Is there anything I should avoid (or encourage) adding to compost that I am going to make to grow blueberries?

  • 1
    This question may also be relevant to other berries, which might benefit from the same or similar compost. Commented Aug 18, 2013 at 20:40

3 Answers 3


I'm not entirely clear from your question whether you intend to use your own, home made compost in pots, or whether you're asking about adding something to commercially produced ericaceous potting compost, nor whether you're actually intending to use either of these for pot culture, so this answer may not be entirely appropriate, for it assumes you're making your own compost for use in containers.

Blueberries require acidic soil, so any compost you've made yourself should, first, be sterile (that is, produced using a hot, aerobic method) and second, may need adjustment when it's ready to correct the ph balance. That, of course, implies you'd need to test the ph before using it, and then correct it by adding sulphur dust to make it more acidic. You can also use aluminium sulphate or ferrous sulphate - these work faster and better in cold temperatures, but do sometimes cause a problem with phosphorus availability for plants.

I don't think there's much point in only adding acidifying materials to your compost heap - breakdown of the constituents will be much slower for one thing, and it may become unpleasantly smelly. It's much better to add a mixture of materials and then check the ph at the end, when it's ready for use.

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    Aluminum is toxic to plants! Use magnesium sulfate (epsom salts) or ammonium sulfate. Blueberry doesn't have root hairs and nitrates will burn the roots. Only use ammonium on blueberry.
    – Randy
    Commented Aug 19, 2013 at 19:33
  • Thanks. I was intending to make my own compost and I'll edit the question to make this clearer. Commented Aug 19, 2013 at 19:50

This isn't an answer to the question, but I couldn't leave the issue of aluminum toxicity unaddressed.

A few months ago I called my local nursery to ask if they carried ammonium sulfate. He said "Oh, you want aluminum sulfate to acidify the soil for blueberries." I cringed in horror that this advice is being dispensed so regularly.

Aluminum is not known to be a nutrient for plant growth in any quantity and is actually more well-known for being a toxin.

Aluminum (Al) is the most abundant metal in the earth's crust, comprising about 7% of its mass. Since many plant species are sensitive to micromolar concentrations of Al, the potential for soils to be Al toxic is considerable. Fortunately, most of the Al is bound by ligands or occurs in other nonphytotoxic forms such as aluminosilicates and precipitates. However, solubilization of this Al is enhanced by low pH and Al toxicity is a major factor limiting plant production on acid soils.


Why would you want to add more of this to your soil? Aluminum doesn't acidify the soil, but aluminum becomes more readily available to plants as the soil becomes more acid. Ph is a measure of H+ ions in the soil. It has nothing to do with aluminum.

In technical terms, pH is the negative logarithm of the activity of the (solvated) hydronium ion, more often expressed as the measure of the hydronium ion concentration.

The exact meaning of the "p" in "pH" is disputed, but according to the Carlsberg Foundation pH stands for "power of hydrogen".


Actually, what blueberries like is Magnesium. They grow well in acid soils because calcium is low, which lowers the Ca:Mg ratio and provides the plant with more access to Mg with less competition from Ca.

pH is a measure of free Hydrogen ions in water. It measures Hydrogen ion concentration, H+ and OH-, and that’s all it does. One can change the soil pH with any acid or alkali. You can raise the pH with sodium hydroxide, which is lye, drain cleaner, or lower it with hydrochloric acid, for instance, but they aren’t going to give you much growth stimulus. They will probably kill the plant. A slightly acid pH of about 6 or 6.5 is ideal, because it gives just the right amount of electrical conductivity in the soil, but plants aren’t nearly as finicky about pH as they are about having the right balance of soil minerals.

Rhododendrons, for instance, are supposed to require an acid soil. What they really prefer is a high Magnesium soil. Experimenters in Scotland raised the pH of soil from 5.0 to nearly 8.0 with Magnesium Carbonate, and the rhodies grew better and better as the soil pH went up because the Magnesium level was going up. pH had little to do with it.

So, this is a good thing to know if you are trying to grow rhododendrons in New Mexico, for instance, where the soil is frequently alkaline to start with, although there you would want to use an acid form of Magnesium like Magnesium sulfate, Epsom salts. But your garden, your farm crops and your fruits and berries wouldn’t necessarily like it (except the blueberries). High levels of Magnesium in relation to Calcium are common in Organic gardening and farming, though, because people are told to lime their soils with dolomite lime, which is high in Magnesium.


So, its not ph that matters as much as its the right nutrient combination for the plant. It just so happens that the right nutrient combination is most often found in a naturally acid soil. That observation doesn't necessarily mean that the soil must be acid and in no way infers anything about aluminum.

Aluminum sulfate acidifies the soil because of the sulfate, not the aluminum. Actually, its possible aluminum, being Al+++, could take the place of 3 hydrogen ions (H+), though more likely is it would take the place of a Ca++ and 1 H+. Anyway, its the sulfate which causes acidity.

SO4 + 2 H2O = 2 H2SO4 + O2

Sulfate + water = sulfuric acid + oxygen

Ammonium sulfate is NH4 + SO4, so not only will the sulfate make sulfuric acid, but the NH4 (ammonium) will break down to NO3 (nitrate) and release extra H+ into the soil, which makes the soil more acid.

Same thing with epsom salts. Mg + SO4. Sulfate when added to water takes the hydrogen out of water and make an acid.

Also, blueberries have sensitive roots. The application of nitrates is known to "burn" blueberry roots and could kill the plant.

See this link and take note on page 9 of the pic of blueberry roots with NH4 and NO3.

Blueberries, and their relatives’ cranberries, lingonberries, and bilberries have somewhat unique N requirements. They are not able to use nitrate forms of N (NO3-N) effectively. These plants have evolved in soil conditions that do not naturally contain a significant amount of NO3-N and they depend more on ammonium-N (NH4-N). Blueberries take up both forms of N, but they have limited nitrate reductase activity. Nitrate reductase is an enzyme that is needed to convert nitrate to amino acids and proteins. The limited nitrate reductase system in blueberries means that they cannot efficiently utilize nitrate forms of N. Some reports also state that excessive nitrate fertilization can lead to leaf burn.

(I'm pretty sure "leaf burn" is a misprint, it should probably be "root burn")

Also consider from the 1st page:

Blueberries have fine, fibrous roots that do not develop root-hairs.

Going back to the first link I posted:

The most easily recognized symptom of Al toxicity is the inhibition of root growth, and this has become a widely accepted measure of A1 stress in plants. In simple nutrient solutions micromolar concentrations of Al can begin to inhibit root growth within 60 min.

So if Al harms roots and blueberries have fine, sensitive roots, why would you want to add aluminum to your soil for the benefit of blueberries?

Furthermore, aluminum sulfate dissolves in water and becomes immediately available to plants (as a toxin). As opposed to the aluminum in soil that is locked-up.

Lastly, from page 45 of spectrum analytics site which contained the root pics:

Aluminum deserves special attention with blueberries because of the very acid soil pH which the crop requires. At these acid pH’s, there is often a considerable amount of soluble Al in the soil solution. This can cause several negative results. First, soluble Al has a strong affinity for soluble P. This is the same form of P that the blueberries require. The result of the excess soluble Al can be the requirement for a higher soil P test than suggested by us and other authorities. Another potential problem is the cation competition caused by excessive soluble Al. The likely result of this cation competition is reduced uptake of one or more of the cation micronutrients (Cu, Mn, Fe, and Zn). About the only way to identify either of these potential problems is with leaf analysis.

And then from page 117 here:

Do not use aluminum sulfate to lower the soil pH because aluminum is toxic to blueberries and is already present in many soils in the region in quantities that can negatively impact blueberry plants once the pH is lowered.

Hopefully one day nurseries will stop recommending aluminum sulfate for anything.


Not all aluminum is created equal. So, not all aluminum is toxic to plants. It really depends on the source and the structure of the aluminum.

Aluminum is in the soil anyway and may be used by micro-organisms to benefit the soil.

It's also therefore that adjusting the micro-organisms is much more beneficial to plants than just adding things to the compost. Micro-organisms interact with the plant, nutrients don't. Micro-organisms interact with each other and with the soil to make it acidic or alkaline. It's dynamic.

Micro-organisms are dependent on enough water and enough oxygen. Stimulate these and the right organisms will end up in the neighbourhood of the right plants.

You might as well look into 'bokashi' for this purpose. And to get some interest in micro-organisms I suggest to read the book "Teaming with microbes".

  • What do you mean by "Not all aluminum is created equal"?
    – Randy
    Commented Aug 21, 2013 at 6:13
  • Well, aluminum (just like any other mineral) can come in different forms/structures. I'm not an expert in chemistry, but I know minerals are not created equal. It depends on their structure how it functions and interacts with other substances.
    – Aschwin
    Commented Aug 21, 2013 at 19:39
  • According to en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aluminium#Isotopes 1 kind of Al occurs 99.9%. The other .01% is produced from cosmic-ray protons impacting argon way up in the atmosphere.
    – Randy
    Commented Aug 22, 2013 at 5:52
  • So, the only form of aluminium is aluminium sulphate. Is that what you are saying? Or is that not called a form but a binding? Like I said, I'm not an expert but most minerals can come as a chloride, sulphate, nitrate, citrate etc. If that is not a form how is it called?
    – Aschwin
    Commented Aug 23, 2013 at 10:19
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    Those are called compounds. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chemical_compound It would be correct to say "Al comes in many different compounds (with other elements)". It is incorrect to say "Al comes in many different forms" as that leads one to believe Al isn't an element or that the element has many different commonly found isotopes. But what compound in which Al comes isn't that relevant, it is still the Al part of the compound that is a toxin.
    – Randy
    Commented Aug 23, 2013 at 15:02

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