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I have a feeling that my question is not a good question, but don't know how else to formulate it.

I'm an engineer by profession, but I did spend a full season working in an organic farm.

I'm thinking of buying a small piece of land (less than 2 acres) in vancouver island. I have no intention of growing food at an industrial scale, however, I'd like to grow greens, carrots, potatoes, onions...for my own use.

I realize that there are a lot of variables involved in choosing a good plot, ranging from slope, south-facing or not, access to water, etc.

But I was wondering are there techniques for measuring the effectiveness of the soil? For example:

  • does it have the right PH?
  • does it have the required minerals?
  • is it the right type of soil?

Are there aspects of the soil that I should consider as deal breakers...for example are there characteristics that I cannot improve. For example, if the PH is off, I maybe able to improve it.

  • 3
    Deal breaker: contamination e.g. from industrial waste or naturally high levels of toxic heavy metals, especially as you want to grow food. Can be tested. Learn as much as you can about the plot you intend to buy: Previous owners, uses, local history... Probably uncritical on Vancouver Island, though, congrats, that's a beautiful corner of the world! – Stephie Jul 22 '15 at 10:09
  • 1
    Deal breaker: any pernicious, persistent weed such as Equisetum or Japanese Knotweed – Bamboo Jul 22 '15 at 11:43
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This has probably been asked before but there are soil labs where you can send a sample of the soil in and they're able to perform a number of tests including pH, fertility as far as macro and some micro nutrients, lead content, organic matter content, cation exchange capacity, textural analysis (sandy, loam, clay, etc) soluble salt levels and probably some more tests.

Most of the soil labs in the United States are part of the Cooperative Extension Service which is comprised of various universities that do work in agriculture. You can send a sample to your State's cooperative extension service or any other one for that matter but there may be state restrictions due to concerns of pests and pathogens so double-check. I like the UConn Soil Testing Lab because they have really good prices on the basic tests.

Most labs will also provide you with recommendations on adding lime/sulfur or fertilizers based on your test results, provided you specify what you plan to grow. For farmers they give specific crop recommendations but for homeowners it's basically lawn, perennials or vegetable garden with some people needed specific tests for certain crops (ie berries.) In the past few years many have started to include information for organic amendments as well. UConn is one of them.

Outside of the US you may want to do a search for soil testing laboratories in your area.

If you have concerns about toxic contamination in the soil other than lead, which may include high levels of heavy metals, radon, petroleum, etc do a search for "contaminated soil testing". Your local cooperative extension office should also be able to help you find a suitable lab.

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Hear my words!! Soil is soil...the plant life that has adapted is very happy no matter. If you want to grow stuff that is not indigenous (vegetables) it is pretty EASY to make ANY soil great. Number UNO is add DECOMPOSED ORGANIC MATTER. This is the ONLY way to make ANY soil great. Don't think sand, gravel, gypsum, lime, egg shells...will work ONE LITTLE BIT. Point is one has to learn to manage correctly what soil they have available. Consider what we use to make CONCRETE. Sand, gravel, water, lime, gypsum and CLAY. Rotation and mechanical churning and you shall have concrete! Just dumping decomposed organic matter ON TOP of your soil works beautifully. Micro and macro organisms need decomposed organic matter for energy. They go up and eat this stuff then return to your soil profile and poop it out. Mixing this into your soil with no additional effort on your part. In addition, you attract and multiply the soil life forms plants HAVE to have to grow with vigor.

You will be able to change fertility and pH effortlessly in any soil...again, any soil is great if there is lots of DECOMPOSED ORGANIC MATTER. Non-decomposed mulch DOES NOT WORK to improve soil for plants. Takes years to decompose bark, shredded wood...etc. Takes lots of nitrogen to feed 'decomposers' to get non-decomposed mulch to be edible/useable by soil micro/macro-organisms making soil amenable for plants.

I recommend getting a soil test which is free or cheap. Contact your counties' extension service and they will send kits/information for soil tests. Most vegetables thrive within a pretty normal, broad range as long as your soil is full of organic matter. Don't ADD anything other than DOM (decomposed organic matter) to your soil without good reason!!

Another critical thing you can do is to make 'raised beds'. DO not need sides!! Look up 'double digging'. If you have clay, forget rototilling!!! Double digging is done ONE TIME at the very beginning to loosen, fluff and incorporate DOM. My beds are at least 1' higher than the rest of the garden that I walk upon. I also create trenches to collect and direct water and drain where I want excess water to drain along the edges of these raised beds. I NEVER plant in flat ground. Takes a bit of planning but there has to be a 'plant bed' separate from walkways. Drainage is critical.

If you are unsuccessful with plants, you will give up. Gardening is not tough and any soil can be great soil. I am the LAZIEST gardener you'll ever meet because I know what is critical and what is not. I hate wasting energy. Get a soil test. Michael Dirr has incredible books on vegetable gardening...you can rely on this guy's knowledge. Even for residential landscaping and ornamentals...stay in touch.

  • Which of Michael Dirr's books is specifically about vegetable gardening (not woody plants)? – Drux Jul 22 '15 at 5:04
  • @stormy thanks for the answer. Some really great ideas here. I've been reading Eliot Coleman, I'll take a look at Dirr's books as well! – hba Jul 23 '15 at 13:45
  • I hope I've not gone completely batty...I know most of M. Dirr's books are on woody plants. Let me look this up, I thought it was him but shoot, old age sucks! I loaned the book I'm thinking of and never got it back. This guy puts his fluffed up 3' wide vegey beds in the lawn and keeps lawn to walk on between beds. Shane Smith is a great author although mostly about green houses. His information is totally applicable to gardening period. Explains how to tell WHAT a plant is needing for fertilizer and how to tell. Lots of great basic knowledge not found in many how to books! I'll be bk! – stormy Jul 23 '15 at 19:39

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