Permaculture Design & Soil

Soil is made up of

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

[edit]Things to consider above the soil

  • 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

[edit]Things to consider below the soil

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

[edit]Observing soil


  • 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


  • 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

[edit]Parent Material

Eg soils derived from:

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


  • 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!)


  • 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


  • 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.


  • 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

[edit]Plants and soil minerals

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.

[edit]How do we balance the minerals of soil?

  • 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.

[edit]Dynamic Accumulators of Nutrients for Composting

NameBotanical NameNaIFlBSiSNMgCaKPMnFeCuCo
AlfalfaMedicago sativa   x     x  
Arrowroot         x      
Bladder wrack  x     x    x  
BorageBorago officinalis    x    x     
Bracken, easternPteridium aquifolium         xxxxxx
Bridal bower           x    
BuckwheatFagopyrum esculentums         x     
BurdockArctium minus           x   
Calamus       x  xx    
Carageen x     x x      
CarawayCarum carvi          x    
Carrot leavesDaucus carota       x x     
CattailTypha latifolia      x        
Chamomile, cornAnthemis arvensis        xx     
Chamomile, GermanChamomilla recutita        xxx    
ChickweedStellaria media         xxx   

NameBotanical NameNaIFlBSiSNMgCaKPMnFeCuCo
ChicoryCichorium intybus        xx     
ChivesAllium sp.x       x      
CleaversGalium aparinex       x      
CloversTrifolium sp.      x   x    
Clover, hopMedicago lupulina      x   x    
Clover, rabbit foot       x   x    
Clover, redTrifolium protense      x   x    
Clover, whiteTrifolium repens      x   x    
Coltsfoot      x xxx  xx 
ComfreySymphytum officinale    x xxxx  x  
DandelionTaraxacum vulgarex   x  xxxx xx 
Dock, broad leavedRumex obtusifolias        xxx x  
Dulse xx     xx   x  
Fat henAtriplex hastata         x  x  
FennelFoeniculum vulgarex     x   x    
Flax, seedLinum usitatissimum         x     

NameBotanical NameNaIFlBSiSNMgCaKPMnFeCuCo
GarlicAllium sativum  x  x     x   
GroundselSenecio vulgaris            x  
HorsetailsEquisetum sp.    x  xx   x x
Kelp xx    xxx   x  
Lamb’s quartersChenopodsum album      x xxxx   
Lemon BalmMelissa offcinalis          x    
LupineLupinus sp.      x   x    
Marigold, flowersTagetes sp.          x    
Meadow sweetAstilbe sp.x    x xx x x  
Mistletoe        x       
Mullein, commonVerbascum sp.     x x x  x  
MustardsBrassica sp.     x    x    
Nettles, stingingUrtica urensx    xx xx  xx 
Oak, barkQuercus sp.x
Oat Strawx
PeppermintMentha piperitaxx

NameBotanical NameNaIFlBSiSNMgCaKPMnFeCuCo
Pigweed, red rootAmaranthus retroflexus .xxxx
PlantainsPlantago sp.xxxxxx
PrimroseOenothera biennisx
PurslanePortulaca oleraceaxxx
Salad burnetPoterium sanguisorbaxxxxx
SavorySatureja sp.x
Scarlet PimpernelAnagallis arvensisx
Shepherd’s purseCapsella bursa-pastorisxxx
Skunk cabbageNavarretia squanosax
Sorrel, sheepRumex acetosellaxxx
Sow thistleSonchus arvensisxxx
SpurgesEuphorbia sp.x
Strawberry, leavesFragaria sp.x
TansyTanacetum vulgarex
Thistle, CanadaCirsium arvensex
Thistle, creepingSonchus arvensisxxx

NameBotanical NameNaIFlBSiSNMgCaKPMnFeCuCo
Thistle, noddingCarduus nutansx
Thistle, RussianSalsola pestiferx
ToadflaxLinaria vulgarisxxx
Tobacco, stems/stalkNicotiana sp.x
ValerianValeriana ofjicinalisx
VetchesVicia sp.xxxxx
WatercressNasturtium ofpcinalexxxxxxxx
Willow, barkSalix sp.x
YarrowAchilea millefoliumxxxx

[edit]Some Ways to Improve Your Soils

  • 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 nieghbour 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.

[edit]Notes on soil

  • 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 in tact. 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?