Is this quote true? "built by an earlier settler, and abandoned because the soil about it was too sterile for cultivation."
If you will peruse the Introductory of "The Scarlet Letter," you will find a passage in which Hawthorne decries, "Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil."
Does the quote under question not suggest a similarity with these lines? Hawthorne may be alluding to his beginning reflections as he places Hester in the sterile, Puritan environment from which she later attempts to flee, but is pulled back by a grey destiny--the "loadstone" as Charles Dickens calls it in his "A Tale of Two Cities." For, Hester Prynne's single identity lies in this sterile ground of a sterile culture.
Since Hawthorne's story is mostly fiction, one can assume that this quotation which describe's Hester Prynne's cottage is probably meant to be more symbolic than truthful. The cottage is located
"On the outskirts of the town, within the verge of the peninsula, but not in close vicinity to any other habitation..."
This observation serves as a symbol of Hester's isolation from the town because of her sin. The "sterile" land around the cottage would indicate that no real life could grow in that area. This statement once again reinforces the idea that Hester excluded from the of the life of the community and that
"this woman should be shut out from the sphere of human charities. . ."
While I don't doubt that there is symbolism in the "soil," there is also some reality in it. I lived in New England (about 20 miles from Boston) for several years, and I know that the soil is rocky and useful only for small farms. This is a good example of taking a physical fact and using that fact to suggest some deeper meaning about the sterility/coldness of aspects of their society.