nature, so they tend to stack and compress in your soil profile.

playing cards

Think of it like a deck of playing cards scattered on a table. They are flat and stack and tighten naturally. Remember, all of your nutrients are salts and bicarbonate does not care which salt it makes insoluble. In our case, phosphorus, iron, calcium, magnesium, and potassium are usually the first to be targeted. The phosphorus/iron bond is a very tough bond to crack and change. When it does change, all other salts become tied up and unavailable due to the insoluble phosphorus and iron.

In nearly every case of a water source and ultimately a soil source experiencing issues related to bicarbonate problems, you can safely say, “you are walking on your money!” meaning that your nutrients are there, right below your feet! All of your salts, beneficial or not, are now in a carbonate form of that nutrient and cannot be utilized by the plants.

Bicarbonate issues are no different than any other problem with insects, disease, and weeds. To fully understand the cure, you have to understand the problem. Methods to solve bicarbonate issues can range from inexpensive to tens of thousands of dollars per season. It’s best to know and understand the problem before investing real dollars in solutions and to surround yourself with good people that know and understand too.

First, find that source and listen to him or her. Second, take accurate soil/paste/water tests and interpret them accurately. If your chosen source of information isn’t doing this, then I suggest you either start or change your help. Ultimately all of these tests will accurately help determine if your road to treatment is working or not.

Where do these insoluble salts accumulate?

Depending on the construction methods used and things such as the Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC), organic matter (OM), and past cultural practices, salts usually accumulate right at the surface of your soil profile. In the case of putting greens, most are very low in OM and very low in CEC. This will almost always cause insoluble salts layers to form right at the surface. However, there are exceptions.

turf clod

This picture is of a “no-till” renovation where the prior turf (bentgrass) was killed off. None of the dead turf and thatch was removed and Bermudagrass was planted over the top with topdressing. One inch below the surface, there is an organic layer overwhelmed with fine particles and high OM and high CEC. Guess where the bicarbonate layer forms on these putting greens? Yes, of course, right where the dark layer is found. In fact, an EC meter will show nearly zero until it reaches the dark layer. Then it will spike to a high reading. This will be a lifetime problem; and unfortunately, the water source for this golf course is full of very high bicarbonate.

salt build up in cup

Here is another great example of bicarbonate salt build-up. This is from Florida, where there is plenty of rainfall. Looking down into the cup on this green, we see the insoluble salt build-up right at the surface. This is far more common and is normally where insoluble salts accumulate due to more organic and fine materials located at the surface. Remember, all of your fertility is a salt, and, in this case, the irrigation is loaded with bicarbonate. On the surface you will begin to experience “sealing off” (poor drainage), wear issues, thin areas start to show, and fertility treatments won’t work. A superintendent will often reach for a fungicide when they actually need to open the surface and flush the insoluble salts through the profile.

irrigation with benches

These last two are my favorites! Look where the irrigation hits and does not hit (under the benches and tables). If we give the turf a break from the bad water, it responds! All the nutrients here are insoluble. This turf needs a high nutrient diet, and it is starving due to the bicarbonate issues! Education is key if this turf is going to bounce back. At the time of this picture, this Bermudagrass was planted just over a year and has never grown enough to need cutting, other than where the benches and tables sat.

In all the pictures above, bicarbonates are affecting the turf and soil in different ways! Some situations receive 100 + inches of rain, others 45-60 inches. So, rainfall did not help. You need good soil, paste and water tests to solve these problems correctly. No two bicarbonate situations are the same.

How Foliar-Pak Can Help

If you are choosing acid products to help flush insoluble salts, it is time to re-think that process and look at our BioWet. BioWet allows for all the same release and flushing benefits but in a far more soil biology friendly manner.

Our Foliar-Pak and Armament Calcium line of products provides many ways to attack any bicarbonate problem. Armament Gypsum is the strongest enhanced gypsum product on the market and allows for the lowest application rates of any gypsum you can find. We have fantastic programs to fight all of the issues related to bicarbonates.

Here are a few more key products to go directly at very common soil and water issues you may be experiencing. Foliar-Pak reps can look deeper into specific situations and prescribe the perfect approaches to cure bicarbonate problems.

Bicarbonates in the water?
Tied up phosphorus and iron?
Bicarbonates in the soil?
Accumulation of insoluble salts in the soil?
Lack of fertilizer response?
Flushing salts periodically with your acid-based product?
  • BioWet: Protects the soil biology and contains no harsh acids- multi-use product
And coming soon… our new Soil Solver soil testing service!

Now you can take a single soil test and get in return:

  • Base Cations
  • Paste (Soluble Cations)
  • Soil Biology
  • Soil Texture
  • History of past soil tests for the same plot

There’s nothing quite like Soil Solver. Check it out!

We have an incredible variety of products and practical knowledge to help fight the issues of bicarbonate and insoluble salt build-ups in any type of soil and in any kind of planting you have. Remember, it does not matter where you are or what you think your water source is. Get experienced help. Look at all options and costs involved. I have seen bicarbonate issues in the strangest places. Places you would think that would never have these issues. Surround yourself with good people that know this topic. Feel free to call me and ask any questions and share your tests. I am happy to help!

Yours for better turf and soil health,
Jim Miller

jim miller headshot
About the Author Jim Miller

I am an industry consultant for EnP Investments, LLC. Before working with EnP, I was a sales manager for Aqua Vid, Inc. and worked in product development on Verde-Cal enhanced calcium products. I have been involved in product development, promotion, sales, and distribution for the green industry for many years, and I am passionate about Foliar-Pak's Armament and AminoPrecise technology.

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