Soil Management on the Homestead

Everything you need to know to optimize your soil for the best crop production.

| May/June 1972

Ken Kern, author of THE OWNER-BUILT HOME and THE OWNER-BUILT HOMESTEAD, is an amazing fellow and everyone interested in decentralist, back-to-the-land, rational living should know of his work. Back in 1948 he began collecting information on low-cost, simple and natural construction materials and techniques. He combed the world for ideas, tried them and started writing about his experiments.

There comes a moment of truth in the life of every potential homesteader. That is, sooner or later one finds that he or she must come to grips with the purpose and motivation and inner feelings associated with desire to work the land. This chapter on soil management seems an appropriate juncture to qualify some of these subjective aspects. For one thing, soil is basic to the whole homesteading complex: the person who lacks some special feeling for the soil is not likely to have much feeling for plant or animal husbandry.

Soil management practices, moreover, can prove to be essential tests by which one can judge rapport with the growing process. What is your reaction, for instance, when giant machinery opens up soil furrows, denuding all vegetation for planting monoculture crops to be sprayed with deadly chemicals? Your moment of truth has arrived when you are able to correlate a plow-sliced furrow with a body slash; a denuding of ground cover with a peeling-off of one's skin; an application of commercial fertilizer with habitual injection of barbiturates.

If such feelings for the soil are alien to the average homesteader, it is probably due to the fact that the average homesteader has no comprehension of the exceedingly bad soil management practices engaged in by modern farming. Nor, conversely, does he understand the principles inherent in proper soil management practices.

To achieve this understanding, the place to begin is with an investigation of a sample of good soil and a sample of poor soil. In the first instance, soil granules, or crumbs, are aggregated into a structural unity. A disaggregated soil, however, has no structure. Instead, pores are completely filled with water. The soil surface dissolves into mud after the first rain, and after the rain it dries to a powdery dust. When you become able to appreciate the intricacies of soil structure, you are well on the way to an appreciation of food production itself.

An ideal soil structure is one having large and stable pores which extend from the surface to the sub-soil strata. The size and arrangement of soil particles govern the flow and storage of water, the movement of air, and the ability of the soil to supply nutrients to the plants. A ready supply of air is especially necessary so that soil organic matter can be decomposed by aerobic bacteria. Spaces around soil particles also act as channels for conducting water through the soil. About one-half the volume of soil should consist of these soil pores and fissures. Many of these spaces are filled with micro-fauna: the gums and mucilages formed in the microfauna breakdown of organic matter helps to bind soil particles together.

Now observe the sample of earth that comes from the average farm. Tillage and clean cultivation drastically reduce the number of large pores available for the movement of air and water through the soil. Overcropping and monoculture also weaken soil structure. The cultivation of annual crops creates mechanical, chemical, and biological demands on the soil all of which cause the soil to lose its crumb structure.

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