Permaculture Design/Soil

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Soil is made up of

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  • Water and Air 50%
  • Minerals 40%
  • Biology 5%

Things to consider above the soil

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  • Sun
  • Water
  • Temperature (Right plant for conditions or build micro climates)
  • Shelter design (you should be able to see through your shelter belt)
  • Soil compaction
  • Breakages (human and animal movement, incorrect pruning, wind fall)
  • Competition and companion plants
  • Diversity
  • Pests and predators

Things to consider below the soil

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  • Balance the mineral content (Physical, clay, sand, salt and all elements)
  • Ensure correct soil biology organisms
  • Feed soil biology

Observing soil

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  • Colourless/white: high silica content
  • Light/white: lack of oxygen; leached; high calcium; alkaline ph
  • Yellow: lack of oxygen; high clay content; aluminium & iron
  • Red: iron oxide
  • Red/brown: volcanic basalt origin; iron & magnesium
  • Black: rich in organic matter & nutrients; holds moisture


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  • Azalea, dandelion: acid soils; usually leached; often compacted.
  • Berries, conifers, dock: Poor drainage
  • Saltbush, spinifex: alkaline; saline; dry soils
  • clovers, vetch, nettles: excess nitrogen; low humus content; low micr-organism content
  • blackberries: open disturbed soil, possibly acid
  • bracken: recent fire; general decline in soil fertility.
  • buttercup: poor drainage, acid.
  • thistles: low calcium & iron content; hard soils.
  • chicory, chickweed: good fertility

Parent Material

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Eg soils derived from:

  • Sandstone: sandy, high silica.
  • Shale: clay; high silica & iron.
  • Basalt: high iron & magnesium.


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  • Sour: Lacks oxygen, acidic, sulphur dioxide
  • Sweet & earthy: high oxygen, good soil life & OM
  • Garlic: arsenic in soil (or maybe theres some onion weed nearby!)


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  • Smooth & slippery: acidic, soil water lathers easily
  • Weak soda: alkaline/mineral; won’t lather easily
  • Worms: good moisture, OM, low pesticide residues
  • Ants: drier, sandy
  • Slugs & snails: damp, decomposing plant & animal material.
  • Skinks & lizards: warm sunny, dry spots, good insect populations


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  • Run –off: is increased by bare ground, compaction, steep slopes
  • Repels water: compacted, eroded, excessive use of dolomite, very little OM, sandy & allowed to dry out & has formed a moisture resistant barrier
  • Shrinks & swells: high clay, holds water, cracks.
  • Fast draining ( hole filled with water, drains within 10mins: erodes easily, collapses easily, few fungal diseases, good movement of water & soil life. Not good for dams.


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  • Bare ground: agricultural or industrial contamination.
  • Growth in poor soils: previous structures, compaction, old poultry or animal pen site
  • No topsoil: quarry or fill site, erosion.
  • Bad cracks & rubbish: old tip or landfill site

Plants and soil minerals

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Often plants which grow in deficient soils have the ability to concentrate those missing elements in their structure.

  • Potassium present: marshmallow, knapweed, wormwood, opium poppy, fumitory, tansy & borage.
  • Deficient: red clover. Celery & leek like potassium. Chicory is pot. rich.
  • Calcium: buckwheat grown as a green manure or composted adds. Melon leaves are a source of it & oak bark is especially rich all thistles & willow. Dandelion “mines” it . Peas, beans, brassicas & turnips need it.
  • Phosphorous: bracken indicates a lack of & accumulates it. Burn it & spread the ashes. Valerian & comfrey are rich sources. Whitefly indicates a deficiency along with magnesium. Brassicas need it to head well.
  • Iron: blackberry is a rich source.
  • Magnesium & sulphur: broom, salad burnett, plantain, & sheep sorrel (for magnesium)
  • Ragwort: copper
  • Thistles: nitrogen, copper & silicon.

How do we balance the minerals of soil?

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  • Look for indicator plants which will tell things about Nitrogen Phosphorus and Potasium
  • Look at leaves for signs of deficiencies or excesses (Permaculture Designers Manual has a simple key to follow)
  • Get a soil test done
  • Book - The Soul of Soil
  • DCC Website has soil analysis maps
  • Talk to people
  • Don't rely on simple 'acid' or 'alkaline' measures. The treatment for these can be too simplistic and might not balance the soil.

Dynamic Accumulators of Nutrients for Composting

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Name Botanical Name Na I Fl B Si S N Mg Ca K P Mn Fe Cu Co
Alfalfa Medicago sativa       x           x    
Arrowroot                   x            
Bladder wrack     x           x         x    
Borage Borago officinalis         x         x          
Bracken, eastern Pteridium aquifolium                   x x x x x x
Bridal bower                       x        
Buckwheat Fagopyrum esculentums                   x          
Burdock Arctium minus                       x      
Calamus               x     x x        
Carageen   x           x   x            
Caraway Carum carvi                     x        
Carrot leaves Daucus carota               x   x          
Cattail Typha latifolia             x                
Chamomile, corn Anthemis arvensis                 x x          
Chamomile, German Chamomilla recutita                 x x x        
Chickweed Stellaria media                   x x x      

Name Botanical Name Na I Fl B Si S N Mg Ca K P Mn Fe Cu Co
Chicory Cichorium intybus                 x x          
Chives Allium sp. x               x            
Cleavers Galium aparine x               x            
Clovers Trifolium sp.             x       x        
Clover, hop Medicago lupulina             x       x        
Clover, rabbit foot               x       x        
Clover, red Trifolium protense             x       x        
Clover, white Trifolium repens             x       x        
Coltsfoot             x   x x x     x x  
Comfrey Symphytum officinale         x   x x x x     x    
Dandelion Taraxacum vulgare x       x     x x x x   x x  
Dock, broad leaved Rumex obtusifolias                 x x x   x    
Dulse   x x           x x       x    
Fat hen Atriplex hastata                   x     x    
Fennel Foeniculum vulgare x           x       x        
Flax, seed Linum usitatissimum                   x          

Name Botanical Name Na I Fl B Si S N Mg Ca K P Mn Fe Cu Co
Garlic Allium sativum     x     x           x      
Groundsel Senecio vulgaris                         x    
Horsetails Equisetum sp.         x     x x       x   x
Kelp   x x         x x x       x    
Lamb’s quarters Chenopodsum album             x   x x x x      
Lemon Balm Melissa offcinalis                     x        
Lupine Lupinus sp.             x       x        
Marigold, flowers Tagetes sp.                     x        
Meadow sweet Astilbe sp. x         x   x x   x   x    
Mistletoe                 x              
Mullein, common Verbascum sp.           x   x   x     x    
Mustards Brassica sp.           x         x        
Nettles, stinging Urtica urens x         x x   x x     x x  
Oak, bark Quercus sp. x
Oat Straw x
Parsley x x x x
Peppermint Mentha piperita x x

Name Botanical Name Na I Fl B Si S N Mg Ca K P Mn Fe Cu Co
Pigweed, red root Amaranthus retroflexus . x x x x
Plantains Plantago sp. x x x x x x
Primrose Oenothera biennis x
Purslane Portulaca oleracea x x x
Salad burnet Poterium sanguisorba x x x x x
Savory Satureja sp. x
Scarlet Pimpernel Anagallis arvensis x
Shepherd’s purse Capsella bursa-pastoris x x x
Skunk cabbage Navarretia squanosa x
Sorrel, sheep Rumex acetosella x x x
Sow thistle Sonchus arvensis x x x
Spurges Euphorbia sp. x
Strawberry, leaves Fragaria sp. x
Tansy Tanacetum vulgare x
Thistle, Canada Cirsium arvense x
Thistle, creeping Sonchus arvensis x x x

Name Botanical Name Na I Fl B Si S N Mg Ca K P Mn Fe Cu Co
Thistle, nodding Carduus nutans x
Thistle, Russian Salsola pestifer x
Toadflax Linaria vulgaris x x x
Tobacco, stems/stalk Nicotiana sp. x
Valerian Valeriana ofjicinalis x
Vetches Vicia sp. x x x x x
Watercress Nasturtium ofpcinale x x x x x x x x
Willow, bark Salix sp. x
Yarrow Achilea millefolium x x x x

Some Ways to Improve Your Soils

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  • Plant mulch making plants ~ comfrey, tree lucerne, grasses for hay, weeds such as dandelion, plantain, nettles, borage, deciduous trees.
  • Use small prunings as part of the mulch around your trees. Place them over soil that you need to add organic matter to & put grass clippings, weeds, & manure on top & let nature do the rest. Once its reasonably broken down sow seeds/plant. Good way to establish an orchard/food forest.
  • Harvest local resources ~ bracken & chicory are high in potassium, add it to your compost, burn it & use the ashes around plants such as, celery & leeks. The brassicas (cabbage, cauli, brocoli) need phosphorous to head up well, comfrey & bracken supply it. Ragwort concentrates copper. Broom is high in magnesium & sulphur, lupins in nitrogen & calcium. Seaweed has many of the essential trace elements that plants need. Food scraps from cafes & super markets.
  • Plant wind breaks to filter air-born pollution
  • Plant trees & shrubs to take up ground water pollution e.g alongside a road, runoff from your neighbour who uses chemicals.
  • Create wet lands planted with macrophytes ( reeds & rushes) to take up the above pollution.
  • Use raised beds for growing in.
  • Seaweed, compost & dolomite help to clean soils of pollutants such as heavy metals.
  • Allow weeds to grow ~ add OM, take up pollutants.
  • Spread rock dust to supply minerals ~ basalt, granite, dolomite.
  • Remember that the more conditions you create for soil life to thrive the better your soils will be. Create diversity.

Notes on soil

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  • Feed the soil and land base and you will indirectly feed your plants
  • Arden Anderson = Soil sciences writer and speaker
  • Why is it that plants that are healthy tend not to be attacked by pests and diseases? Their defense system is intact. A plant that is unhealthy or stressed will be full of simple carbohydrates - which attract pests and diseases. Healthy plants have complex carbohydrates which humans require. Therefore, nature has a way to clean up weak systems.
  • Arden Anderson started to observe a relationship between human disease and crop diseases, because of our industrial productions methods that prevent natures way of cleaning out weak species - and so we are interrupting our access to complex carbohydrates.
  • How then do we ensure healthy plants?

Things to do

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  • Compost and spread or inoculate areas during planting 30g per m2
  • Site specific compost made of the materials of the plants being nurtured
  • Biodynamics
  • Apply seaweed and fish 300g per m2
  • 3 comfry plants per fruit tree
  • For some pests consider using micro organisms from [Bokashi] to out compete pests