As global pressures on food production and distribution come head to head with the repercussions of climate change, areas of the world are becoming overworked, dry and otherwise barren. Fortunately these processes aren’t always irreversible and there are steps that can be taken to make land productive again.
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First you need to establish why your land isn’t fertile – too dry, too rocky, too cold etc. – and work from there. Of course, if we’re talking about a desert or the top of a mountain the problems will be obvious, but it could be a lack of just one of the vital ingredients for good soil fertility. Soil needs nutrients (particularly nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium), minerals, organic matter, a pH of between 6 and 6.8, micro organisms and it needs to have a structure that allows drainage.
Sometimes it is over working a piece of land that makes it barren, and simply stopping all work on it for a year or more can help local plant life to return. Farmers do this every so often so as to allow nutrients and minerals back into the land. This is the best natural way to bring life back to a piece of ground, but sometimes this is not enough.
If your soil simply isn’t soily enough and is too sandy or rocky then the first thing you have to do is to introduce some organic material into it. This comes in the form of compost – anything that was once a growing plant that has been allowed to degrade – or manure. Compost and manure will bring nutrients, minerals and micro organisms – all essential for plant growth. Even in your own garden, simply pulling weeds out is extracting nutrients, minerals and organic matter from the soil, so you have to put something back. You don’t always have to dig in the compost – just leaving it on top of the land will encourage worms to come and drag it under the ground and mix it up. They will also aerate the soil.
Water is, of course, vital for all life and if you don’t have a steady supply of it any gains on your land will be temporary. When rain falls on a barren landscape it will quickly run off, but after you introduce some initial vegetation, future rains will infiltrate into the ground and hang around much longer – possibly even forming new streams and rivers. Avoid flooding the land with too much water – instead try the gradual reintroduction of water to a dry area.
Work to your strengths
Sometimes the above processes will not be possible because of a lack of resources, but you should experiment with different plants before writing off the land completely. Something will probably grow pretty much anywhere. Closer to home, potatoes are good at breaking up hard, stony soil; nitrogen-fixing plants like soybeans and clover bring the much-needed nutrient back to the soil and you can plant primulas and irises in wet soil.