Let’s say you have so-so or just plain lousy soil.
The gardener’s answer to poor soil is often to:
1. Abandon the native soil and garden in raised beds with lots of compost
2. Buy lots and lots of chemical fertilizer
Let’s say you don’t like either option – or can’t afford either option. What’s a survival gardener to do? What if… rather than simply bringing in truckloads of compost… you just grew soil-repairing plants instead?
I’ve covered ways to improve soil in my previous article on growing your own compost, and I’m a big fan of the incredible Mexican Sunflower and its ability to create piles of biomass. I also like comfrey (though it hates growing in Florida).
But what if we required our soil-fixing plants to also be edible? What if we need food quickly and don’t have space to waste on non-edible plants?
Ah-ha! The plot thickens!
Today I’m going to suggest some crops that improve soil and can also be eaten. Let’s grow!
Though it’s not a true grain… and has nothing to do with wheat… buckwheat is an easy-to-grow grain-like crop. Buckwheat grows rapidly and produces a crop within 2-2.5 months.
How does it fix soil? Buckwheat makes a wonderful green manure. Toss the seed around, let it grow for a few weeks, then till it under. Because it grows thickly, you can also use buckwheat as a “smother” crop to shade out and kill undesirable weeds. If you’re interested in trying this ancient crop, Mother Earth News has a great article on growing buckwheat – check it out here.
As an additional bonus, buckwheat feeds the bees and other pollinators.
Peanuts, Beans and Peas
Peanuts fix nitrogen, as do beans and peas. Soybeans are commonly cropped in corn fields to add back some of the nitrogen taken by the grain harvest. Locally, I’m friends with a farmer who grows Southern peas between his harvests of corn and watermelons. Because of their relationship with nitrogen-fixing bacteria, beans, peas, peanuts and other legumes are excellent soil-repairing edibles. They literally pull fertilizer out of thin air – plus you can eat them.
Daikon radishes are hole-punching machines that readily open up compacted soil. Their use as a soil-building no-till crop was popularized by the late Masanobu Fukuoka. Plant these radishes and let them grow. They’ll drive their taproot deep into the earth, overwinter, then bloom and die the next year, leaving loose, organic matter-rich soil in their wake. You can also eat them before that point, of course, and still get the benefit of their soil-opening ability.
Goumi Berry, Autumn Olive and Sea Buckthorn
I had to add goumi berries to my 9 Weird and Wonderful East To Grow Berries post the other day. They’re a deliciously tart and easy-to-grow fruit – and like peanuts, beans and peas… they fix nitrogen and improve soil.
Fortunately, they also have cousins.
One of those is autumn olive, a tree that used to be used on old mines as an erosion control and soil-building. Autumn olives are a small tree that bears a cherry-like fruit and fixes nitrogen just like goumis.
Finally, the popular Sea Buckthorn checks in as another nitrogen-fixing shrub with edible berries. Bonus: it can stand extreme cold AND it’s loaded with antioxidants, making it incredibly healthy for you.
Mustard? What? Like, as in the salad green/condiment?
Yep. Not only does mustard grow quickly, making it a good source of rapid biomass or green manure, it can repel or even kill nematodes. Anything that kills nematodes is great in my book. It’s also tasty as a cooked green. Win.
If you’ve read my articles for very long, you know I’m not a fan of the hard work that goes into growing grains, let alone the fact that they just aren’t good for you. That said, you can still grow and eat them if you like.
Though they’re labor-intensive, some grains make excellent cover crops. One of my favorites (with all due regards to John Jeavons for his inspiration) is rye. The root system on cereal rye is ridiculously extensive, plus the above-ground growth in one season is nothing to scoff at. Till rye under just before it goes to seed and you’re adding all the biomass of the tops and the roots. Alternately, you can simply crop the rye down to the ground when it goes to seed, then throw the resultant straw and seeds to your chickens. They’ll turn the stalks into compost and make the rye grain into eggs (which ARE good for you).
If you live in the arid southwest, you’re familiar with mesquite trees. They have the potential to become a big pain in the neck, since they fix nitrogen, seed prolifically, plus tend to form dense stands of trees where nothing else can grow. That said, the seed pods are edible and easy to harvest, plus the trees provide shade for more tender plants. Though the trees are tough to cut down, the wood is excellent for smoking and wood crafts. Finally, their nitrogen-fixing ability means they also repair the soil as they grow. If you live where they’ll grow, it’s worth keeping a few around for easy calories.
These plants give you a good start on growing food and improving your soil at the same time – check ‘em out.