How Do You Restore Soil?


When we first moved onto this property I admit I felt some gardening despair. There was some evidence that a primordial gardener once lived here but clearly the land had been neglected for a long time. In some places the soil was literally cracked open looking like something from a documentary about the Sahara desert. I stayed awake at night worried the cat might slip into a crevasse. Even if she yowled for help the noise would only ricochet. We’d never find her alive.

Near the house some ancient crinums had somehow survived the years of neglect but when I went out to look at them in the morning they were literally covered in snails. The ground did have a lush mat of St. Augustine grass and simply because it was alive I have to admit I appreciated it even though lawns are terribly out of fashion. Overhead was a mighty Magnolia grandiflora and a closed canopy of pecan trees planted much too closely together.

But wait! There is more. Even though Austin is supposed to be subtropical we were in the middle of a record drought.

In summary then: we had bad soil, no light and no water. It was going to be like gardening on the moon but with the added bonus of a plague of snails.

I started doing some research online and I have to say the information I found was less than helpful. Typically the instructions were: plough up the top foot of soil and amend it with manure and compost. Even I know that if you rototill the top foot of soil around a magnolia you will end up with one very dead heritage tree and the Lorax camped on the front step muttering scary incantations. Plus, I’ve seen the threatening Don’t mess with Texas bumper stickers. I am not sure what the consequences are for ‘messing with’ but I am guessing they are nasty and uncomfortable: possibly involving hordes of people armed with pitchforks and maybe even a greasy rope. Pecans are a little bit more tolerant of root disturbance but even I don’t have the hubris to disturb a being older than myself.

Other sources said I should sprinkle roundup everywhere and simply add a new layer of topsoil. First off, sprinkling poison everywhere seems a nasty thing to do to my neighbors’ kids. We don’t have sidewalks so they walk along the edge of the lawn on their way to school each day. The idea of killing the last of the bees is just as unthinkable. I have done some bad things in my time but happily ‘genocide’ is not on the list. Besides the issues of homicide and bee-icide, I know soil takes thousands of years to form. If I just import it from somewhere else then I haven’t solved a problem but just relocated it.

I have slowly come to the understanding that there might not be a quick fix to this problem. It took years of bad land management to get here … it might be awhile before the soil recovers.

The most promising hints have come from the no-dig people. In this system they layer organic material on top of the soil and wait for the soil micro-organisms and big shredders like pill bugs to create humus. I doubt I can lay down the recommended six inches of material though because I worry that anything that deep will choke the trees. Death by suffocation may be cleaner than death by poison but it is just as permanent.

I read somewhere that trees -can- accommodate up to 2 inches of new material each year. That small fact forms the basis of my plan. If I add two inches of organic material each year, the trees will have more space for their roots and the soil tilth will improve.

The irony is that I didn’t even have to spend years of online browsing to figure this out. All the clues were right in front of me if I had only understood what I was seeing. When pecan trees are stressed they drop branches. I say branches but really they can be tree sized things. I used to have a great collection of fallen limbs and branches. I used some for firewood and have kept the rest as a brush pile for wildlife. Pecan trees also drop PRODIGIOUS quantities of leaves. Unless you have lived under pecan trees you can’t even imagine the mountains of leaves that fall. I don’t need to truck in loads of topsoil. The trees are already providing most of what is needed. To ‘fix’ the soil I just need to let the trees do their thing. I can assist of course. I will need to keep the leaves from blowing away or getting washed off the property. I can continue to add compost. And really: that is all I need to do.

Gardeners are kind of trained to always be thinking about transformations. We want to keep busy and keep the land a bit unsettled. Flower gardens are basically meadows: a dynamic and diverse place where change happens quickly and dramatically. But, I don’t have meadow conditions; I live in an area that looks a lot more like a climax forest.  A forest is selfish and stable. Time slows down here and everything (the shade, the water & the leaf biomass) all work to one end: supporting the dominant trees. Meadows are like busy democracies where everyone is important but a forest is a monarchy where the trees are king.

So what I’ve learned about this property is that the problem is not a lack of good soil, precipitation or light. The problem has been in allowing two dominant species in the same area. I can have a grassy meadow or I can have a forest but I probably can’t have both.

(Image from Wikipedia)


3 thoughts on “How Do You Restore Soil?

  1. I’m also faced with horrible, horrible soil, from a garden long neglected. A pear, persimmon, fig and a few flowering shrubs miraculously survived. The mass of the soil has no life, is rock hard, and will grow only crabgrass. The first year we were here we tilled, as that was what I thought we were supposed to do. But I’ve observed that the soil under the flower quince, for example, was filled with worms, and while still clay, much more workable. I’ve come to the conclusion that layering is the best way, as thats what happens in nature. Years of fallen leaf and flowers have made the soil under those bushes much healthier than the soil in the middle of my barren plot!


    1. That is what I have observed too! The soil under the surviving shrubs is soft to the touch and holds life while everywhere else … not so much. Nature really does know how to sustain itself.


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