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#18 Soil Fertility

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Soil Fertility

Where rural farmers can lay land fallow, the limited availability of urban land often requires that urban farmers keep plots in continuous production, which can lead to the eventual depletion of soil nutrients.  Additionally, deliveries of nutrient-rich soil and soil amendments can be prohibitively expensive, and making compost or other amendments can be time-consuming. As such, urban farmers should follow certain best practices to maintain and enhance soil fertility while optimizing use of available space.  These include crop rotation, cover cropping, and composting or fertilizing.  See Factsheets #19 through #21 for more information about these practices.

Soil Testing Services

AgroOne Services will test soil for nutrients and pH and indicate amounts of lime and fertilizer needed. Soil samples can be mailed, shipped via UPS, or taken to Dairy One’s sample pick-up points (see website), where you will fill out forms and pay for the testing. Your county extension office may also accept samples. Many Cornell Cooperative Extension offices can mail the samples for you, assist in analyzing results, take payment for testing or provide forms and boxes to farmers if they wish to mail their own samples. Results will be mailed in approximately two weeks. To contact the lab call (800) 496-3344 or visit

For More Information

The following organizational urban growers’ manuals are great sources of information about maintaining soil fertility on urban farms:

  • GreenThumb’s (New York City) Gardener’s Handbook – available as a free PDF at
  • The Food Project’s Urban Grower’s Manual (Boston, MA) – available as a free PDF at

General Soil Health Resources

Information on general soil health is widely available, such as from the Cornell University Soil Health website ( The Cornell Soil Health Assessment Training Manual, also available from this website, is a comprehensive source of information about soil health testing and management strategies for improving soil health, including the use of cover crops, organic amendments, tillage, and crop rotation.

The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) publication, Building Soils for Better Crops (3rd Edition) by Fred Magdoff and Harold van Es, 2010, covers aspects of soil quality and practices for ecologically-based soil management and is available for free download or purchase at

The Brooklyn Botanic Garden Handbook, “Healthy Soils for Sustainable Gardens,” is a helpful guide to all-things soil health, and is available for purchase on-line at

NOFA-NY’s “Organic Soil Fertility and Weed Management” by Steve Gilman (2001) explains how to build soil fertility by well-planned and well-timed tillage, cover cropping, resting, and feeding, and is available for purchase at

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