Organic Gardening & Farming

Good Soil

“The soil is the great connector of our lives, the source and destination of all.”

— Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America, 1977

In the spring before last spring, I tried to expand my vegetable patch. The new garden patch is conveniently located, only a few dozen feet away from my original garden. It appears to be at the same elevation, and it gets at least as much if not more sun than the already established and thriving garden. There is one major difference: the new garden expansion is located on land that had previously been part of a corn and soybean farm, whereas the original garden had been carved out of the back yard and thus had been protected by a “cover crop” of grasses.

I knew expanding the garden would be hard work, and I knew the soil in the new space wasn’t very rich. I thought that if I just trucked in thick layers of compost and mulches, that would enrich the soil enough to yield success. Unfortunately, the water table turned out to be too high in the new space. Pretty much all of my plants died from root rot due to the constantly soggy soil. After investing thousands of dollars and several weeks of hard labor into this endeavor, I didn’t harvest anything.

A newly prepared garden

I allowed the space to rest this year while I considered my next steps. Should I truck in much more compost, soil, and mulches to raise the level of the soil high enough above the water table to support garden vegetables? Should I abandon the idea of a larger vegetable garden and plant this area with all bog-loving native plants?

The more time I spend on this land, living the farm life, and attuning to my surroundings, the less desire I have to force my will on anything. The things I see and experience every day are no less than magical. I’ve watched Great Blue Herons foraging for sticks in my woods. I’ve sat underneath giant Beech trees that are older than my grandparents. I’ve found hidden flowers and secret groves, I’ve gathered cornucopias of nuts, I’ve stared into the eyes of owls that scream like the faeries from the old tales. It’s all so much bigger than me. I’ve learned to view my job as more of a facilitator, enhancer, and refiner of the natural processes that are already underway here rather than as an artist approaching a blank canvas. But the question remains: which of these paths is more in tune with the truest nature of this land? Plants aside, is that patch of land supposed to be this boggy? Or did erosion wipe away soil until the veil between earth and water wore thin?

I may never know the full story of this land. Someone once suggested that my entire land, including the high ground where my house is perched, might have all been part of the river once upon a time. I don’t know how to confirm or disprove that. What I can do is compare the soil structure in the old corn field with the soil structure of the back yard. Both of these samples were taken from areas that are not part of any garden and where no compost or mulch has been applied. The field soil has been under cover crops and perennial groundcovers for the past seven years.

Photo comparison of two soils.  A measuring tape shows the levels of clay, clay-loam blend, and topsoil in a healthy patch of soil that had been protected by grass, and in an unhealthy patch of soil that had been part of an industrial crop field.

You can see the difference for yourself in the side-by-side photo comparison above. The soil from the former agricultural field is almost all dense clay, with less than a half inch of topsoil. The soil from the yard that had been protected under grasses contains about six inches of topsoil and clay/loam blended soil above the dense clay layer. To me, this looks like we may have lost several inches of topsoil in the former corn field. That difference is about the size of the root zone of most vegetable crops, and could be enough to mean the difference between success and root rot.

I’m no great fan of the American lawn, especially the high-maintenance sort that requires regular inputs of chemicals and irrigation water. But I’ll take a messy organic lawn over bare soil any day. Soil is a precious resource, and tilled ground is like an open wound. The good stuff bleeds out. Through natural processes on the forest floor, topsoil is created at the rate of one inch every 50 years. If six inches of topsoil are lost, then that is a 300 year setback. Concentrated applications of compost and regenerative farming practices can rebuild topsoil on a much faster timescale, and I have already begun these processes. That is not a substitute for preserving the topsoil we have left, but it does mean hope for damaged land.

I have noticed that there is a temptation to polarize when we talk about erosion. On the one side, there are people who are not worried about erosion at all. They till their gardens and fields every spring, they don’t mulch, and they don’t worry. On the other side, there are people advocating for spreading invasive plants that can damage the ecosystem and displace native plants, insects, and animals, all because the aggressive growth rate of those plants might help to rebuild the soil a little bit quicker. I believe in a middle path. Native grasses, trees, and groundcovers are more than capable of protecting and rebuilding our soils. We need to plant lots of plants (and all different kinds), and avoid bare soil. We need to encourage animals (including wild animals) to spend time on our land and bring with them their microbes and their fertilizers (aka #1 and #2!).

I’ve decided to allow this project to mellow while I work towards clarification and a thoughtful plan of action. Regardless of whether I decide to grow native plants or regular garden plants in this soil, more regenerative work is clearly needed in this area. I suspect the best path lies somewhere in the middle, and probably includes both soil building work and native plants. I’m good with it. Native plants can produce fantastic food, and they are the best plants for the wider ecosystem. I won’t be able to grow enough vegetables to sell without this extra growing space, but I’ll still be able to grow enough to use and to share with loved ones. This farm specializes in native fruit and nut crops, after all, so vegetables would have only been something extra on the side anyway. I’ll need to find other ways to bring in income while I wait for my baby orchard to grow and begin producing, but I can do that. I’m resourceful, and I’m betting on this farm.