Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Plants That Build Healthy Soils

By Timothy Gamble (October 29, 2016)

This article is a part of my old Forest Gardening series. However, the information present can be used with any gardening or farming technique.

Good, fertile soil is a must for any garden, even a forest garden. But did you know that some plants can help build healthy soils?

Dynamic Accumulators, Nitrogen Fixers, and Hyperaccumulators

Some plants are known as dynamic accumulators, because they grow very deep roots that bring up minerals from deep down, making them available to more shallow-rooted plants. Some plants are also nitrogen fixers, called that because their roots partner with rhizobial bacteria (this a form of mutualism in biological terms), which causes a nitrogen boost in the soil.

Dynamic accumulators and nitrogen fixers can be grown near other plants (companion planting), which is why they work so well in forest gardening, or as a form of ground cover crop and "green manure." Your choice of specific plants to use will depend upon your particular location and climate, of course, but partial lists of both appear below.

Additionally, plants known as hyperaccumulators can be used to detoxify contaminated soils by removing certain heavy metals and other toxic elements, such as lead, mercury, arsenic, and aluminum. This is a process known as phytoremediation. A phytomediation table matching the toxic elements with their hyperaccumulator can be found on wikipedia (link to that article).

Partial List of Dynamic Accumulators (along with their use in Forest Gardening)
  • Black Locust - Robinia pseudoacacia - Canopy 
  • Dogwoods - Cornus sp. - Understory 
  • Arrowroot - Maranta arundinacea - Herbaceous Layer 
  • Borage - Borago officinalis - Herbaceous Layer 
  • Comfrey - Symphytum uplandicum - Herbaceous Layer 
  • Dandelions - Taraxacum sp. - Herbaceous Layer
  • Indian Grass - Sorghastrum nutans - Herbaceous Layer 
  • Lemon Balm - Melissa officinalis - Herbaceous Layer 
  • Mint - Mentha sp. - Herbaceous Layer 
  • Stinging Nettle - Urtica dioica - Herbaceous Layer
  • Switchgrass - Panicum virgatum - Herbaceous Layer
  • Yarrow - Achillea millefolium - Herbaceous Layer
  • Plantains - Musa musa - Herbaceous Layer
  • Alfalfa - Medicago sativa - Herbaceous Layer

Partial List of Nitrogen Fixers* (along with their use in Forest Gardening)
  • Alder tree and shrubs - Alnus sp. - Canopy or Understory 
  • Black Locust Tree - Robinia pseudoacacia - Canopy 
  • Kentucky Coffee Tree - Gymnocladus Dioicus - Canopy
  • Russian Olive Tree - Elaeagnus angustifolia - Understory 
  • Bayberry - Myrica sp. - Understory 
  • Acacias - Acacia sp. - Canopy or Understory
  • Most Beans - Fabaceae family - Herbaceous Layer
  • Peanuts - Arachis hypogaea - Herbaceous Layer
  • Vetches - Vicia sp. - Herbaceous Layer Perennial 
  • Clover - Trifolium sp. - Herbaceous Layer 
  • False Indigo - Baptisia australis - Herbaceous Layer 
  • Scarlet Runner Bean - Phaseolus coccineus - Vine 
  • Wisteria - Wisteria floribunda - Vine
* Among the best known and most readily available nitrogen fixers are those in the legume family - Fabaceae. This family includes most beans, clover, alfalfa, buckwheat and peanuts.


Plants For A Future - Informative website and database listing over 7000 edible, medicinal, and otherwise useful plants.

Introduction to Forest Gardening - a very useful introduction to the concept of forest gardening for those unfamiliar with it.

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