Be Prepared for Life

Activity Kit Five:
"Living with the Soil"

Part 3. Using soil efficiently


Many African farmers still use mechanical and chemical methods to produce crops on fragile soils in areas marginally suited to large scale agriculture. This increases the cost of farming, is useless when the rains fail, pollutes river systems in times of heavy rains, destroys the structure of the soil year by year, reduces the potential of the land to feed the people and pushes up food costs all round. Today more and more farmers are being forced off the land by rising costs.

Some farmers are looking again at small scale farming, working closer to natures organic processes - rather than excessive use of artificial fertilisers. A mixture of trees, crops and animals [intercropping] on smaller holdings known as agroforestry or permaculture. This method emphasises chemical reduced or chemical-free farming, a greater variety of crops and a return to intensive farming. Greater crop variety reduces pests, shades and protects the soil and increases soil moisture. The smaller farms produce much more than the larger farms per hectare and employ more people. [More details can be obtained from: PERMACULTURE ASSOCIATION OF SOUTH AFRICA P.O.B. 68929 Bryanston 2021.]

Sustainable farming is profitable, soil saving, diverse, natural farming, with a reduced dependance on chemicals. Permaculture seeks to heal the soil through natural farming methods.

Project 6: Mini farming - getting started

This project requires long term access to a small holding with permission to experiment with small plots as a small scale farming venture. This project assumes you are co-operating with the land owner in "mini-farming" the area. These are only starter ideas and local advice should be sought in all cases. The lessons learnt in this project could lay the foundation for a successful career later.
  1. Walk through the area. Map its size.
    Indicate the position of the water courses, the vegetation types, the presence of alien plants.
  2. Are there any signs of erosion?
    What can you do about it? [See Project 3 (8,9,10)]
    Draw up an erosion control plan and discuss it with the land owner and your patrol.
  3. Survey the soil types on your mini farm. [See Project 1, (1,2)]
  4. Draw a pencil grid over your map and measure the percentage slope at all intersecting points on the grid.
    Use a 100 cm ruler or batten, a tape measure and a jar of water to establish the percentage of the slope in different areas. Enter your results on a table like this.

    Use a 100 cm stick held level to the surface!

      Distance the free end of the stick above the ground = Percentage Slope
    A1 32 cm = 32% slope

    Map your land again drawing in the boundaries between areas having different degrees of slope.
    Slope Usage
    0 - 5 % Ideal for cropping
    5 - 20% Good for cropping
    20 - 30% Crops under erosion protection conditions
    more than 30% too steep for crops

  5. Discuss the best areas to plant to crops.
    Choose 4 small plots [10 x 10 m] in the land with less than 20% slope. Dig holes to establish the depth of the soil.
    Cut the top and bottom out of a large jam tin . Press it firmly into the ground. Pour half a liter of water into the tin.
    How long does it take to absorb all the water?
    Enter your results on this table:

    Plot Number Depth of soil Soil type Time to absorb 1 liter
    example 20 cm sandy clay 4 min 27 sec

  6. Choose a crop to plant - these crops grow well even in difficult conditions: Maize, sorghum, millet, sunflowers, sweet potatoes, cowpeas, wheat, beans, pumpkins and squashes.
    Look at what local farmers succeed with and discuss your ideas with the land owner.
    [See intercropping - Project 7].

    Plant your crop at the right season...

    Maize Sept - Nov July - Nov 120 days
    Sorghum Oct - Jan Oct - Jan  
    Sunflowers Sept - Jan Sept - Jan  
    Sweet Potatoe Oct - Nov Jan.[rains]  
    Beans Aug - Jan Feb - Sept 70 days
    Pumpkins Sept- Nov Feb - Aug 120 days
  7. Prepare the plots by land using hoes and working in rows across the slope. Use string and pegs to help keep straight rows.
  8. If you are not intercropping [see Project 7(1), planting different plants next to each other at the same time], you will need to rotate your crops, planting different plants in the same plot next season.

    eg. Year 1 - A leaf crop - [Cabbage, spinach]
    Year 2 - A root crop - [carrot, beetroot]
    Year 3 - A legume - [Beans, peas]

    Repeat the cycle.

  9. If you are planning a vegetable plot, compost is very important. [See Project 5]. If you plan on using the trench garden method - see Kit 3: Project 1].
  10. Soil needs to be fed when you plant seeds!
    Ideally you should always compost and manure the plots well, in reality farmers never have enough compost, so it may be necessary to add a bit of chemical fertiliser as well. This is usually sold as mixtures: eg.2:3:2
    2 parts NITROGEN - leaf and stem growth
    3 parts PHOSPHORUS - root and fruit growth
    2 parts POTASSIUM - general plant health

    Almost all soils in South Africa are lacking phosphorus so the middle number is very important. These are the main soil nutrients that humus provides to growing plants. If you have insufficient compost you may have no choice but to use some fertiliser.

    A 10 x 10 m plot needs...

    200 buckets of compost
    0,5 bags of fertiliser on wet sandy soil
    0,4 bags of fertiliser on dry sandy soil
    0,3 bags of fertiliser on wet clay soil
    0,2 bags of fertiliser on dry clay soil

    scattered along the rows of plants.

  11. It is time to irrigate your soil when it is half wet.

    Use this ball test...
    CLAY is half-wet when it feels dry but forms a ball.
    SAND is half-wet when it forms a ball which breaks when dropped.

    When the plants begin to wilt it is always time to water!

  12. Your water source may be from a stream, spring or a water tank [See Kit 4: Project 2 and Kit 4: Project 3].
    Use buckets or a hose pipe to bring water to your plot.
    Different soils need different amounts of water.

    Each 10 x 10 m plot will need...
    500 l of water to wet CLAY = 50 buckets
    1800 l of water to wet LOAM = 180 buckets
    3800 l of water to wet SAND = 380 buckets

    You may want to look at mulching methods again to reduce the amount of water needed by these crops. [See Project 5]. Mulching saves water time and effort!

Project 7: Mini farming - going further

This is a more ambitious project and assumes that the lessons of Project 6 were mastered first.

  1. Plants grow better when planted together in the same plot. You can mix the seed together before planting or plant the different crops in alternate rows [a better idea if you plan to weed the ground]. These crops grow well together...
    Maize and beans; Maize and pumpkins; Maize and sweet potatoes.
  2. Crops also grow well together with trees. This is known as agroforestry.
    The trees protect the soil, and shade the crops. A tree that is particularly useful for this is Leucaena leucoephala.
    Plant a tree at each corner of your 10 x 10 m plots. These trees are now being extensively planted in frost free areas.
    Other species are available for colder areas.
    Purchase seed at from your nearest Forestry Dept. Nursery.
    P.O.Box 689 Cradock 5880
    P.Bag X1 Wolseley 6830
    P.O.Box 132 Bloemhof 2660

    This tree is cut for firewood [it burns well] and coppices easily, its leaves are used to mulch vegetables, cattle eat the leaves [to a maximum of 1/3 of diet], its roots return nitrogen to the soil, it gets its water from deep within the soil. This tree will save soil, reduce the need for water, and artificial fertilisers, increase natural compost supplies, while saving indigenous trees from the cooking fire.
  3. These are not the only trees that can be used for agroforestry. Fruit trees are also a favourite but are not as versatile. Obtain seeds of Leucaena and plant them in germination domes in your own nursery. [See Kit 2: Project 6].
  4. Once your seedlings reach the top of the germination dome they need to be planted out. Plant them in a generous hole in a bed of well rotted compost. Press down the soil leaving a hollow around each tree sufficient to receive a bucket of water. Place mulch into the surface hollow. Ensure that your tree gets a bucket of water each week for the first year, especially during the dry season.
  5. Depending on whether your mini farm site is occupied during the week or not, it might be possible to include animals in your programme. Poultry and a few milk goats or sheep may be possible.
    In this case it will be necessary to fence the experimental plots.
    [See Kit 3: Project 7 for poultry farming].
    A wattle pole and wire fence can exclude goats if it is at least 1,2 m high. You can control the places where the goat grazes by tethering it to a movable wire.
    If you decide to keep a goat you will need to build a kraal with a dry sheltering roof for wet weather.
    [See Project 9]
  6. Calculate the area of your mini farm available to the goats/sheep as grazing and how many the land can support. You need approximately 2 hectares [200 x 100 m] for a single goat.
  7. Make a survey of the density of natural plant growth in the area where the animals graze and where they don't graze. What would be the effects on the land of keeping two goats on one hectare?

Project 8: Fun with soils

Using soil does not have to be all hard work and no fun. The more we know about soil, the more we can enjoy it.


Soils often containa record of what happens in places. All soils originate from rocks somewhere, and will one day be reconstituted into sedimentary rocks beneath the oceans, uplifted, exposed and weathered down into soilsagain. This is a continuous cycle and in this sense soils can never be indefinitely conserved, only used as much as possible during the process.
  1. Examine your soil.
    Where does it come from?
    Are the parent rocks nearby?
    Are there signs that this soil was transported to where it is today by wind or by water?
    Where is the soil moving to?
    What will happen to it eventually?
  2. Who lives in the soil?
    Are there any castings?
    Are there any mounds or tunnels?
    Are there any termite nests?
    Are there any holes?
  3. Who lives on the soil?
    Are there any game paths or rodent runs?
    Are there any tracks?
    Look for them on muddy clay soils around the waters edge, along paths, on beaches, around camp sites, in the shade of trees, under bushes, near kills, in ditches, near droppings.
    Make plaster castes, sketches or take photographs of the tracks and find our what animal or bird makes them.
  4. Find tracks and follow them as far as you can.
    They are usually easier to follow in the early morning and late afternoon [shadows].
    Learn to tell the difference between - front and back feet, walking, running, jumping, digging, predators and prey.
    If you lose a track, fix a stick at the last point and circle around it until you pick it up again. If you can't find it, the animal may be hiding within the circle.
  5. Learn to tell the age of tracks under different conditions.
    On sand and clay, on a windy beach, before and after rain.
    Learn to identify droppings by their size, shape and age.
    [See Signs of the Wild: Clive Walker Natural History Publications. 1981 JHB.]
  6. Prepare a damp sand pit and make plaster casting of human feet and shoes.
    Use tracks of different size people moving at different speeds.
    Know the difference between men and women, tall and short, limping and walking, carrying, running.
  7. Examine soil for artifacts.
    Rock knives and scrapers.
    Broken bones and shells.
    Beads and seeds.
    Charcoal remains.
    Glass, plastics, broken china.
    Pottery and old bricks.
    Worked wood.
    Metal objects.
    Bottle tops, cans, nails, wire, bullet cartridges.
    Let every piece tell its story.


Where soils has been infiltrated by other minerals eg iron they take on a rich variety of colours. This provides a natural palette for the soil artist.

Make a soil bottle by collecting a variety of coloured soils and pouring them carefully into an empty bottle to create patterns against the inside of the glass.
Fill the bottle to the top and seal it carefully. Any space left inside the bottle allows movement which in time results in the destruction of the pattern.

Make a stiff starch and allow it to cool. Place a teaspoon of starch into each of the empty pockets in an old egg box. Collect a variety of coloured soils and mix with starch as a binding agent. Use these colours to finger-paint on paper or chew a twig end into a tiny brush and paint the colours on to paper. Charcoal makes a useful black pigment.


Soil is the basis of pottery, it can be learnt without any expense at all and form the basis of a craft or career which can be further developed throughout life. The creative nature of clay as a medium which can be fired into permanence has immense utility and satisfaction. Only the most basic skills will be covered here and those interested are advised to read further or seek the help of a local potter. Every potter has to learn by experimentation and if the only investment is your labour then the occasional flop doesn't matter and becomes a learning experience.


  1. Clays occur naturally in most places, in farm dams, road cutting and sites where foundations are being excavated. You need to collect a sticky or plastic clay. Apply the ring test [Project 1] to your sample before collecting.
    You should try to collect a sample midway between a short and a fat clay. Preferably one that forms tiny shallow crack when worked into a ring.
  2. Collect a moist sample in a polythene bag and bucket from below the surface to avoid contamination. Store your clay in a plastic bucket with an air tight lid to prevent drying out.


  1. Clay needs to be free of impurities and flexible enough to model. If your clay was collected dry [as from the cracked bottom of an empty farm dam] it should be pulverised into tiny bits in a bucket and sufficient water added to cover the material. After a week of soaking the remaining lumps are squeezed out of the slip by hand.
  2. Pour off the excess water.
    Transfer the slip to a plaster of paris bat [ dry block of plaster] which will absorb the excess water. Work [ called wedging] the clay into large workable lumps kneading out the air bubbles. If the clay is still too wet allow further air drying time and rewedge. When it ready for use wrap the wedges of clay in plastic and store them in the air tight bucket.


  1. If the clay is to worked into thick forms [models]. It needs to be opened by adding white sand or crushed pottery fragments [grog] to the clay. This is needed to enable dangerous moisture to escape more readily from the thicker portions before firing. If the clay is to be worked into thin hollow forms [pottery] then an opener is not needed.
  2. There are basically three alternative starting points...
    • The ball of clay into which a thumb is pressed to create a hollow vessel called a pinch pot.
    • A rolled out slab of clay which is cut with a knife and stuck together with slip along its edges before being smoothed together - this is slab work.
    • A rolled sausage which is coiled into a pot and the coils smoothed together.
  3. A great variety of form and texture is obtained by beating the soft clay with wooden paddles, impressing designs into the clay, rolling it on textured materials, such as bark or old wood, binding it in grasses or hessian, scratching it and combining clays of different colours together when wedging.
  4. Once the form is ready the clay is allowed to dry out completely at room temperature. It becomes harder and lighter in colour as it changes to biscuit-ware. At this stage the pot will dissolve away if put into water. Once it is almost dry, it is possible to burnish or polish the outside of the dry clay using the back of a spoon or small river smoothed stone. The pot can also be decorated by scratching or carving out grooves or holes.


  1. No clay can be fired until completely air dried. The initial firing process must be slow and steady with no sudden changes of temperature. The pots must be slowly heated to 100 degrees centigrade to expel moisture slowly. Fast firing will burst any clay objects. Clay changes into pottery at 500 to 600 degrees centigrade.
  2. A simple sawdust fired kiln can be made with twenty bricks. Lay two rows of bricks loosely in an open square 2 bricks long by two bricks wide. Pack the pots to be fired in sawdust on all sides. Cover them with sawdust. Insert a twist of paper in the top. Light the paper and cover the open top with a metal dustpan lid. The fire should burn very slowly all day and twenty four hours later it should be possible to remove the cooled pottery. These pots will all be permanently black.
  3. If you want your pottery to have a more natural colour you will have to protect the pottery from the firing fuel. This kiln design is a mixture of the traditional Roman and Japanese wood burning kiln. The kiln is fired through a fire box constructed out of a small half drum insulated with a thick layer of clay. Flames draw through the kiln chamber. The fire should be kept burning throughout the day, it taking about 20 hours to fire and cool the kiln.
Not only is this an entertaining and useful skill to learn. The products can be sold as pots in which your own plants and succulents from your own nursery can be marketed as part of a fund raising venture.

The soil is our life
To be known, nurtured and enjoyed!
Earth caring action is soil action

In our next kit
we will learn about

© Copyright 1991 - 1994
Dr Frank Opie for the South African Scout Association