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 at 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 five-acre (two-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 yet know why. It takes me another day to understand why I don’t agree with him.

The phrase “green thumb” doesn’t even begin to describe Sergey’s talent when it comes to plants. In the six 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 fertilisers and pesticides, then abandoned) he manages to grow a myriad of trees, shrubs and herbs. 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.


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 warmer months of the year (the 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 was 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. And 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 received 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: five acres of depleted sandy soil after decades of unwise farming, on top of that completely cleared of life in a wildfire that ravaged it nine years ago. Yet I think it’s amazing and just what I was looking for!

You might think I’m crazy. That’s okay, so do my new neighbours. 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 as15-20 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, 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!

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.

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!


  1. Thanks for this reminder, Anya!
    We get this, “I have bad soil… therefore I can’t grow anything,” a lot from our clients! And you hit the nail on the head by saying, there really isn’t such a thing as bad soil. Even if it is poor, at least we have some base on which to innoculate life.
    And yet, I do think Sergey is right in saying, “there’s so much work to be done…” because there is!
    So much more permaculture to do, so much more good soil to guide nature into creating once more! So much more to grow!
    All the best to you (and Sergey ;) ) as you transform your eco-village together!

    1. Nicky, thank you for reading!
      It’s been a year since I wrote this article and now re-reading it again, I wonder if it relays fully what I was trying to say. About an acre of our land that’s adjacent to a forest strip (about 30-40 feet wide) has turned itself into a healthy, extremely diverse ecosystem in the 10 years it was abandoned, all by itself. From a clear plowed field it has become a young healthy forest. I have scattered some seeds throughout that acre, but beyond that, in my opinion there’s no need for human interference. If the ecosystem has become so strong without me, I see no need for me to interject myself into it.
      The other 4 acres, however, are coming along much slower and that’s what I’ll focus my efforts on.
      Permacultural approach, in my opinion, sometimes requires us to take a step back and stop ourselves from interfering. Like in this instance: the soil is still “bad”, but it still can provide us with a considerable amount of food, medicine and firewood while we sit back and focus on other things.
      Having said that, not every system is capable of jump starting itself so readily. But it’s an amazing experiment to try and give it some space to heal itself! Especially if there’s a neighboring mature ecosystem, they’ll become friends very quickly with each other: here are mother plants, here’s empty space to spread its babies 😊
      So I’m focusing my efforts on the spaces farther away from the forest strip – it’s a harsher reality over there with less protection from the elements.
      So yes, your point is 100% valid. I was talking specifically about the newly forested acre though – I think it’s absolutely perfect and complete 🤗
      Thank you for your perspective, Nicky!

    1. Yes! I love weeds! 😆❤️🌱
      One of the best books I’ve ever come across is “Weeds. Guardians of the Soil” by Joseph A. Cocannouer!

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