What to do with bad soil
After watching the sun set and the full moon rise atop my neighbour Sergey’s hill which overlooks the entire eco-village, he walks me back to my tent hidden in the midst of young pine trees upon the insistence of his mother (“You need to walk the young lady all the way to the door of her tent, you hear me?”). His cat Murka (Moor-kah, meaning purr-cat) follows her human grandma’s instructions too, inspecting my tent before heading back home. She spends her summers in the village roaming free and overwinters in a Kiev apartment. When it’s time for her to ride to the village every spring, she stands on the car seat and looks out the window, getting extremely animated for the last 30 minutes of the trip.
Sergey and I walk in the moonlight trying to find where I pitched my tent on my newly purchased 5-acre (2-hectare) plot located about an hour-and-a-half ride west of Kiev, Ukraine’s capital. Our feet sink into the soft sand, dry plant stalks crunch under our feet. Sergey sighs: “There’s so much work that needs to be done here”. I cringe at the sound of that, but I don’t know yet why. It takes me another day to understand why I don’t agree with him.
Before our cabin arrived, I slept in a tent, hidden in the emerging pine forest. None of these trees were here 9 years ago.
The abundance of herbs and insects in the midst of pine trees
The phrase “green thumb” doesn’t even begin to describe Sergey’s talent when it comes to plants. In the 6 years he’s owned his 2.5 acre plot he has nursed hundreds if not thousands of plant varieties. He is meticulous and precise – every plant has a place and a purpose in his domain. He spends hours every time he visits walking around and observing each plant. In the harsh conditions of our neighbourhood (a dry windy field, agricultural wasteland leftover after decades of rye production cultivated during the Soviet Union and after Ukraine’s independence, once pumped full of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, then abandoned) he manages to grow a myriad of trees, shrubs and herbs. And while other neighbours complain about soil, frost, wind, drought, mice, rabbits and deer, Sergey has lost only a handful of plants to those elements while thousands have thrived.
Apple, pear and wild black cherry trees – all self-sown, most likely by birds
The eco-village where we own our plots is surrounded mostly by pine forests and agricultural fields. It consists of about 50 families, 12 of which live here permanently; the rest visit their plots every weekend or so in the warm time of the year (lucky ones manage to spend the entire summer here). People join with the vision of creating a little chunk of green heaven but everyone has their own way of getting there: some practice permaculture, many others – conventional farming. The main rule for everyone though is not to harm the Earth and their neighbours with chemicals. The rest is up to each individual. There’s no collective work (unless people want to do something good for the community, like the common house that got built on the community plot) and no interference in each family’s property. Therefore, everyone finds their own means of producing an abundance of sustenance and fun for their own family. In the ancient Eastern European tradition everyone considers it their obligation to provide advice for the newcomer (in this instance meaning me).
Oh, the multitude and the magnitude of advice I’ve gotten since my arrival! The one thing I’ve learned so far is to nod and ignore most of it, especially those remarks about the soil being bad.
I’ve thought time and time again about this phrase “bad soil” and it dawned on me: there is no such thing as bad soil! It’s not an intrinsic value of any soil! The soil can only be bad for a specific purpose that the humans want it to perform. And unfortunately most of the time WE have turned it into that, only to call it bad or poor later on.
Look at my family’s new plot: 5 acres of depleted sandy soil after decades of unwise farming, on top of that completely cleared of life in a wildfire that ravaged it 9 years ago. Yet I think it’s amazing and just what I was looking for! You might think I’m crazy. That’s ok, so do my new neighbours.
Our new little yellow cabin and a forest strip behind our plot.
Now I’ll explain why I cringed when Sergey talked about all the work that needs to be done on the plot. The southern border, adjacent to a mature and slowly dying pine forest strip, has renewed itself in ways I wouldn’t have believed possible. Yes, the soil is “poor” and light – it’s mostly sand with a skimpy layer of vegetation in open areas. However, when I search between self-seeded young pines, some already as tall as 15-20 ft, I find a food forest! Apple trees, pears, tart and wild black cherries, blackberries, raspberries and wild strawberries! Maples, hawthorns and willows! Sorrel, stinging and dead nettle, dandelions, yarrow, wormwood, violets, daisies, mullein, and dozens if not hundreds more plant varieties, most of which I haven’t identified yet! I gasp and swoon at the sight of each new plant I discover! What an abundance! What a gift! And here’s the best part: humans had nothing to do with all of this abundance. I had to do nothing for it – I showed up to reap the boons that wild, truly wild nature has provided me with! Why would I want to change that? All I can do is observe, contemplate, and graciously accept what nature shares with us. For it knows best how to work.
Bad soil, you say? Bad for what, I ask you back. It’s just perfect for what it needs to be.
Even the poorest soil can support an ecosystem
P.S. Yes, I will plant more trees and shrubs and vines and herbs and flowers and even annual vegetables. Yes, I will most definitely have to amend the soil with imported lime and organic matter to accomplish that. Yes, I will have to interfere with the invasive pioneer species. Yes, yes, yes. However, that Southern half of our plot is now untouchable – it’s an example and a reminder that we as humans only think we know what’s best. In reality only wild nature is always right and fair. I wish love, peace and inspiration to you all!
Thank you so much, Anya, for reminding me that like our attitude about “weeds” and “invasive species” we tend to judge our soil by how well our annual vegetables grow in it, and if that is poorly we judge it “bad” soil as you said. My five acres grows wonderful pines and oaks and firs and my fruit and nut trees are doing very well as are most perennial plants! I tend to ignore that in favor of how poorly annual veggies do! Thanks to you I am going to stop thinking of and speaking about my soil as “bad” just as I’m learning to look at invasives differently and enjoy eating many of my weeds! :-)
I’m with you, there is no such thing as intrinsically bad soil, we just have to work with what we have and be willing to learn. That doesn’t mean we won’t have to add certain elements and minerals to grow the things we want to grow but starting off with a high nutrient soil isn’t always best. Given half a chance, nature will give you plenty of hints about what will make for succeed. Observe and be willing to learn. Humility is worthy of cultivation, as is thankfulness.