Soil, soil, soil!

With temperatures in Ithaca rising into the 50s, spring feels like it’s right around the corner. In actual fact, we’re still deep in February, and it might well snow on Friday. But the heat still makes me imagine the coming warm months, when the ground will thaw and the become ready for planting.

With that in mind, I’ve started searching for information on our soil and the wonderful plants we can grow in it. Reading a great local blog, Living in Dryden, I found a handy map produced by the town of Dryden which roughly classifies soils and floodplains in the area. According to the map, we’ve got either Class I or II type soil, which they consider the best for agriculture. Excellent news!

I dug deeper and went to the Web Soil Survey from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. This is a really great resource which lets you look up soil information for just about anywhere in the United States. And most of the information is current, which may not be true about paper soil maps. In our region the map is from 2006.

After tinkering with the interface, I came up with a map like the one below. It shows roads and the boundaries of different soil types. It also has a nice legend which helps you figure out what you’re looking at, and lets you pick a point and grab information about it. In the small area I chose there were just 6000 acres with 35 different soil types!


Our land is almost all “LaB,” which stands for “​Langford channery silt loam, 2 to 8 percent slopes.” The map also tells me that we get 32 to 42 inches of mean annual precipitation, the frost-free period is around 120 to 160 days, and that our soil is well drained. It also has sooooo much information that I know nothing about, as well as a handy “Soil 101” guide to help make some sense of it.

The map tells me the soil class is 2w. Class 2 soils “have moderate limitations that restrict the choice of plants or require moderate conservation practices.” The “w” means that the soil may get too wet for optimal crop production, or the water table is particularly high. If I’m reading the data correctly, the soil may also be pretty acidic. I think this is great news, especially considering that a good deal of the land around us is Class 3 or 4, which are not as preferable for growing food.

All this is a wonderful way to learn about things, but it also has some limits, and doesn’t get quite as specific as we need. To help us decide what we need to add to the soil to make it perfect, we will be sending away a sample to the Cornell Nutrient Analysis Lab for a soil fertility test. This should tell us about things like PH, phosphorous, magnesium and other things plants like and dislike. I am just starting to learn about all of these things, and it’s as daunting as it is exciting!

I’ll end with a homework assignment for myself: Read through the Cornell Guide to Growing Fruit at Home, since some of the first things we want to plant are fruit trees and berry bushes.