Building Sustainable soil quality or relocating

I have finished my first quick read-through of The Intelligent Gardener by Steve Solomon. My big takeaways (and these are very rough) are
1) humans can’t be healthy without a good balance of mineral nutrients from nutrient dense food.
2) With the current state of agriculture and soils, the only way to get nutrient dense food is to grow it yourself in soil that you have re-mineralized using a detailed soil test as a guide.
3) Soil’s ability to hold on to the minerals long enough for the plants and soil life to make use of them depends on the Total Cation Exchange Capacity (TCEC) which is generally better in clay soils (heavy soils) and can be improved to a limited degree with humus. Sadly, the clay soils in the southeast so old that they have lost much of their TCEC, so they are considered light soils, as are sandy soils. You can still produced nutrient dense food in these light soils but you have to be prepared to replenish the minerals each year and even through the growing season.

So what I am wondering is how to be sustainable though the long descent in an area lacking the necessary minerals. I suppose you could bring your soil to an ideal mineral balance while there is opportunity to import minerals and work hard to prevent leaching. Will Bonsall in his Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening talks a lot in his book about keeping all of his nutrients on his farm by not selling produce, keeping roots in the soil to prevent leaching, composting, and probably humanure.

The other option is to relocate to a more fertile place. Steve Solomon mentions that the northern soils stayed young under the glaciers and thus have a larger TCEC. Areas with with an evapotranspiration ratio below 100 have not had so many nutrients leached out and are more mineral rich - apparently northwest Missouri is much better than southern Missouri and that showed up in healthier WW1 recruits from northwest Missouri back when people ate local food. He also mentions the blue grass area of Kentucky and, in general, high calcium soils as being good. In Georgia there is an area on the west side of the state called the ridge and valley province made of folder layers of limestone, shale, and sandstone. I’m thinking the limestone derived soils will be high TCEC and fertile in spite of being old, but the question is how to find them.

My first step was to look at the web soil survey here: There is a section where it will show the Cation Exchange value of soils, but apparently they don’t have the data on all the soil types. My next step is to read the old soil surveys for the promising counties (the one I am reading now dates from 1910), get the names of the limestone soils, and see if I can search them on the web soil survey. I may have to pull down the data and load it into QGIS to search and illustrate. That feels a little daunting since I’ve become rusty in GIS. I also plan to send garden soil samples to Logan Labs to see what it would take to improve my own soil

Not everyone can move. It is possible to improve soils (within limits) and keep them 'better' than they otherwise would be.
I certainly did that here in Central Pa and in York, SC.

It's impossible to add too much organic material. I don't believe that organic material has that much minerals in it so you have to make it up in volume. I never let any organic material leave my property (just like I don't let rainwater leave my property; I encourage it to sink into the soil straight down).
In addition, I collect as much other people's organic material as I can, assuming that they're throwing away their soil fertility and minerals lifted up into those leaves, grass clippings, and what have you.

Collect ALL your neighbor's leaves and grass clippings. Ask that tree-trimming company what they're doing with that chipped tree and can they drop it off at your house, and pick up those big brown Kraft bags of yard waste. I've picked up bags of yard waste for YEARS and have never once had anyone (including the state trooper zooming by) ask me what I was doing.

These are all free activities,other than your time and back which is why I recommend a surly teenager for leaf collection.
Free means you free up income for the green sand and bone meal that you can't pick up along the side of the road.

Will this make your soil perfect? No, but it will be better than what you have now.

Sweet Tatorman's picture

>Collect ALL your neighbor's leaves and grass clippings<
In a suburban environment I would suggest avoiding grass clippings. Many lawns get treated with broadleaf herbicides, most typically with 2,4-D and Dicamba often in combination. 2,4-D was half of the inflamous "Agent Orange" of the Vietnam era [the other half, 2,4,5-T is now banned in most civilized places]. Google "Dicamba lawsuit" to get the skinny on that one. Most of these are persistent and systemic so they will be present in the grass clippings. Everything I grow with the exception of Leeks and Corn would be considered to be "broadleaf". Next time you have a chance to read the label of a typical "Feed and Weed" lawn fertilizer you likely will find both 2,4-D and Dicamba.

My neighborhood (despite being in the Sweetest Place on Earth) is low-rent. It's why we could afford it. We can see the wrong side of the tracks from our upstairs windows.

What I mean is, our neighbors don't put any effort into their lawns. They get mowed and the understanding around here is that if it's green and can be mowed, it must be grass. I spend a lot of time walking my dog and walking and I've never seen lawns being treated with those little 'danger danger danger' signs afterwards.

So I'm probably okay with salvaged grass clippings.

Otherwise, yeah, you're right! I didn't think of all those people living in much more expensive neighborhoods turning their lawns into a monocrop, heavily fertilized and chemically treated.

ClareBroommaker's picture

I share the lawn pesticide & herbicide concern, but also live in a neighborhood where not many people use them, nor even water their lawn. Some do, though. I can sometimes smell it in the air in spring. Uhk, I hate that smell.

Mulching mowers have really reduced the amount of grass clipping getting collected for removal, regardless of whether chemicals are used. At my new little orchard spot, I noticed a neighbor mowing his lawn with a collecting bag and was at first going to ask him for the clippings. Then I saw how much he'd fertilized his lawn. Ah, well, if it is only fertilizer, I'd be okay with that, but not okay with herbicides. So maybe someday I'll ask how he manages his lawn.

SLClaire's picture

I live in a similar neighborhood to yours. That's exactly our neighborhood's attitude: if you mow it, it's lawn. But we also have to pay extra money to our waste hauler to haul away grass clippings or weeds for large-scale composting, except for the three times in the growing season when we can put it out for yard waste pickup for free. So I can't salvage grass clippings or leaves in my neighborhood; they are left on the lawn to decompose, because nobody wants to pay extra for yard waste hauling.

Teresa, I’m afraid you are right, but I don’t like it. When we got this place 30 years ago there was no thought about growing old here or being even remotely self sffiecient. Now I have to seriously look at the effort/cost of moving compared to putting the same effort/cost to staying here. From the long decent viewpoint, I’m thinking about whether I can do something to benefit my children, which is a complex question.

We were originally going to stay put in SC as we had the house and had every opportunity to pay it off but we had no family in the area after my husband's mother died. The schools were terrible. The humidity was oppressive. Bill was hating his job more and more.

Then his mother died in November of 1998 and we started taking a better look around. At the same time, my parents were getting older and with my sister in Florida and my brother being the *&^&( person he is, the choice was becoming clearer. For various reasons, after my sister, the nearest relatives for my parents were in North Dakota or Germany.

Bill started looking for a job within a 150 mile radius of central Delaware (that distance can be driven back and forth in one day if it's critical) and we ended up here. We bought the only house we could afford in Hershey (schools and amenities) and could never afford it today.

Since then, we've paid off the house, rebuilt the soil, and changed and updated the house to make it possible to age in place.
I discuss a lot of this in my book, Suburban Stockade (

I think the key is family nearby. I would never choose living down a dirt road deep in bear country, especially as I get older. I had a friend in SC who's father-in-law did this and of course he had the heart attack and the ambulance was a 45 minute drive away down one unmarked road after another to an unmarked house because he wanted country privacy.

Each move is harder than the last. I want to age in place. I also don't want to be saddled with a huge house that is 'challenging' as my parents are doing.

Good luck!

Thanks, Teresa. At age 59, I think I’m very close to having to decide to move or adapt to this place, and this place isn’t awful.

I have your book. I’m about 1/4 was through but temporarily distracted.

I hope you like the book and it's useful to you. Writing it let me clarify a lot of my own thinking.

I'm 60 as is Bill and looking around at the fixer-upper we bought, I don't think we could do it again. We moved in when we were both 41 (in July of 2001) and the very next year, Bill spent weeks crawling around in the attic installing insulation because there was none. We've rebuilt or rehabbed so much on the house and yard and I just don't believe we could do it any more.

I don't have the energy.

If we had to move, I don't know what I would do because anything we could afford would need work. Work that we would have to pay for. Hauling sheetrock around in your 60's isn't nearly as easy as it is in your 40's!

Sometimes, it's easier to stay where you are.

alice's picture

Awesome, glad to meet another reader of TIG. My perspective is that minerals are actually really importable for family health at a garden scale. For instance in Cascadia it's recommended to add 1/3 cup potassium salts in Steve Solomon's Complete Organic Fertilizer (COF) recipe. It's easy to import 1/3 cup of potassium per hundred foot square of veg beds every month or so through the growing season -- that's what's needed to make up for the unique cascadian soil makeup.

COF makes it possible to fertilize with all the missing minerals and according to soil surveys as in TIG you can add what you need to a bespoke fertilizer for any garden scale plot. It depends how much you are trying to grow at home. If you are a major producer -- ie bulk staples are your business then yes maybe you do need to move if you want to sell well mineralized crops as a USP, because re-mineralizing may be prohibitively expensive on a farm scale.

It depends how you learn but I tend to read quickly and then struggle through many years of gradually trying to bring my intellectual understanding to fruition in my own practices. So I have been experimenting with making COF (complete organic fertilizer) and using that to nourish my greens, herbs, salads, as I only have a small yard at present. I am really interested at how much difference it makes even on a foot-square scale to how the salad greens and so on turn out. Big, vigourous leaves and so on. You might already be growing these as a result of properly nourishing your crops but I wasn't even doing that effectively before. So it's a work in progress for me implementing what I am learning from TIG. I have been lending out the COF to neighbours with bigger growing spaces and getting good feedback from that.

If you are eating a good quanitity of well mineralized greens and other veggies that you are growing yourself that is already a good contribution to your family's longer term health.

Alice, I’m pretty sure it was one of your posts that got me going this direction. :-)

alice's picture

Oh great, well glad you are finding it interesting, hope you grow lots of nutrient dense food. =D

SLClaire's picture

I've been using Solomon's method in TIG to improve my own garden for the past several years. Short story: it works. Since I have two chemistry degrees, I've been conducting a scientific test of the method, so I know that it works. And I blog about it, publishing each year's intended testing and the results, because I want more people to know how well it works. Rather than spend a lot of time writing about it, below is my blog address, so you can read about it yourself.

Awesome, SLClaire! Thanks, I’ll definitely be reading it.

alice's picture

I second that, what a great thing to do, looking forward to reading up.