Chapter 10 Land Characteristics: Topography, Soil, and Vegetation

The hills are alive with the sound of music . . . .
Oscar Hammerstein II 

The hills are alive—and it’s pretty frightening.
Barbra Streisand 
A Happening in Central Park, 1967 

The topography, soil and vegetation of a place have a major influence on lifestyle. In our area, socializing is notably affected by distance—of roads, not straight-line. The roads of hills-and-hollows terrain cause 45-minute drives to visit friends only three miles away as the crow flies. In nice weather the alternative is to walk—up and down wooded hills, fording streams, occasionally using old logging roads. It is pleasant going during the daytime but even with flashlights, walking home in the dark through face-slapping branches is less wonderful. After heavy rains, bridges in narrow valleys sometimes become impassable, necessitating even longer drives.

There may be a psychic connection between people and place. Others and I have marveled at the high incidence of us Capricorns here in the Ozarks. We speculate that the heavily vegetated, rugged hill country is simply natural terrain for goats, who delight in climbing and will seemingly eat anything. We try to have annual Capricorn parties, although January road conditions are often the most challenging of the year.

The ideal country home place has at minimum enough good soil for a garden, orchard, woodlot and sufficient vegetation to prevent erosion of sloping land and to provide a pleasing view. All these items are factors of topography.

Americans can choose to live in terrain that is mountainous, hilly, flat, coastal, desert, plains. Choices continue with ridgetops, valleys, hollows, bottomland, upland. Then we have forests, grasses, cropland, mixed vegetation, even swamps. Each of these land characteristics has advantages and disadvantages. Each has its own character and each shapes the character of the characters who live there. This influence of topography on humans is illustrated by the words that define those who live in certain places: swamp rat, desert rat, hillbilly, flat-lander, mountaineer, woodsman, etc.

Topography 101

As the outside of the earth cooled down, cracks developed which created the giant plates that comprise the present mantle, the solid stuff we walk on and that underlies the seas. The swirling gasses settled down to a pattern, separated into layers, an atmosphere developed, water fell, hit the rock and began wearing on it. The plates, floating on the hot inner magma, slowly moved. Where they pushed into each other, edges lifted and became mountains. A few billion years of plate bumping, rain falling, frost cracking and heaving, rivers forming, and Earth began to look like the neat place we see today. (We know all this because Cecil B. deMille was there to film it.) Up to this point we are talking about geology, which is sort of the underlayment of topography, which is on top, which is why—ahem—it is called top-ography.

The action of rain, wind and freezing plus the action of the glaciers created soil from rock. Depending on the rock it came from, soil is composed of percentages of various minerals. In addition, when plants and animals die and decay they become humus, which becomes food for the next generation of plants. Depending on the incidence of type of soil, temperature, moisture, wind, sun angle and some other things such as birds depositing seeds, unique plants grow in different places.

A quick topographic trip from sea to shining sea

Areas that have similar physiography often have similar geology, hydrology and climate. The following map shows the physiographic regions and provinces of the contiguous states. A brief explanation of each numbered region follows:

  1. Superior Upland—Hilly area of erosional topography on ancient crystalline rocks.
  2. Continental Shelf—Shallow, sloping submarine plain of sedimentation.
  3. Coastal Plain—Low, hilly to nearly flat terraced plains on soft sediments. The east coast is like the edge of a broken jigsaw puzzle, with continuous inlets, bays and sounds. The coastal plain extends from Long Island south to and around Florida including the Gulf coast to Mexico. With an average width of about 150 miles this is approximately ten percent of the land.
  4. Piedmont Province—Gentle to rough, hilly terrain on belted crystalline rocks becoming more hilly toward mountains. 300 to 1,000 feet in elevation, a transition to the Appalachian Mountains. The east edge of the Piedmont is the “fall line,” an escarpment down which rivers tumble in falls to the plain.
  5. Blue Ridge Province—Mountains of crystalline rock 3,000 to 6,000 feet high, mostly rounded summits. Mount Mitchell, in the Black Mountains of western North Carolina, is at 6,684 feet the highest point east of the Rocky Mountains.
  6. Valley and Ridge Province—Long mountain ridges and valleys eroded on strong and weak folded rock strata.
  7. St. Lawrence Valley (look in upper New York)—Rolling lowland with local rock hills.
  8. Appalachian Plateaus—Generally steep-sided plateaus on sandstone bedrock, 3,000 to 5,000 feet high on the east side, declining gradually to the west. The Appalachians, a system of mountains, run northeast to southwest, paralleling the coast from above Maine all the way to Alabama.
    Note: The East has mountains in more states than the West: the White Mountains are in New Hampshire, the Green in Vermont, Maine, and Connecticut; New York is pushed up twice with the Catskills and the Adirondacks; Pennsylvania, Maryland, and the Virginias share the Alleghenies; Virginia also has the Blue Ridge which lifts the west end of North Carolina and enters Georgia; the Great Smoky Mountains are southeastern Tennessee; the Cumberland Plateau starts in northern Alabama and goes across Tennessee, up into Kentucky.
  9. New England Province—Rolling, hilly, erosional topography on crystalline rocks in the southeastern part to high mountainous country in the central and northern parts.
  10. Adirondack Province—Subdued mountains on ancient crystalline rocks rising to over 5,000 feet.
  11. Interior Low Plateaus—Low plateaus on stratified rocks. Includes diverse Kentucky, with mountain coal in the east (Appalachian Plateau), flat-to-rolling farming country in the middle, the Bluegrass region along the Ohio River, a rolling coal and farming area in the north bulge.
  12. Central Lowland—Mostly low, rolling landscape and nearly level plains. Most of the area is covered by a veneer of glacial deposits including ancient lake beds and hilly lake-dotted moraines. Includes the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, with 11,000 natural lakes shaped by glaciers; Minnesota, where glaciers ground out 15,291 lakes, one for every 18 citizens; and Dairyland Wisconsin (14,000 lakes), a mix of glacial hills and rolling hayfields, the better soil southeast, hills southwest, woods and cranberry bogs north in the Superior Upland. Northwest Missouri is a plains region, the northeast nearly flat. The glaciers stopped at the Missouri River. Northern Missouri, Iowa, and Illinois are the land of megafarms. In some places the topsoil is many feet deep.
  13. Great Plains—Broad river plains and low plateaus on weak stratified sedimentary rocks. Rises toward the Rocky Mountains, at some places to elevations over 6,000 feet. From North Dakota the Great Plains sweep southward, interrupted by the Badlands and Black Hills of southern and southwestern South Dakota. The plains—grassland, buffalo land—extend down through Nebraska and Kansas and through the panhandle of Oklahoma to Texas. Texas has high plains in the northwest extending down through vast prairie and plains with some hills to the Gulf coast in the Atlantic Coastal Plain Region.
  14. Ozarks Plateau—High, hilly landscape on stratified rocks. The Ozarks Plateau is the oldest exposed land in America and the only major highland between the Appalachians and the Rockies. Makes up southern Missouri and northwest Arkansas. Hills and hollows covered with oaks, hickories, short-leafed pine, cedar, dogwood, redbud. Rocky. Springs, streams, reservoirs. The best soil is in the bottoms.
  15. Ouachita Province—Ridges and valleys eroded on upturned folded strata.
  16. Southern Rocky Mountains—Complex mountains rising to over 14,000 feet. Includes Colorado, with the highest average elevation in the U.S.—1,000 peaks higher than 10,000 feet. Eastern Colorado is Great Plains, western is Colorado Plateau—the Rockies go down the middle.
  17. Wyoming Basin—Elevated plains and plateaus on sedimentary strata.
  18. Middle Rocky Mountains—Complex mountains with many intermountain basins and plains.
  19. Northern Rocky Mountains—Rugged mountains with narrow intermountain basins. Includes most of Idaho, the rugged Bitterroot Range in the north and the wide, arid Snake River valley across the south, the eastern part of the Columbia Plateau.
  20. Columbia Plateau—High rolling plateaus underlain by extensive lava flows; trenched by canyons.
  21. Colorado Plateau—High plateaus on stratified rocks cut by deep canyons.
  22. Basin and Range Province—Mostly isolated ranges separated by wide desert plains. Many lakes, ancient lake beds and alluvial fans. The Wasatch Range splits Utah, with Plateau land east, and west the Great Basin, third largest interior drainage region in the world—continues to the alpine Sierra Nevadas of western Nevada and eastern California.
  23. Cascade-Sierra Nevada Mountains—Sierras in the southern part are high mountains eroded from crystalline rocks; Cascades in the northern part are high volcanic mountains.
  24. Pacific Border Province—Mostly very young steep mountains; includes extensive river plains in the California portion. In the northwest the Cascade Range starts in northern California, defines western Oregon and divides wet, western Washington, lush with Douglas fir, hemlock, cedar and spruce, from the dry, sagebrush east of the Columbia Plateau. The Coast Range dominates far western Oregon, more hilly than mountainous along the ocean. Between the Coast Range and the Cascades is the fertile Willamette River valley, up to 50 miles wide. The leading lumber state, Oregon contains vast forests of ponderosa pine, Sitka spruce, and hemlock. Western Oregon is wet; the southeast is semiarid high plain.

Soil qualitySo long as one feeds on food from unhealthy soil,
the spirit will lack the stamina to free itself
from the prison of the body.
Rudolf Steiner 

Soil serves as an anchorage for plants and as their nutrient reservoir. Soil quality is highly important if you want to garden or live among growing things like trees, bushes, grasses. Unlike the climate and politicians, soil can be improved. Gardens can be built from scratch. Soil can be imported or created from organic materials but it’s a lot of work. Even rocky soil can be fertile and grow great trees, but digging holes for new fruit, nut and shade trees might be a job for a backhoe. Unless you intend to farm, you only need really good soil for a garden, perhaps a quarter acre. Charles Long says in Life After The City: “Don’t look for good garden soil on an agricultural map. Gardens are little pockets of soil that will take some special treatment regardless of what the rest of the country is like.”

If you want to grow field crops or have a small farm operation get plenty of qualified local advice on the soil you are considering. The Natural Resource Conservation Service of the USDA has the mandate to test and map soils in all counties. Many counties have been completed. Check with the people at the local extension office or soil conservation department.

Soil is a complex natural material formed from disintegrated rock, which includes decomposed minerals. Other than minerals, plants get nutrients from decaying organic matter acted upon by soil microorganisms. Dark soil is generally more fertile than light-colored soil, the darkness deriving from humus, decomposing vegetatal matter. Soils are classified according to the percentages they contain of clay, sand, silt and humus. Loams, which have about equal percentages of sand, silt and clay, have ideal texture and are typically the most fertile.

In the moist southeastern U.S., soil is often thick clay. The predominant red color is caused by the presence of iron particles. Similar soil is found along the northwest coast. In drier areas of the country, where weathering has been less intense, surface soil contains little clay. In moist mountainous regions such as the Appalachians or Ozarks most hillsides are covered with colluvium—loose, weathered rock debris. The Rockies are similar but drier, so loose deposits are thinner.

The northern part of the country contains areas of glacial deposits. Glacial action extended down to Long Island, northern Pennsylvania, the Ohio and Missouri rivers and Puget Sound lowland. In hilly New England, deposits are stony. In the central region, glacial deposits are overlain with windblown silt—loess. These areas contain some of the best agricultural land in the world but the fine soil is highly subject to wind and water erosion. It runs deep, so farmers have wasted much of it to erosion. In other areas the best soil is often found in bottom lands where flooding and runoff from hillsides have deposited fine soil particles.

The acidity or alkalinity of soil determines to a large extent what can be grown in it. A pH scale is used to express both acidity and alkalinity in soil; pH values range from 0 to 14, with 7 being neutral. Less than 7 indicates acidity, more than 7 shows alkalinity. Most common garden crops do well in the mid-range, from 6.5 to 7.5. A soil that is too acid can be corrected by adding lime. Alkalinity may be reduced with sulfur, but highly alkaline soil is useless. Soil that is highly alkaline often has a white, crusty look and supports little or no vegetation. A high percentage of organic matter, the goal of organic gardeners, seems to broaden the pH range in which a given plant will thrive.

Before soil tests, farmers judged the pH level of soil by tasting it. Considering the things farmers have been putting into and onto soil in the last few decades, I recommend against tasting soil. A soil test is most accurate, but you can estimate the acidity of soil by observing plants that thrive there. Acidic but usable soil is indicated by ferns, azaleas, rhododendrons, blueberries, strawberries, dandelions and plantain—the low plant in lawns with broad, strong-veined leaves that my grandmother used to make a poultice to draw infection after I cut my five-year-old foot on a piece of glass. A knowledgeable herbalist friend used the same treatment on my 50-year-old toe where a pygmy rattlesnake nailed me. It still works. (The plantain—and the toe—but not the rattlesnake.) Never call it a weed again.

Hydrangeas are tolerant of a wide range of soil acidity or alkalinity but have the quality of reacting like litmus paper, the flowers being red in alkaline soil and blue in acidic soil. The reason is that the trace element aluminum, which makes them blue, is not available to the roots in alkaline conditions.

Tall, lush growth of a wide variety of plants generally indicates that soil structure, fertility and pH level are appropriate for gardening.

You can test soil for texture by moistening some and rubbing it between your fingers. Clay feels and looks slippery. A gritty feeling indicates high sand content. Silt almost feels greasy but has less of the sticky, plastic feel of clay.

Soil texture can also be examined by the procedure shown here. First squeeze a moist handful. It should form a lump, what is called a cast. Roll the cast between your hands to form a soil rope. Lastly, work the end of the rope under your thumb, trying to make it thin, thinner than the dough strips on top of grandma’s apple pie. Too much sand and the rope will crumble. Too much clay and the strip will shape easily. Something in between with a good mixture of sand, silt and clay is loam, the preferred soil texture for gardening and farming.

Soil problems

Inadequate drainage

Good drainage is necessary for plant health, roadways, building foundations, human bladders, basement drains and septic tank leach fields. Land that retains large puddles for days after a rain breeds mosquitoes. Plant indicators of soil that is generally too wet for most fruit trees and vegetables include curly dock, horsetail, cattails, rushes, wiregrass and willows. Unless drainage problems can be easily corrected, such property should not be considered as a growing site.


Despite 40 years of conservation education, only about one-quarter of U.S. agricultural land is managed according to sustainable soil-management practices. One thousand acres of new Louisiana delta land is created each year, formed from eroded Midwest topsoil carried there by the Mississippi.

Both erosion and loss of organic matter are serious threats to continued productivity. Minor erosion can often be reversed by seeding and regular mowing. Mow across the slope. I have halted erosion on the five or so sloping acres around our house by frequent summer mowing which has thickened the grass stand, raised the humus level and stopped runoff in all but the heaviest rains. A certain indicator that more rainfall is being absorbed is the increased flow from a small spring below “the back yard,” a field of about two acres.

Severe erosion can be stopped, even reversed, but the process can be costly and time-consuming. If the land price is very good it may be worth considering. Consult with the local extension agent and conservation office on area soils prone to erode and what it will take to correct the condition.

After you move to your land, to avoid creating erosion channels on dirt roadways, get into the habit of always driving slightly to one side of previous wheel tracks. Encourage visitors to do the same.

Chemical contamination

Land that has been farmed may be contaminated with herbicides, pesticides and the salts and residues of chemical fertilizers. Potatoes, tomatoes, corn, beans, carrots and other crops commonly receive chemical fertilizers and pesticides. If you are unable to obtain reliable crop and soil treatment history by talking to the owner and neighbors, soil tests will reveal the condition of the soil. It is safest to consider farm land guilty until proven innocent.


Plants respond to moisture, sunlight, soil types and growing seasons. The primary visual difference between the arid West and the moist East and Northwest is the quality and quantity of vegetation. Much of the Southwest is cactus or chaparral. Western mountainous areas typically have trees on the west side, where most of the limited rain falls. Valleys often have the best soil and the best vegetation. The plains area was once famous for lush grass but farmers have destroyed most native grasses to plant grain crops. From eastern Oklahoma to the Atlantic, most states have substantial forests, although in farming country only scattered woodlots remain. Each state map at the end of this book shows wooded percentages. There are 490 million acres of timberland in the U.S. but less than five percent of the virgin forests remain.

I would rather have land with an overabundance of vegetation than a small amount. Land can be cleared if necessary but trees take decades to mature, and trees, shrubs and grasses all contribute to soil fertility and water absorption. In addition to contributing to the scenery you look at each day, the vegetation on your land may contribute many valuable products.

Building materials and fuel

In a poll of 1,000 people, 29 percent said their ideal home was a log home in the woods. There are many areas with more than adequate trees with which to build a home. States with enough trees suitable for logs that log home companies thrive there include Washington, Oregon, California, Montana, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont and Maine. I’m sure I’ve missed some and I do apologize. Altogether, some 500 log house companies offer homes made of local trees. (See Chapter 20 for information on log home companies.) In addition to the great Northwest forests, large forested tracts still exist in most of the eastern half of the United States. If a log house is not your thing, local sawmills will convert logs into rough-sawn or milled lumber to your specifications, often at very reasonable rates. And there are several designs for home sawmills available with which homesteaders can make lumber themselves.

The best trees for firewood are the hardwoods—and in my opinion the best of the best is oak, three cords of which I cut and split each year. Hardwood trees are found throughout the northeast quarter of the country and south to northern Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. The ecoregion map shows major forest types and areas.

Food from woods and fields

Just about any area that has trees grows some kind of nut tree. The south is justly famous for its pecans. The Midwest and northern areas have black walnuts. On our place, although we have some fine old black walnut trees, the favorite for eating is the meat of the butternut, a smaller tree which grows along the stream. The natives call it white walnut. The shell is more elliptical and the meat is sweeter than a black walnut. The light brown wood is softer than black walnut and carves nicely.

Maple trees are beautiful in all seasons, glorious in autumn, make great furniture and provide sap for syrup and sugar. I have no personal experience with sugaring but if you settle in the Northeast you will most likely have neighbors who can teach you how to tap trees and cook the sap down.

Natural fruit in our part of the Ozarks includes berries, grapes, persimmons and pawpaws, sort of a wild banana. Our favorite is mulberries from a big old tree behind the house. Besides its fruit it gives us entertainment—we enjoy watching red squirrels use hanging tricks to reach the ripest berries out at the ends of limbs, while crows angrily protest from the top of the tree. Wild mushrooms, gathered with the knowledge to choose the correct ones, are a special treat. Morels, chanterelles and coral mushrooms are all popular in our area. One of our spring treats here at Heartwood is fresh morel and asparagus omelets. We are also blessed with watercress in the stream and at the little spring below the back yard. Fresh watercress is superb, far superior to the limp impostor lying dead in supermarket produce bins.

Other areas have wild huckleberries, blueberries, dewberries, Juneberries, pecans, pinion nuts, and local favorites such as lotus and cattails. A good source of information on wild edibles is Nature’s Design: A Practical Guide to Natural Landscaping, by Carol A. Smyser, published by Rodale Press.

House sites

Think carefully about whether you wish to build a home. An existing house will often be sitting on the best building site on the property, creating the dilemma of whether to keep it as is, remodel, tear it down or move it.

Land without a house will need to have at least one good building site unless you intend to live in a cave. Then the land will need a good cave—or a good cave site where you can build a cave. The ideal building site has enough fairly level land for not only a house, but garden, orchard and outbuildings such as garage, workshop, henhouse, barn.

Perfectly flat land is actually a negative as it inhibits drainage. This may create a wet basement or unstable foundation condition. Unless you use a composting toilet, which I recommend, you will probably need a septic tank, which uses a leach field system to drain wastewater. Sloping land is much more likely to drain well. Land that slopes more than slightly should be inspected for stability, as certain conditions create creep, or slide areas, often too unstable for houses without expensive foundations.

The best house site faces south to receive sun for light, gardening and solar heating. A slight slope to the southeast is ideal as it warms quickly in the morning. North-facing slopes are cool in summer but cold and possibly wet in winter, and a garden might have to be quite far from the house to be out in the sunlight. In a place where cooling degree days exceed heating degree days, a house on a north-facing slope might make energy sense. West-facing homes cook in the hot afternoon sun unless substantial shading is provided.

Access roads

Access challenges occur with roads on north-facing slopes that ice up in the winter, then don’t get enough sun to thaw; ill-drained roadways that develop deep muddy ruts; and stream crossings that flood. Any of these conditions warrant buying a four-wheel-drive vehicle—your life will be ever so much easier. In hilly areas with serious winters, unless you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle with a winch on the front and unlimited time and energy to fight your way up a steep, ice-covered road, you will want to give consideration to the cost of building and maintaining a good, year-round access road to your dream property.

The price we pay for our secluded valley setting is a north-slope road that drops over 300 feet in four-tenths of a mile, then crosses a stream that sometimes floods. The worst condition occurs when snow melts during the day, freezes that night, then new snow falls on top of the ice, insulating it from daytime warmth. One Christmas season we were isolated for over a week while this condition persisted. Then we got an ice storm. The road was so slippery it could not be walked on at all. Visiting friends were directed into a neighbor’s flat field up at the top, then we all carried their luggage (and gift case of wine) down through crusty snow in hillside woods to the point where our four-wheel-drive truck had been able to ascend. We had a great visit; it was one of those memorable occasions appreciated all the more for the outrageous conditions. The wine only helped.

You too may find a place that is your ideal in every way but access conditions. If you need not get out to a job, then the only major consideration is what to do in case of a medical emergency. In our case, though it would be slow, there is an old logging road on a south-facing slope that leads to the top of the north ridge, with negotiable woods between it and an old ridge road, which eventually leads to a county road. In case of extreme emergency, there is a helicopter at a hospital 25 miles away but only minutes away by air.

One advantage of our difficult access road is protection from unannounced visits. Because of the slow, steep descent and the landform, we can hear gravel crunching under tires for about ten minutes before the vehicle comes into view across the stream—plenty of time to become prepared for “Surprise!” visitors.

Scenic beauty

One of the biggest bonuses of country life is being surrounded by natural beauty—for many of us a primary motivation for living here. Someone has even coined a term—terrain therapy—as a name for the healing that occurs when we look at natural scenes. Being in a place of scenic beauty helps to overcome depression and improve various aspects of our health. It is now believed that the immune system is strengthened by the positive emotions produced by looking at the natural world.

Climate and scenery typically go together—dry and warm-to-hot usually dictates desert, mild often means southern coastal, etc. The climate you embrace may prescribe the scenery you enjoy. The exception is four diverse seasons with cold winters—at Christmastime you could find yourself skiing white powder in the West, icesailing the frozen blue topping of a Northeast lake, or deciphering the puzzle of bird and animal tracks in a fresh Midwest woodland snow.

Now, on your criteria worksheet, write your landform, soil and vegetation preferences.


Soil information and land classification maps are available from state conservation offices, local university extension services (sometimes called agricultural extension service, or just “extension office”), county land conservation offices, or from:

USDA Soil Conservation Service
Room 5105, South Bldg.
Washington, DC 20250
Phone: 202-720-4525

The United States Geological Survey produces thousands of new and revised topographic maps (a portion of one is shown here), and materials about >mineral, land and water resources. This earth science information is available in a variety of books, maps and other formats, and many states have one or more Earth Science Information Centers. Call: 800-USA-MAPS.

If you have a CD-ROM drive, the latest U.S. Atlas disk contains maps of tectonic plates and other physiographic data, and is available anywhere computer software is sold. Many libraries have atlases such as The National Atlas of the United States of America, which contains 765 maps and charts.

Go back to Chapter 9 – Choose your climate.
Go on to Chapter 11 – The cost of living.
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