Hi, I'm a new member and I have a question regarding land which we are thinking about buying. First I'll outline the situation:
Myself and others in my family are looking at buying a small plot of agricultural land. Having never bought land by the acre before I've tried doing tests based on what I can buy at the garden centre to ascertain the soil quality and the suitability of the site for what I want to do. Clearly, we don't want to buy land that we then can't really use. Basic results / observations from an initial visit:
The site is a strip across a south facing slope, mostly covered with grass with a few thistles as far as I could see. There are a few existing trees and shrubs around the outside of the current boundaries, some of which were trees we didn't recognise at first sight and some which were elder. At the bottom of the field (which is above another field even further downslope) there is a stream / drainage and the soil at the bottom felt a bit wetter. Further up the hill in the plot we're thinking of buying the soil was firm. When I dug into it a short distance there was no visible water, but it tested as very wet using an electronic ph/moisture testing I took with me. At that point there hadn't been any rain for the last few days. The soil was very dark and clumpy, not sandy, but relatively easily broken up with my fingers (not heavy clayish either).
The electronic tool suggested a ph of somewhere between 5.5 and 6. I also tried testing with a chemical based test (put soil, water and some powder in a little plastic container and see what colour it turns). I found it difficult to interpret the results but I thought the colours suggested a more neutral ph than the electronic test. The chemical tests for phosphorus, potassium and nitrogen suggested middling levels of all of those nutrients, but given that the land is agricultural I don't know how much those results might be influenced by recent chemical fertilisation / adjustment.
The general soil type for the area as a whole in the Cranfield University Soilscapes tool is:
"Peaty, slowly permeable, wet, very acidic upland soils"
Since this is the general soil type for the wider area it doesn't necessary say too much about the specific 3 acres we are looking at. For example, both my tests suggest that the site is not 'very' acidic, unless very acidic includes a ph of about 5.5 - 6 (which is what the electronic ph meter said). Of course, the tests could be wrong since they are just cheap garden centre tests.
We are going back this weekend for another look at the site and I will try to do more testing at that point. So far my major concerns are:
1. Water. Although the site is in the middle of a hillside I believe the soil might be quite wet a lot of the time. Given the mid hillside location I think it is unlikely to flood or become extremely boggy, but I have read in the past that constant soil wetness is problematic when it comes to growing fruit trees. Is this likely to be a major issue? Given the sloping terrain what is the best way to resolve it, if it can be resolved? I have read that contouring the land more may produce more diversity in terms of soil wetness, and I have also read suggestions about digging in ditches/swales downslope to help drainage.
2. There is no mains water to the site. I thought that a solution to this might be combined with resolving drainage issues, perhaps by trying to redirect water when it rains to a storage pond/reservoir for use when it is needed.
3. I have also read that the depth of the topsoil is important but I don't know how to measure it - googling has produced no real advice except dig a deep hole. Since we haven't yet bought the land, digging a big hole is not really possible. I did consider taking a stake and a hammer and seeing how deep I could easily drive it into the ground.
In terms of usage, what I want to do on my part is develop some kind of forest garden along the lines suggested in Martin Crawford's book. I am relatively flexible and will adjust what I plant based on what is happiest given the site conditions, but I don't want a site that is going to be very difficult / unsuitable to develop in this way. The other members of my family want to use their part of the land primarily for coppicing for wood, so for their requirements they are probably less picky regarding some of these issues.
Does anyone have any advice regarding these issues? The problem I have is that, in an ideal world, I would visit the plot across a number of months before buying it, but realistically if you do that you don't buy it at all, someone else does. In addition, it is difficult to find agricultural plots of 1 acre, which is what I really want for myself given my budget, so the only way I can really do it is to buy a larger plot with others. We have found it quite difficult to find suitable land because even together we are looking for a relatively small plot (3 or 4 acres), in an area accessible to all of us. Most advertised land is either much bigger than we want or too far away.
5.5-7 is the ideal pH range for most plants. If the hill had been fertilized to death, you would probably have found it more acidic and no, the nutrients would not still be there.
I don't know much about the water thing. Draining it is possible, but probably a bad idea as it will inevitably erode into a gulley wherever the water flows out. Given what you described, it sounds like the soil is indeed waterlogged. The ample dark material and deep soil tends to form (in your case) in conditions of waterlogging, where aerobic breakdown of organic material is prevented.
Thank for your reply. I guess I will see what it looks like when we go back again today - try to investigate in more detail how wet the soil is and how far down somehow.
I suppose, apart from give up, the options are to try to fix it somehow or plant things that tolerate wet soils. Maybe things like cornus and amelanchier...
Do you really think that drainage is a bad idea? I think we need to clarify where some of the water comes from, but if some of it is surface run-off down the hill we thought it might be possible to dig a ditch horizontally across the hill to collect water then drain it into a pond or directly down into the existing drainage ditch at the bottom of the field. The drains could have something non-permeable put into them to prevent erosion in that case. Of course, if most of it is not surface water then that doesn't help.
Is planting some water hungry plants like willows likely to make any difference at all?
I'm not an expert on drainage, so I don't know how difficult/costly it would be. I would guess it depends on how many aquafiers are under your land.
Chances are, if the soil is waterlogged on a hill, then there's groundwater built up in large amounts in the rocks on the hillside. Certain rock types like limestone and chalk tend to form aquafiers readily, although gravel, sand, and other rock types if they become fractured can also hold water.
Creating water catching contour features would increase groundwater and make things worse. I've heard of a few people on these forums who tried to use willow, but I haven't seen anyone say it helped. Mostly they just end up cutting down the willow trees and fighting to keep them from sprouting back up everywhere.
Planting things that can tolerate poorly drained soils would probably be the best option. If the groundwater isn't too high up then short rooted plants may do alright, and diatomaceous earth can help increase air holding capacity of the top layers of soil, which helps prevent roots from drowning. I don't really know anything about what sorts of things would be good for you to plant, you'll have to ask around on that one. I think blueberries and other bog plants might be in the right direction, but I'm not certain of it.
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