What kind of soil do you have? If you’ve gardened in the same spot for any length of time, you probably already have a pretty good idea. If you’re shopping around for a piece of property, especially if you’re new to to the area, knowing what the soil is like before you buy might help you decide amongst several choices, though I concede it’s a lot more helpful when the original soil is still there. The way subdivisions are built these days, that isn’t likely.
Anyway, in the course of researching what types of online information were available for my ideal regional gardening book, I contacted Jonathan Russell-Anelli, who is with the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences at Cornell University. He pointed me to the Web Soil Survey run by the National Cooperative Soil Survey (NCSS). This is “a web based mapping service that allows one to look at soils and query the map based on certain interests – i.e. drainage, pH, etc.” I tried it out and, I have to say, it takes some getting used to. I confess I wasn’t very motivated to master the learning curve because the information for my county hasn’t been incorporated yet.
Whether or not soil information for your county has been uploaded, everything that will be available on the online map should be available right now from your local co-operative extension service. Early on in our rural property ownership, we paid a visit to the local office, and photocopied the pertinent information from a big book they had there. That is why I know we have three different kinds of soil on our property: Marden channery silt loam (MhC) around the house and Volusia channery silt loam (VoC) further back, and then a bit more (MhC) and way in the back, just a bit of (MhD). The “C” in the abbreviations stands for 8 to 15 percent slopes, and the “D” stands for 15 to 25 percent slopes. You would, of course, be aware of the slope just walking on the property. Both Marden and Volusia soils are considered “strongly acid.” Perhaps this is why lowbush blueberries grow wild on our land. The Marden soil is characterized by “seasonal wetness, slow permeability, low fertility, and strong slopes,” and “droughtiness in midsummer and the hazard of erosion are limitations for farm use.” Yes, we have lousy soil! The Volusia sounds similar, except even wetter, with shallow watercourses marking the landscape. Nothing I couldn’t have told you from our own experience with the land over the years, but somehow more depressing when so dispassionately described in print.
The descriptions of the soil profiles were accompanied by all sorts of charts and graphs, indicating engineering capabilities, acreage yield of farm crops, and similar information. From this I learn our seasonal high water table is a mere 1 1/2 to 2 feet below the surface of the soil, and our topsoil is poor but makes good fill. Of course, much of the problems with this soil can be overcome by amending it, which is more practical for the home gardener than it is for the farmer. What I would really like to find, however, is information on what kinds of native plants grow on these soils. There is a bit about woodlands on page 16. Our county is predominantly northern-hardwood, which consists principally of sugar maple, beech, and red maple–which is what is growing in our woods. (Growing back, I should say, since it was all cut down for pasture at some point.) Page 17 and following were not photocopied, but I doubt there was anything on what to grow in a woodland that you wanted to remain woodland, unless to say what trees had economic value. I suppose I shall have to look elsewhere for that.