If you’ve got bad soil, you know how frustrating it is to put plants in the ground and see your time and money wasted.
When I was looking for a homestead, I found several places around the country with cheap land.
Sometimes it was hot flat desert with no water, or open prairie, or remote forest.
It never had excellent balanced “loamy” soil that gardening books are always raving about.
The soil always had some problems, either too much sand, or too much clay, or rocky, or thin soil on rock.
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Many garden plants want loamy soil, that is rich in organic matter and nutrients. However, if you’re stuck with soil that even native weeds have trouble in, you might have problems growing a garden.
For background, soil consists largely of 3 components: sand, silt, and clay. Sand has the largest particles, silt the medium (Goldilocks soil) and clay the finest particles.
The “ideal” soil has equal amounts of sand, silt, and clay.
But this is rarely found, and if you do find it, expect to pay a lot for it.
If there’s too much sand in the mix, water drains quickly through the soil and won’t hold nutrients. Without water these soils are hot, dry, and dusty. Generally, these soils are alkaline.
With too much clay, water stays in the soil and causes “wet feet” rotting and lack of aeration. Then when dry, they become hard like brick. This makes sense because bricks come from clay. Generally, these soils are acidic.
Either way, plants suffer and you can’t get good production.
Another issue is alkaline soil. Some plants can’t uptake nutrients if a soil’s pH is too high because it blocks that chemical process. Some poor soils also suffer from alkalinity, whether sand or clay.
You may also have issues if the site is too exposed. Wind and sun will bake the soil and evaporate any water you get on the soil.
This makes your tender garden plants suffer.
You could also have the problem of having a desert or arid climate. This makes soil problems worse because deserts don’t get steady rainfall.
You say, “Duh. I know that already.”
The point is that it’s dry most of the time, then thunderstorms bring lots of rain all at once. The result for poor soils is lots of erosion. You get flooded soils, then dry again.
Most annual garden plants don’t like this. There are some desert and Mediterranean plants that actually do better on a wet and dry cycle, but not for a vegetable garden.
So we need to plan for this as well, since you’re not going to change the climate unless you move.
You may also have the problems of rocks (big or small) in your soil.
Sorry to tell you but there’s not a lot you can do except manually pull them out.
But consider keeping some rocks to use as thermal heat sinks near early spring plants to protect from frost. The rocks will soak up heat from sunshine then radiate it back out when it’s cooler.
Ultimately all of these harsh situations tend to kill soil life. And soil life is critical to plant health and growth.
The not-so-secret solution is just to increase and protect the soil life.
I can fix it myself!
In trying to correct soil problems, you may think about just adding the opposite of what you have.
Like adding sand to clay or vice versa, but unfortunately it’s a mistake.
Don’t do this, because it’s how you make concrete.
Changing the mix isn’t the solution.
Also, adding sulfur or other acidic amendments to an alkaline soil isn’t a practical long-term strategy.
It’s a long and hard process, and will take lots of amendments.
If you have a significant amount of calcium carbonate in your soil, it will just react with the acid and do almost no good.
Even if you don’t, it’s still a long expensive process.
And I’m always trying to save money, so that doesn’t work for me.
Another option might be to bring in several dump truck loads of topsoil and cover up the problem soil.
Again, this will be an expensive way to do it, and as homesteaders we’d rather spend money on things like more animals and fruit trees.
Plus, it may only temporarily fix the issues. If you get too much rain all at once, your topsoil can get washed away because it’s not anchored to the subsoil.
And your plants may be unhappy about suddenly hitting that layer of bad soil.
Since you’re trying to fix bad soil on a budget, I restricted the solutions to low-cost options. None of the suggestions will be very expensive, and some you can get free.
For the purchased items, like Azomite and micorrhizae fungi, a little goes a long ways. So it’s very efficient with your money.
The following recommendations are also in my desert fruit tree planting article. Check it out if you’re interested.
If you have an exposed site with too much wind or hot sun, create a windbreak and shade. Do this with created structures, shade cloth, or fast-growing vegetation.
The solution to most soil problems is this: add LOTS of organic matter. The soil life needs this to feed and grow.
It doesn’t matter if you have lots of sand or clay. More organic matter and soil life will help to bind up and uptake water in sand, or break up and add pore spaces in clay soils.
One way is to add a good organic compost. Recently finished “live” compost is best for kick-starting you soil life.
You can also add a composted or low-nitrogen (goat, rabbit) manure. If you use other manure, be careful of the salinity in clay soils. These soils can retain salt, making it harder for plants to grow.
Another great move is to add lots of mulch, specifically wood mulch (organic, or at least without added chemicals). I really like wood chips like
They’re usually heavy enough not to blow away in the wind, and are great for cooling summer soil and protecting over-wintering perennials. They also absorb excess water and slow down evaporation.
With wood chips, add some beneficial micorrhizae fungi. This creates a fungal environment that helps to feed and protect plants.
You can also add straw or leaves, but make sure to secure them so they don’t blow away.
Micro-nutrients & soil structure
All plants need 3 basic macro-nutrients to grow: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. They’re commonly know as NPK for their periodic element symbols.
Plants also need smaller amounts of many micro-nutrients. I don’t have it in my soil (most people don’t), so I like to use Azomite rock dust. Just follow the directions to dust it on then work it into the soil.
I also suggest adding worms and worm castings. They will help build soil life for years to come and are a great source of plant nutrients.
To keep building soil life, don’t till up your soil (with a caveat I’ll go over soon). I know, it looks “easier” than using a garden fork or broadfork to loosen your soil.
And you may want to justify purchasing a rototiller by actually using it.
But forking a bed is pretty fast once you get the hang of it.
And most importantly, tilling destroys the soil structure, which means it’s less healthy and beneficial as it could be.
Plus tilling is loud, smelly, uses costly fuel and makes your hands and arms numb.
Now, the caveat is: if you’re preparing the soil the FIRST time for becoming a garden bed.
You probably don’t have much soil structure to begin with, and the work it would take to use a broadfork isn’t worth it.
Ask me how I know…
In that situation I might be OK with using a tiller to prepare the ground. But only for the initial soil break-up.
If you have a large area, consider using a tractor with rippers to break up the ground.
Or a Yeoman’s plow if you’re lucky enough to find one.
OK let’s review. To improve poor soils:
- Add shade and wind protection
- Add lots of organic matter to your soil
- Deeply mulch EVERYTHING with wood chips (preferred) or leaves/straw
- Add beneficial micorrhizae fungi
- Add Azomite rock dust
- Add worms and worm castings
- Don’t till the ground
If you try these steps you should see improvement in your soil. Depending on how bad it is, it may take a few years to get happy soil.
But stick with it, and you’ll have soil you can be proud of.
If you have specific questions about soil or would like to send me pictures of your soil, please do so. I’ll help you out as best I can!
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OK, that’s all folks! Do you have any questions or comments about soils, sustainable homesteading, permaculture design or anything else? Ask your question down below and let’s talk! You can also use the contact form, or email me at info at thepermaculture dot life.
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