Soil management

As permaculture designers we need to be designing rich, healthy, living soil. Geoff Lawton has described permaculture as "ethical design science", and we need to ethically and scientifically design our soil. A design for good soil should be a key part of all permaculture growing projects.

Soil is the most complicated living system we know of. As growers we do not need to fully understand it, but we do need to know how to support soil life, soil structure and soil nutrients. Just by looking at soil, smelling it and feeling it, you can see that living, healthy soil looks very different to dead soil.

On these pages we consider a number of different aspects of soil management, and explain the basics. As ever, plenty of good books, videos and sources of support are included so you can find the information and 'how to' guides that are right for you.


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This category, and the pages within it, were created as part of our collaborative work within the GROW Observatory, which received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 690199.


View of soil horizons in landscape showing top layer of peat mixing with lower layers of stone

In this category...

Soil in hands

Introduction to soil

Good soil is central to food production, and therefore to human life. It is necessary for strong, healthy plants that can feed us well.

Phaseolus vulgaris with nitrogen deficiency Credit: Rasbak, shared under CC BY-SA 3.0

Soil nutrients

At least 17 elements are essential for plant growth. Soil nutrients can limit plant growth if they are not available in sufficient quantity, ratio, or the correct form. Some soils are naturally low in certain elements.

Newly dug swales filling with water Photo: DanMcTiernan

Soil moisture

The right soil moisture is needed for optimum plant growth. It also regulates the exchange of energy and carbon between the soil and the atmosphere.

Earthworm in soil

Soil organisms and fungi

Soils are vast and complex living ecosystems, teaming with an incredible diversity of micro and macro-organisms that function together as one superorganism.

Mulching around vegetables


Organic mulching is the common practice of covering up soil with all kinds of organic materials such as straw, wood chips, compost, and crop residues.

Buckwheat cover crop

Cover crops

Cover crops have been used for thousands of years to increase soil productivity and benefit ecosystems.



A legume is a plant from the Fabaceae (pea or bean) family. Most of them have the amazing ability to fix (or change) atmospheric nitrogen into readily available nitrogen in the soil, i.e. nitrogen that other plants and organisms can use.

no till cropping

No dig/no till

No dig gardening or no-till agriculture is based on observing deep and productive temperate forest and grassland soils, where a top layer of nutrient-rich material is added without disturbing the existing topsoil.

Dry, cracked soil. Photo: Ricky Thakrar shared under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Soil physical properties

Understanding the physical properties of your soil gives you valuable information into what your plants need, how often to water, how best to work your soil, how much to feed and which plants will do well.

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