Getting to know your soil

Understanding your soil is a critical component of forest management, it can help your determine when and what to plant, and when and how to proceed with forest management activities. And to understand your soil, you need to know the basic information about your soil type and composition. 

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Your soil type has a lot to do with the topography and geology of a particular region so there are generalizations that can be made about your soils simply by knowing what soils are to be expected in your particular region. Several websites, including the USDA Soil Survey website, can help you learn a great deal about the soil types expected in your region.

But the characteristics of your soil will also depend on how the land has been treated in the past: whether organic matter was left to nourish the soil, how often the forest has been visited by severe fire, whether heavy equipment was used on the land, the frequency and type of logging that may have been performed. For these more localized determinants of soil health you may need to get your soil tested and perhaps consult a soil scientist. You can start by asking your local extension office how to get your soil tested locally, or by consulting the Cornell Soil Health website, where you can order a soil test package and find informational videos on soil health.

A soil test can tell you important, specific information about your soil PH, the relative nutrient contents, organic make-up and its capacity to hold water, plus much more depending on the soil test you employ.

USDA Web Soil Survey
The Unites States Department of Agriculture maintains a free website that can help you map your soils, a very useful tool for planning woodland management activities. Soil Survey maps are not exact, but can offer helpful generalizations about the types of soils found in a particular region. This site can be a great launch point for acquainting yourself with the nature of your soils. Once you have a general idea of the soil type on your land, you can build upon this knowledge with detailed information gained from soil testing and on the ground insights about you land’s erosion hotspots, compaction issues and water movement.

On the Soil Survey site, you can generate your own personalized soil report to help you determine the best management strategies: what types of trees to plant, the suitability of roads, and what restrictions apply if you have wetlands on your land. A water section of your report will sketch out how water will impact your site in different times of the year, which will help you plan when it is advisable to operate heavy equipment, what your erosion concerns may be, and help you gauge when to plant to get the greatest success.

USDA soil mapping site can be found at http://websoilsurvey.sc.egov.usda.gov/App/HomePage.htm. An alternate soil mapping tool created by the University of California - Davis, which some people find easier to use, can be found at http://casoilresource.lawr.ucdavis.edu.

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