Soil Condition


Soil condition is less important in a garden than if you are trying to grow pastures, large areas of crops or trees. In a garden you can nearly always create excellent soil conditions – in just two years, you can bring garden soil a long way. But even badly degraded, eroded, worn out land can be brought back. It takes dedication, time, patience and a lot of hard work. The advantage of choosing such land for your homestead, however, is that the land is usually very, very cheap. If the land you are considering meets your requirements in terms of water supply, climate and terrain, you can make it productive. Gene Logsdon described just such a small miracle in The Man Who Created Paradise.

Soil Condition – Water and Fertility

The two most important activities in improving your soil condition are managing water and building soil fertility. The first involves how you obtain or capture your water, store your water, get it to the various areas of your land and prevent runoff that causes erosion. The second includes such practices as using livestock best suited to the land conditions, seeding the right kinds of grasses and forbs, building windbreaks and hedgerows, or using fences to maximize land use and prevent overgrazing. For example, feed mixed grass/clover/grain hay in different spots every day so the animals can trample what they don’t eat. Seeds will also be dispersed on your pasture in this manner. Rotational or management intensive grazing (MIG) is a great tool to improve pastures. In the wild, animals naturally move on as the food sources diminish, thereby spreading manure widely and decreasing the risk of intestinal parasites. Overstock or make the rotations too long, however, and MIG is terribly destructive.

Soil Condition – Using Animals

Livestock like cows, sheep and goats can improve the soil of your homestead, BUT only if properly managed. For example, sheep and goats are less destructive to the land than cows because of their smaller size. The key is to not overstock. If the land can’t even support these animals, consider chickens in moveable pens. Once you’ve built up the land, you might advance to a dairy cow. Pigs can be terribly destructive if free-ranged. However, they can also help you clear land if properly confined and moved regularly.

Ways to Improve Soil

If you have poor soil in an area where you want to grow crops or pasture, spend several years on soil improvement. Bring in every bit of vegetable matter you can find. Offer to clean out a barn for the manure. Provide a place where people can bring their yard waste for free (or haul it off yourself). If there are vegetation management companies clearing trees in the area, let them dump their wood chips on your land.


Next, start planting. Start with cover crops. Let them grow to maturity, die and rot into the soil. In poor soil, think something like buckwheat. It’s very fast-growing and makes a good green manure. Vetch is a legume and another good choice that is drought-resistant and good for grazing. After a few rotations of buckwheat and/or vetch, move on to other soil-builders such as clovers and other legumes. Don’t try to plant perennial grasses until you’ve got at least three years of soil improvement under your belt. Use a wide variety of grass seed – the plants will self-sort according to the growing conditions. Plant trees that will do well in your area. Just remember, you may need to baby them for a few years.

A final word on your homestead’s soil condition – dream big but buy small. You can have a much bigger impact on a small farm. Don’t overextend your finances to buy more land than you can handle. You are better off with 10 or 15 acres that will meet your needs when properly managed.

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The vegetation in an area can give you some important information about rainfall, soil conditions, and prevailing winds. Plants are the basic food foundation on which other life forms depend. Resident and migratory animals, birds and insects cannot survive for long if the vegetation in their range is sick, dead or eliminated by human activities. Changes in vegetation can be a useful indicator of local or regional environmental change. Native plants can give you indicators of where to site gardens and what amendments your soil may need. Native trees are drought and fire “recorders.” A two-hundred-year-old oak stump is a window into past growing conditions. Natives can also help you determine what non-native plants and trees are likely to be successful in your area.

Vegetation and Climate

Climate and location strongly affect vegetation. We live in a mixed hardwood/conifer area. We have various species of oaks, cedars, willows, Douglas fir, digger and sugar pines on the property, as well as cottonwoods, maples, alders and ash. Douglas fir and oak are good for lumber, while cedar makes lumber and good fence posts. Any of these will make firewood, although digger pine forms a lot of creosote and you have to keep your stove pipe or chimney well-cleaned. Digger pine, although not considered good for building, is useful for outbuildings when rough-cut and put up in board and batten style. Shrubs include manzanita, Oregon grape, flannel bush, poison oak (which is good feed for horses and ruminants), buckbrush and others. Many of these provide food for birds, beneficial insects, honey bees, other pollinators and browsing ruminants such as deer or elk. The area supports a wide variety of native and introduced grasses and forbs.

Native Vegetation

Native vegetation has adapted to climatic and water conditions in your area. The downside is that so have insects and plant diseases. For example, many native evergreens are attacked and killed by borers, particularly if they are drought-stressed. Eucalyptus trees, which are also evergreen, were introduced from Australia around the time of the Gold Rush by Australian miners. They came in the form of seeds, which meant insect pests stayed behind. Eucalyptus borers didn’t show up in California until 1980, probably because humans were shipping live plants all over the world. The other side of that equation is that non-native invasive plants can take over because their usual insect and disease controls are not present. Kudzu was planted heavily during the Dust Bowl years for erosion control. Since the Kudzu bug (Megacopta cribraria) and other insect predators did not come with it, kudzu became a serious invasive pest, particularly in Southern states. Star thistle is another plant that causes major problems in the West, for similar reasons.

Indicator Plants

A walk over the land will tell you a lot about your soil, water availability, winds and climate. For example, redroot pigweed is often an indication of rich soil. However, it can also be an indicator that the balance between iron and manganese is out of whack. Dandelions indicate soil that is low in calcium but high in potassium. Junipers are basically desert trees, while maples and cottonwoods do poorly in hot, dry areas. Crabgrass grows well in soil that is nutrient-depleted and low in calcium. Mustard may mean soil is high in phosphorus. If you see groves of cottonwoods, cypress or willows on your proposed homesite, they indicate lots of water in the soil and/or poor drainage. Oaks can grow long taproots that help them survive drought. Tree shape can be an indicator of the strength of prevailing winds – an important consideration if you plan on a windmill.

Moral of the story? Learn enough about the vegetation in your proposed homestead location to know what it tells you about the soil, water and climate conditions.

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“Climate is what you expect, weather is what you get.” If you prefer well-defined seasons, strike Arizona off your list. If cold and snow really bother you, Minnesota and Alaska probably aren’t the best choices for you. Within those two extremes you can surely find what you want. Climate is important in terms of growing seasons, precipitation, vegetation, living conditions, wildlife and insect populations. A long growing season means higher water needs. Choose a prairie homestead and you won’t be able to cut and mill trees to build a house or barn. Climate also affects your ability to grow food for yourself or any animals you want to raise. Don’t depend on feeding hay that must be shipped in from hundreds or thousands of miles away. Generally speaking, a temperate climate will give you the most options.

Climate Change

But what about climate change? Not having a top-notch crystal ball or the skills of a seer, I suggest you talk to people in the area you are considering. Ask what they are experiencing in terms of day-to-day weather. Compare historical weather records with current activity and talk to old-timers when possible. I only have about 16 years of weather records specific to the ranch, but I can get data for this general area for about 80 years. And I have lived in this county for 64 years off and on, so I have memories of earlier weather patterns. Mind you, that length of time is miniscule in the grand scheme of things. Major weather changes like the ice ages cover thousands to millions of years. But your interest is a few human lifetimes, for you and/or your kids and grandkids to live on and work your homestead. You can get pretty decent trends for that period of time.

Climate: Wet or Dry?

You can also take the general rule of thumb I mentioned in an earlier post. Wet areas are likely to get wetter and dry areas drier. The other clear trend I’m seeing is that precipitation tends to be more concentrated. Once we got a week of steady, gentle rain with a rainfall total of 2-3 inches. Now we get that same total as heavy rainfall in a 24-hour period. The dry periods in between may be a month or longer even though it’s the rainy season. In contrast, the one truly wet year we had several years ago totaled up to be two years’ worth of precipitation. That year we had rain even in the summer, which almost never happens. Snowfalls are often similar. This most recent storm left many of my coworkers battling 5-foot drifts dumped on them in about 36 hours.

Pick Your Spot

Another possibility is to choose an area that traditionally was a little drier or wetter than the larger region. By “region” I mean the size of a big state like many of the Western states). In our case, average rainfall in the valley is about two-thirds of our norm on the ranch. Living where we do helps stack the precipitation dice in our favor. Be aware, however, of two things. First, you’re looking at average trends over a period of decades. Each year may be quite different from the preceding year or previous decades. Plan for the extremes so whether it’s wet or dry, you can manage.

Second, even relatively minor climate changes affect the vegetation, bird and insect populations, all of which are getting badly hammered. You may need to learn how to hand-pollinate plants or raise pollinator insects (in addition to honey bees). I do recommend you keep a few beehives and let them swarm to build up the local bee population. Insect-eating birds are getting scarce in many areas. Traps may be necessary to maintain some balance of bothersome insects such as mosquitoes, flies and wasps or hornets. If you see a lot of dead or dying trees on your proposed homestead, consider what to plant so you have sources of firewood and timber.

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