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.