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

Vegetables that thrive in poor soil

Sweet potato harvest

Big and little butternutI had forgotten how poor our soil used to be until I opened up some new garden areas this year.  Without frequent applications of manure, straw, and cover crops to build the organic-matter levels, our native soil is a cloddy mass of pale silty-clay.  Unsurprisingly, many crops failed to thrive in this new ground...but others did even better.  I figured you might like hearing about the good and the bad in case you have poor-soil areas of your own that you want to put into production now rather than waiting until years of TLC turn your topsoil black.

Who failed the test?  Carrots and butternuts both grew in the new ground, but produced fruits and roots that were half the size of what I'm used to.  In the photo, the butternut on the right comes from an older bed while the one on the left is representative of the squash we harvested from the new bed.  Total yield in the new ground was about a third to a quarter of what I'd expect elsewhere for these two crops.

Nodding sunflower

On the other hand, sunflowers and sweet potatoes seemed to grow even better in the poor soil.  In the top photo, the potatoes in the basket all came from a similar square footage (but from richer soil) as the huge number of potatoes cleaned and stacked on the porch (that came from poorer soil).  Keep in mind that I did take the time to dig these new patches, scooping the topsoil out of the aisles to double the height of the growing beds (and I usually don't dig or till our established beds at all).  So, the thrivers may be responding to the fluffiness and quick breakdown of organic matter into nitrogen that you find in recently churned ground.  Or maybe they just like low organic matter and nutrient levels.

To paraphrase Tolstoy, happy soils are all alike; every unhappy soil is unhappy in its own way.  So you might find that the crops that thrive in our poor soil don't do so well in yours.  Still, I'd be curious to hear from our readers who have kept an eye on crops growing in good and poor parts of their gardens.  Which plants like and dislike the bad ground?

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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.

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I tried to persuade a few beets to grow in poor ground, and they were NOT interested. But our new fig doesn't seem to mind.

Incidentally, if you like Tolstoy, check out today's Google search engine.

Comment by Faith T Tue Sep 9 08:38:54 2014

Hm I think I'd be happy with a bit of that silty clay ... my soil is 100% sand ... speaking of poor.. :( :D However, how low in minerals and organic stuff my soil is, there's some good things, it heats up easily, it's easy to work, I think every soil has it goods and bads, as long as it is the original stuff and not some junk from a building area or so

Your flowers are amazing! love your blog!!

Comment by Anonymous Tue Sep 9 13:43:07 2014
I gave up with my red clay soil that's only suitable to make bricks, which is probably why General Shale and Brick is located in NE TN. I had consulted an extension service agent about tilling in sand and compost in the soil and he told me don't bother, but to just pile the sand and compost on top of the soil. That made me decide to create raised beds with originally cedar and composite "lumber" but now I'm using concrete blocks. Works great. But I'm really peeved that some sweet potatoes I had saved from last year to plant this year didn't germinate at all. :( Don't know what went wrong. Never got to plant winter squash, which I am fond of, as there was too much rain in the spring and then it got really hot. On the plus side, my fall peas are doing well, and the tomatoes... Will have canned enough tomatoes to last me three years at least.
Comment by Nayan Tue Sep 9 16:41:36 2014

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