Henderson on Soil Preparation

Notes based on Gardening for Profit (Chapter 6) by Peter Henderson.

Henderson describes the soils he works with. His general guideline is to look for a dark-colored loam soil (neither sandy nor clayey) that’s at least 12″ deep, preferably with a yellowish sandy loam underneath (good for drainage). Soils to look for, in order of preference:

1. alluvial saline deposit – usually within a mile from the tide mark; dark heavy loam containing decomposing shells; 10-30″ deep; overlaying subsoil of yellow sandy loam

2. lighter soil, both in color and specific gravity – 8-15″ deep; similar subsoil to above

3. still lighter soil, in color and specific gravity – sand predominates over loam; subsoil is pure sand; good for melons, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, radishes, and tomatoes; not good for onions, cabbages, celery

4. clayey loam – 10″ deep; over thick stratum of stiff bluish clay; found on highest points; not good for early vegetables; favorable for a late crop like celery

Note to self: Look further into soil classification. I’m having trouble visualizing these distinctions because I’ve never closely analyzed soils.

He emphasizes the importance of drainage, describing horse-shoe tiles, rubble drains, and flat stone drains. I’d never heard of these. The tile drains are about 3′ deep and 15-25′ apart. The tiles rest on hemlock board (to prevent sagging) and are covered by a piece of sod (grass side down) at the joinings to prevent soil from getting in. I was wondering if people still used these drains, so I did a little research and found a page which answered my question:

Horizontal subsurface drainage involves the removal of water from below the surface. The field drains can either be open ditches, or more commonly a network of pipes installed horizontally below the ground surface. These pipes used to be manufactured of clay tiles, with the water entering the pipes through the leaky joints (thus the term tile drains). In 1968 flexible corrugated plastic drainage pipe was introduced and this product is now widely used around the world. In spite of the different material used, the term tile drains is still in common use.

At the first farm I worked for in NY, plastic pipes were used to drain water from the top of the hill to the bottom so that the runoff wouldn’t soak the surface of the pasture in between. There was no map showing where they were, so finding and fixing them was a pain. I’m still wondering…in what pattern are these drains supposed to be arranged? How does water get in without letting soil in to clog the way? If a drain breaks, how do you determine where it broke so you can fix it efficiently? And, the magic question: how much does installing a drainage system cost? Is it economical? The above page made it seem like it’s expensive and high-maintenance.

Next, Henderson describes how he breaks new ground, presuming it’s in sod.

1. Being in September, October or November (near NYC).

2. Install drains if necessary.

3. Spread horse manure 2-3″ thick.

4. Plow the sod under, laying it as flat as possible by plowing shallow.

5. Flatten down the furrows by running over with the back of a harrow. This seals up the crevices between the furrows, which hastens decomposition.

6. Cross plow and thoroughly harrow once the sod has rotted, either in the autumn or spring.

  • what does it mean to cross plow?
  • how do you know if the sod has rotted sufficiently?
  • why avoid doing this in the summer?

7. Spread rough stable manure, as much as possible.

  • what’s the difference between “rough stable manure” and the manure recommended in the previous step?

8. Plow again, followed by subsoiler.

9. Crop with potatoes, corn or late cabbages in the first season, as the ground is rarely adequately prepared for anything else.

Note to self: Since Albrecht contends that sod contributes a significant amount of SOM, I’ve been thinking a lot about rotations that alternate livestock and pasture with vegetables (e.g. 3 years pasture/livestock, 2 years veggies). Anyone have experience with or know of an existing system like this? Any research being done?

Next: Henderson on Manures


  1. beecharmers said

    maybe look into intensive grazing followed with no till vegetable production. Seems like it should work especially if the grazing grasses includes legumes or alfalfa. Maybe just till in the rows and mow the paths. Seems reasonable. Grasses would need extra time to be replanted in grasses to fill in rows before grazing starts again. I would imagine you would need three sets of fields going at a time. Grazing, recovery, vegetables. Have you read up on the farmer from Omnivores dilema, his grazing/chicken mobile rotaion could be a great addition.

    Just a few thoughts. I know I have a solis book somewhere. I swear I will look for it as soon as we defrost a little.

  2. That’s kind of what I’m thinking, too.

    I’ve read up on Salatin (the farmer described in Omnivore’s Dilemma), met him this year, actually. He’s got a pretty good system with livestock, but he doesn’t incorporate vegetables. Not really his thing. Following the cattle with the chickens makes complete sense, though. I’m definitely excited about doing that!

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