By assessing the living systems of the site, the soil and vegetation cover, you’ll ensure a better understanding of the farming potential of the site.

Keep in mind that although we can relatively easily influence our soil and the vegetation that grows there, compared to other site features, knowing what you’re starting with and what your limitations and advantages are matters a great deal.

To make an impact on anything you’ll need to put in the time, the work, and the resources. So if you put yourself in an unfavorable position where you are required to improve the degraded land or clear the site for farming first, you’ll spend the time and energy on that instead of farming. That’s not necessarily bad, but it might be avoidable.

When assessing the living systems of the site you look at:

  • Historical land use
  • Soil condition
  • Existing vegetation cover

To perform the assessment, you’ll need to make direct observations on the site, looking at the soil condition up close and the vegetation that’s growing there.



    STEP 1. Find out about the historical land use

    • Try to find out what the land was used for. Was it fallow, or used for grazing, hay, crops. Was it sprayed with fertilizers or chemicals?



    STEP 1. Dig a hole

    • Grab a shovel and dig a hole at least 12” (30cm) in diameter by 12” – 18“ (30 – 45cm) deep, with straight sides. Preferably dig wider and deeper than that (ideally 20″ by 20″ /50cm by 50cm), the bigger the hole the better you’ll understand your soil profile.

    STEP 2: Observe the soil profile

    Starting from top, observe the soil profile to determine the length and the differences between soil layers. Look at different colours, shapes, roots, the size and amount of stones…

    Most soils exhibit 3 main layers/horizons:

    • Humus-rich topsoil (A horizon)  where nutrient, organic matter and biological activity are highest. The A horizon is usually darker than other horizons because of the organic materials.
    • Subsoil (B horizon) mostly made of clay, iron minerals as well as organic matter, which has been washed down to this horizon by rainwater. It generally has a lighter colour and less biological activity than the A horizon. Texture may be heavier than the A horizon too.
    • Underlying weathered rock (C horizon) the parent material from which the upper soil layers developed.
    • Additionally some soils also have an O horizon mainly consisting of plant litter which has accumulated on the soil surface.


    STEP 3. Assess the soil

    • if you were able to dig deep and you can clearly observe all three layers, that’s very good.
    • if you were able to dig through the topsoil (A horizon) and into the subsoil (B horizon) and then were forced to stop, that’s fairly good.
    • if you have no subsoil and you hit bedrock that’s bad,  your farming capabilities could be limited.

    Type #1 Risk Assessment:

    It’s true that we can regenerate and repair every piece of land with permaculture techniques. However, if your goal is to produce something almost immediately from the land, then you are entering into type #1 error territory.

    The restoration almost always needs to be done first, and that can easily be a decades-long project requiring an immense amount of work. It’s going to be hard to do both at once; the restoration and production, so make sure that you know what you’re signing up for if the land is degraded or else it might be a type #1 error.



    STEP 1. Identify the existing vegetation cover type

    • Walk the property and look at what’s on the land in relation to the size of the whole property. Are there pastures, orchards, forests, weedy areas…?

    STEP 2. Observe the overall health of the vegetation cover

    • What’s the current condition of the vegetation covers you identified in step 1? Are there any infestations/diseases of flora? Are the plants healthy?

    • What can the local vegetation tell you about the land?

    Type #1 Risk Assessment:

    Be cautious about the heavily wooded properties, they might represent a twofold type #1 risk. First, if the house is in a wildfire zone then the trees represent fuel from the fire and second if you plan on having farming operations that would require you to clear a whole bunch of trees.

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