The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

The Ultimate Guide to Soil

The Ultimate Guide to SoilI finished the first draft of The Ultimate Guide to Soil Friday...and also saw that the book is now up for preorder on Amazon! I'm thrilled by the cover, and I definitely feel like this is my best book yet.

In fact, I poured so much of my soul into its pages that I had to write to my editor and see whether she could fit an extra 15,000 words into the finished product. The answer, in case you're curious, is yes! So I won't have to cut the in-depth information on biochar, bokashi, black soldier flies, and many other topics that don't begin with "b." Phew!

There's a lot of information in this book that never made it to the blog, so I'll tempt you with a teaser today:

Growing vegetables in poor soil

Weeds are probably the largest deterrent to no-till gardening, but there are other issues you'll have to contend with. Most notably, no-till techniques are slower (if surer) than conventional soil preparation at creating plant-friendly soil in poor ground. That means you may be faced with subpar soil in certain parts of your garden during the first year or two while you're waiting for the earthworms to do your job. Which begs the question—which edibles can be successfully grown in extremely poor ground?

Had Tolstoy been a gardener, he would have warned that all happy soils are alike, but that each unhappy soil is unhappy in its own way. So I can't give you a one-size-fits-all list of vegetables that thrive in troubled ground. That said, if you've already used the tests in the first quarter of this book to figure out why your soil is ailing, you can likely select a vegetable that will fare well even in those specific poor conditions.

Let's start with shallow soil. This issue could be due to compaction in the subsoil, to a high water table, or to a newly applied kill mulch with only a few inches of compost on top. Although I don't usually recommend planting root crops in soils of limited depth, a few roots are actually good choices in this scenario. Specifically, onions, garlic, and radishes are reported to keep their roots closer to the surface than most other vegetables, so they're good growing choices in shallow soil. In contrast deep-rooters like beets, carrots, Swiss chard, parsnips, and winter squash should definitely be avoided in these scenarios.

How about low-nitrogen conditions? This is one of the most common soil problems in new organic gardens since biological sources of nitrogen often take time to release nutrients into the soil. Nitrogen-fixing vegetables—primarily peas and beans—are the obvious choice in this type of poor soil since these vegetables literally create nitrogen out of thin air. Otherwise, it's easier to tell you what not to grow. Vegetables with above-average nitrogen demands include potatoes, onions, cabbages, sweet corn, tomatoes, and celery. I recommend steering clear of these heavy feeders if you don't have enough nitrogen to go around and aren't able to pile on the compost.

Sweet potatoes thrive in certain types of ailing soil. In this photo, the tubers in the basket were harvested from the same square footage as the tubers stacked nearby, but the larger mess of taters came from poorer soil.

Another common issue involves poor soil structure. For example, the high raised beds I build in swampy parts of my homestead to pull vegetable roots out of wet soil often end up with clayey subsoil on the surface and with partially decomposing sod in the center. Although these beds mellow into rich growing ground eventually, the first year or two are rough with heavy soil that hinders seedling germination and root growth. Two crops that have thrived for me in this type of troubled soil are sweet potatoes and sunflowers. In contrast, carrots and butternut squash did so poorly in this type of ground that I might as well have skipped planting entirely. Medium-producers include large-seeded vegetables like beans and corn that can handle heavier soil as long as I increase compost applications for the latter.

Improper pH is another issue that often takes a few years resolve. Luckily, it's relatively easy to select vegetables that do well in excessively acidic or excessively alkaline soil. Carrots, cucumbers, eggplants, green beans, parsnips, peppers, potatoes, sweet corn, tomatoes, watermelon, and winter squash can handle sour soil with a pH as low as 5.5. In contrast, beets, cabbages, cantaloupe, peas, pumpkins, spinach, sweet corn, and tomatoes will grow in alkaline soil with a pH up to 7.5. Outside those ranges, though, you'll be better off sticking to blueberries (acidic soil) or certain ornamentals (alkaline soil).

All of these selections aside, you'll get even better results if you spend a year or two growing cover crops in that troubled ground. These soil-building species will not only add organic matter to your earth, they'll also often go a long way toward fixing the underlying issues that are keeping vegetables from thriving in the first place. For example, soybeans are a great cover crop for very low-nitrogen soil, oats thrive in waterlogged ground, and oilseed radishes are top-notch at both breaking up hardpan and making phosphorus more available near the soil surface. Be sure to check out the full book if you'd like to learn more about integrating these soil-improving crops into your no-till garden.


Are you sold? You can pre-order the paperback now and it will show up in your mailbox as soon as Amazon gets the first box of books in. And their preorder price guarantee means you'll actually pay less than the price listed if there are any sale periods between now and launch day. So snag a copy now! I don't think you'll regret it.

Anna Hess's books
Want more in-depth information? Browse through our books.

Or explore more posts by date or by subject.

About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

Want to be notified when new comments are posted on this page? Click on the RSS button after you add a comment to subscribe to the comment feed, or simply check the box beside "email replies to me" while writing your comment.

Oh darn... i pre ordered my copy, but was sure hoping for a quicker delivery. Having total knee replacement surgery next month and this would be a fine way to spend my recuperation time....i might have to read, gasp, fiction.....
Comment by Deb Sat Oct 24 19:04:07 2015
Deb --- I know --- it feels like such a long wait! Sorry I can't fill your knee replacement recovery time (and I hope you come through it easily and quickly). I'd send you the rough draft...but that might just make your recovery more painful. :-) Thanks so much for ordering even though you have to wait eight months!
Comment by anna Sun Oct 25 07:00:28 2015

profile counter myspace

Powered by Branchable Wiki Hosting.

Required disclosures:

As an Amazon Associate, I earn a few pennies every time you buy something using one of my affiliate links. Don't worry, though --- I only recommend products I thoroughly stand behind!

Also, this site has Google ads on it. Third party vendors, including Google, use cookies to serve ads based on a user's prior visits to a website. Google's use of advertising cookies enables it and its partners to serve ads to users based on their visit to various sites. You can opt out of personalized advertising by visiting this site.