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Clay

 
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Guys I have 3 acres of hard clay.
Any advice to get this into soil so I could grow in would be appreciated.
Should I till it and add stuff ?

There are lots of leaves around I rake them up but I am thinking maybe I should just leave them ?
Thanks in advance
 
pollinator
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First look your soil series up or call your local NRCS office up and ask. How much clay is in the upper horizon? Then consider piling amendments on top and not working them in.

I would say leave the leaves unless you want them to decompose in a specific area.

What stuff I.E. amendments are available and at what cost? If you can get anything free or at least free for the hauling that's what I would use the most of.

 
master pollinator
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Hi Darren.

I wouldn't till clay without first amending it with something to till into the soil.

Clay has permeability and compaction issues usually because the particles are so fine, and because they have nothing to bind to but themselves.

Often, calcium deficiency is an issue as well, so I like to add some gypsum grit and dust, and as much organic matter as I can get my hands on. When this stuff gets spread over the clayey area, you could simply broad fork it in, and the organic matter and gypsum grit would fall into the cracks made by the forking.

Tilling, in that case, could be done, but I would be careful not to over do it. Even with a single pass, an improperly prepared clay-heavy bed can seal the bottom of a furrow after a pass, creating an impermeable layer right where you want you plants' roots to go.

But keep us posted, and good luck.

-CK
 
master pollinator
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All my soil is heavy clay except where it is heavy clay with a large dose of rocks.  For special plantings such as vegetables and perennials, I dig a big hole or trench and fill the bottom with logs (rotten hardwoods preferred) and then put in a thick layer of weeds or other nitrogenous material.  The topsoil I sift to get out roots and rocks and mix it 50-50 with leafmold and fill in the bed. This is resulting in very nice beds.  I don't do a large area at a time, just nibble along.  It took me a couple of years to do my small kitchen garden, but it has been totally worth it.  Now I'm working on a garden for staple crops, digging pits for eventual planting of squash and corn in what I call my "Low Water Garden" which I don't intend to irrigate much.  All this work is done with hand tools.

 
gardener
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hau Darren, Might I suggest you read my soil series for lots of information on improving clay soils. (there is a link at the top of the soils forum page)

As others have mentioned the prime thing to do for improving heavy clay soils is to get additions that will separate the superfine particles so there is better texture, which will then allow water infiltration and air to also get into the soil.

There are several theories about how to do this and all of them do work, some are just faster working than others.
Gypsum is one of the primary additions you can make that will provide an opening of the very tight structure of clays, calcium carbonate will also give extra calcium to the struggling microbiome and this works really well if you can also add organic matter at the same time.
When there is a thick layer (over 4 inches) of clay on the surface, it is usually necessary to do the one time tilling in of at least an equal thickness (to the clay layer present) of organic matter (usually compost or compost mixed with wood chips).
If you have several years to wait on the building of soil texture, you can lay these amendments on as a mulch layer and let them work their way in.
My series gives many options and talks about how to get the microbiome operating in soils.

Don't hesitate to ask if you have other questions or aren't clear on how best to proceed, it is one of the reasons I am here.

Redhawk
 
pollinator
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Darren,

Your soil sounds like my own--mine is thick, dense, hard clay.  It changes from being wet and sloppy in wet weather (now) to being absolutely brick hard during dry summer months, especially if we are having even a minor drought.  It is tough to follow Redhawk as he is the resident soil specialist, but I will add here what I did to my clay soil to make it more fertile.

1)  For starters, as Redhawk suggests, I did initially till the soil to break up the clay and I then added in a LOT of fall leaves.  I mean a LOT of leaves.  I added in piles of leaves that I piled up on top of the garden bed but sat 2-3 feet tall.  The clay seemed to eat them all.  I kept adding in leaves and other organic matter via tillage for the next couple of years.  At that time I did not realize the damage that repeated tilling would do, and if I were doing it all over again, I would have only tilled in once.  I sold the tiller a long time ago.

2)  I know this does not sound entirely permie, but whenever I went to plant crops like tomatoes or summer squash--that is to say heavy feeders--I always dug a little hole and filled it with a mixture of bagged manure and topsoil amended with bone and blood meal.  This did help to lighten up the soil, and added some much-needed nitrogen, but I probably set back my soil biology by over-feeding it with highly available nutrients.  Granted, blood and bone meal is not as harmful to soil microbes as say 10-10-10 chemical fertilizer, but I still likely set back my soil microbia a bit.

3)  Today I am really working on making my beds as organic as I can get them.  I am working on making them raised beds (1-2 feet tall) and largely composed of wood chips rotted down with wine-cap mushrooms.  This process is still in progress, but with a bit of luck I will be able to plant into decomposed wood chips this spring with only a small amount of bought-in fertility and next year only use on-site fertility.


If I were doing this all over again, I think that I would:

 1)  start one bed off with tillage and a LOT of organic matter.  

 2)  continue to add fertility by adding piles of organic matter on top of the garden bed

 3)  plant a cover crop during off seasons and plant crop-type cover crops (like peas and beans) during the first season of regular gardening.  This may or may not limit the food crop choices for that first year.

 4)  start other beds by smothering the existing vegetation and/or planting a cover crop to help the tilthe of the soil during the first year.  I would continue to plant cover crops during off-seasons


At present I have 3 garden beds, but I am thinking of adding a fourth.  If I do so I will plant a cover crop like crimson clover to add organic matter and fix nitrogen in addition to tiller radishes that will further break up the clay and help store the nitrogen from the clover.  This is an extremely simple seed mixture for a cover crop, but it gives a nitrogen fixer and a nitrogen sponge, both a necessity for adding fertility to the soil.


Don't give up.  Clay is tough stuff to work with and make suitable for cultivation, but it does come with some hidden advantages.  Generally it has a pretty good mineral concentration.  Also, it really likes to hold onto moisture.  Granted, clay has a tendency to shed moisture at first, but if you plant that cover crop, all those little holes made by penetrating roots will serve as little water ways for rainfall and assist in charging up the soil with water which it will then hang on to very well.

Finally for long term fertility, I am focusing on (and encourage) getting as much carbon into the soil as possible.  You could do this by dumping a bunch of biochar after the initial tilling, but my approach is to get as many roots into the ground as possible.  When I was doing my Master's research, one fact I stumbled upon was that soil carbon is probably the single most important and overlooked component of soil minerals.  Evidence of this is in the fact that each 1% increase in soil carbon can yield as much as a 25% increase in soil fertility.  This astonishing fact is accomplished by an number of different factors.  Soil carbon generally makes the soil softer and easier for roots to penetrate.  It makes the soil easier for water to enter and helps the soil store a greater quantity of water for the dry season.  It also helps the soil retain nutrients that otherwise would wash away or evaporate.

As Redhawk suggested, if you have any questions, do not hesitate to ask.  The methods I used above have yielded pretty good results for me, but I defer to Redhawk and his expertise should our suggestions contradict.

It is some hard work, but the work is rewarding over time.  Congratulations on your ambitions and please keep us up to date.

Eric
 
pioneer
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I don't have a lot of advice to add to the above, but I've found it's very important to keep clay soil covered at all times.  I use wood chips when possible, but use whatever you have, just never let the soil be bare.
 
Darren Halloran
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You guys are legends & thank you.
My problem is I love our land it has steep sections,a great waterhole with platypus & fish,we have built a barn like house off grid & I lay at night I ponder how lucky we are.....
Don’t get me wrong we are lucky but I find the clay depressing I can’t grow anything. I have tried mushroom compost, grass seeds ,& other green manures.
I read some till & others say don’t do that.

We are not flush in cash so I can’t bring in a lot of other stuff I read gypsum mixtures etc...
I want to make our place work & we visit some other properties I look at I am envy of their soil...

I want to make it work but over 7 years I continue to lose.
Hey thanks for the support - the internet to me the best invention of all - you can conne t with people what’s better than that ?
Thank you
dAZ
 
Eric Hanson
pollinator
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Darren,

Your last post gives us a lot of information we did not have at the beginning.  3 acres is a lot of ground for amendments.  This would probably need industrial scale amendment application so I am not surprised you can't afford that.  Now that we have a picture of 3 acres of steep ground, I would really think about growing a cover crop.  I am not certain what you can grow in your area, meaning I would not want to plant something that was invasive, but given that you don't apparently need immediate results, I was thinking that you could plant some or any of the following:

Hairy vetch:  This is tops for fixing nitrogen and producing biomass.  It will grow long vines that can be cut and left in place to decompose

Crimson Clover:  This also fixes lots of nitrogen and produces lots of biomass, but is a little easier to control than hairy vetch

Wheat:  This will soak up existing nitrogen and will both grow easily and is fairly easy on the nutrient consumption.  This is a good plant to grow with a nitrogen fixer

buckwheat:  This is also a nitrogen sponge but one that will spread plenty of biomass.  Be sure to kill it before it goes to seed or you will have it again.  You could let it go to seed and just get some plants growing on their own if you wished and I think that the roots would do a good job of breaking up the clay.  When you are ready to plant crops, you may have to mow a couple of times to make sure that you get all of the seeds laying in wait.

Tiller radishes:  This is another good nitrogen sponge, but one that produces a huge tap root that if left in place will eventually rot down nicely.  This can really help to break up clay and hardpan

These are just a small selection of potential cover crops.  I was trying to find options for you that are annuals so that they will die out on their own.  I was thinking that since you have been at this for 7 years you could go ahead and try to spread out a seed mixture and maybe get it established.  You could even let it go to seed and replant itself for a season or two.  After that you could mow it down or just mow down a particular patch you want to grow in.  If you are mowing, you should probably take a couple of passes--the first to kill of the cover crops and the next couple to kill the volunteer crops that will appear from seed.  Once you get all of seed sprouted and killed back, you can go to work at working in the biomass and maybe bring in a small amount of amendments to help out a small garden sized area to plant whatever you want.

These are just a couple of ideas I have and if it works for you then great, but I am pretty sure that you will have to do at least some modification to the plans as I don't know your land and I am not even certain that you can get the cover crops I mentioned.



Best of luck to you and if you have any other questions, never hesitate to ask.

Eric
 
Posts: 190
Location: NNSW Australia
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Has the site experienced heavy compaction while you've been there?
Is it possible that your over-water or over-fertilize your plants?
Have you tried growing perennials and trees or only annual veggies?
Any soil can be worked with, even without bringing in extra materials.
Soil-building is a long game and fertility can be lost to exposure to heavy sun and rain.
We used to have the palest of clay here and turned much of it brown by mulching, planting and composting whatever we could on an ongoing basis.
But I'd trade it all to be neighbours with a platypus

In regards to tilling, the advice tends to be to till once on unimproved soil to get some organic matter down into the soil. After that, amendments can be placed on top of the soil, under mulch and the soil biology will spread it around.

Clay is susceptible to clodding when alternating between wet and slushy and dry and baking. Shading can reduce this, as does mulching. Gentle prying with a garden fork can loosen up this dense structure a bit.

A lot of plants are adapted to clay soils. Shallow rooted veggies can do well in clay, because they like a firm perch for their roots.
 
pollinator
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I have gardened on clay and on sand over the years. Right now we have a clay-based loam. There’s a lot of great advice in this thread and I will try to briefly share what I have found to help without repeating too much.

Clay will form a hard pan when tilled. Highly simplified, you create a clay saucer that won’t drain. The tines go down a few inches, churn the soil to that point, and the plane along which they churn becomes this hardened surface. This is why farmers end up having to get subsoilers. Anyway, over the years I have become tiller-adverse, as I have come to view them as causing as many problems as they solve. I sold my old TroyBilt tiller years ago, before our last move. I will use a fork.

I prefer to encourage the earth worms to do my tilling for me, and deep rooting plants to do that work also. When building a new bed up for veggies or herbs, I add compost that is heavy on horse and chicken manure, leaf mould, egg shells, coffee grounds (we drink too much coffee LOL), and grass clippings. To this I may add wood chips if I have them available. The worms set to work and within a couple years the soil is pretty decent. It takes awhile, but with time, the clay based soil is the nicest I’ve gardened in. With plenty of organic matter, fungi, worms, etc., added to the clay, the soil still holds moisture but also drains.

I never, ever, remove leaves, unless it is to concentrate them on a planting area. If I don’t need leaves for a bed, I run over them with a mower to chop them up, and let them stay where they fall. That aids them being broken down into soil.

Be patient. It will happen.


💚 🍁 🍂 🍃 💚
 
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Hi Daz

What part of Australia are you in? I love the fact you have seen a wild platypus.

I have heavy clay soil, I'm in Qld, but I used to garden in Victoria, where I grew up. I find the limiting factor is water.

If you don't have water in your soil, you will not have soil life, and your clay will not develop into good soil. That's just the way it is over here. The other factor is sun. If you are anywhere but quite far south, the sun will fry your soil organisms too, when combined with low moisture.

If you are somewhere warm and dry, the best thing you can do is shade the soil. I have finally come up with a way to manage plantings on my place (it's taken me 11 years). It is too dry between the rainy seasons to sustain most plants, so it is hard to keep baby trees alive. I had a few that survived, but would just sit for years in the soil, not growing. My husband has a bobcat, with a post hold digging attachment. Now he drills a hole, I fill it with whatever organic material I can find, and I'm not fussy - old paperwork, kitchen scraps, cardboard, cotton fabric scraps like old towels used for dog beds, empty toilet rolls, used tissues and paper towel, paper being thrown away at my work, doggy doo doo, bark, sticks and twigs, grass, hair cuttings - and I put some of the dirt back over the top. I make a lip all around and a depression in the centre and plant my little tree into it. I then lay cardboard around the tree, so that sun will not hit the soil around it. I put a rock or chunk of wood to hold it down, and if I've done it right, the cardboard will slope down towards the centre where the small tree is, meaning any rain flows right to the base of the tree. I will attach a photo.

Almost every one of the trees I have treated this way have not only survived, but managed to grow to around 60 - 90 cm in a year. That is amazing for me.

Buried organic material makes an underground sponge that grabs onto the water that may flow through. It also puts the compost underground where the organisms are free from the sun.

The cardboard makes a lot of difference up here. I even had some 5 year old  Tipuana Tipus that were just not doing anything, and the year after I mulched their roots with cardboard, they finally started to grow. Lots of places throw out cardboard, or paperwork, so it is possible to keep collecting and burying, but by bit.

The other thing is overall shade. There was an old greenhouse here, and we moved it and I put veggie beds inside. I mulched with cardboard and paper, and it managed to say a lot more moist that all the surrounding areas with normal sun exposure. I even managed to get some black, crumbly, delicious soil. Sadly the posts rusted, so I had to pull it down.

But if you are trying to grow veggies, put up a shade structure and have small, intensively planted beds. Save your water for this area, and try to get your hands on as much cardboard as possible. If you have one area that is shaded and where you can modify the environment, it will be satisfying and cheering.

You may find people getting rid of old ripped shade sails. You can run wire along the edges to stabilise. You can make a shade structure by hammering in a star picket on either edge of your shade area, bending a piece of poly pipe so one end slips over the top of one star picket, and then arches and the other end slips over the other star picket. Then you have a big hoop to hang any shade cloth over.

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Nicola Stachurski
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That first photo is a tea tree I planted a month ago. It is surviving the heatwave with lots of TLC.

This photo is of a poinciana I sprouted about 18 months ago. Both these have a hole with organic matter thrown in. The cardboard usually goes out about 80cm around the tree, and it stops the grass as well. It looks ugly, but who cares when it means the difference between a live plant and a dead stick.



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Posts: 102
Location: Zone 7a, 42", Fairfax VA Piedmont (clay, acidic, shady)
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Reviving this thread to get input on my clay-based raised bed plans (no native topsoil, pure clay, acidic).  I hand tilled them last fall with pickaxe/shovel/fork, adding a little lime/compost and planting ryegrass over the winter.  Plan this spring is to rent a large rear-tine tiller to incorporate gypsum, lime, organic fertilizer for the N, compost/manure/straw (if I can find it), and moderate amounts of decomposing wood chips (and leaf mulch if I can get it).  Then plant Daikon radishes over the summer, well mulched.  Hopefully I can just broadfork that a little in the fall to get the radishes rotting, mulch or cover crop, and then have pretty nice soil for zone 1 gardening which I can maintain with mulch and compost and broadfork, no more tilling.

The raised beds are made out of surplus logs from tree removal... so instant nurse log habitat and cheap.

I've though about hand-digging a foot deep/2 ft wide trench in the raised beds, burning biochar, then covering and tilling it in.  However I don't have a ton of brush (most of my slash is in habitat piles), though I have a lot of 3-4 inch thick pieces (which I believe I'd need a kiln to process properly).

 
Bryant RedHawk
gardener
Posts: 5833
Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
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hau Josh, how acidic is this land?

When you say raised beds how high above the natural soil level? This will make a difference to the growing garden plants.
Daikon will not penetrate very deep into solid clay soils, a better choice for the first year cover crop might be Lucerne (alfalfa), clovers (red, crimson, white, yellow(sweet)), buckwheat, hairy vetch, all these will end up giving you great stuff to broad fork in once they have grown up or you can chop and drop prior to broad forking. skip the fertilizer unless it is a composted manure, instead try for spent coffee grounds, plenty of N and you also will get a fungal boost. If you plan to use wood, try to keep it to wood that is already in the process of rotting, it will work faster.

Trenching in is a great idea, you can even add kitchen scraps then cover back up with the soil, also don't rule out mushroom slurries as a way to get more fungal life into the soil to help break it up.

Redhawk
 
Josh Garbo
Posts: 102
Location: Zone 7a, 42", Fairfax VA Piedmont (clay, acidic, shady)
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Thank you Dr Redhawk... I see your point about Daikons.  So perhaps I'll grow cover crops to support a one-time deep tilling with as much wood chips and other organic material as possible.  I don't have an official soil test yet, but I heard Korean Lespedeza does better than clovers in acidic soils.  

Also intend to try compost teas and the fungal slurries... I have unlimited wood chips from local suppliers, but limited space to dump and move them.  And I am on the hunt for coffee grounds from my local Starbucks.  The raised beds are log-based, so not high - basically at ground level currently, with potential to go up 6 inches.

And incidentally... I have a lot of Red Hawks here!  One likes to perch above the beds on a 12-foot tall poplar Snag I made.  I have some 3-ft wide tulip poplars I was forced to pollard to a similar height, but hoping they come back as large bushes for bee habitat.
 
pollinator
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Along with all the other techniques already mentioned, adding a fine silica sand has helped my heavy clay soil immensely. As sand is really not an expensive input it is really worth doing in my opinion.
 
Josh Garbo
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Location: Zone 7a, 42", Fairfax VA Piedmont (clay, acidic, shady)
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Update: even the biggest, heaviest rear-tine tiller I could rent only penetrated a few inches into my soil.  Added gypsum and lime, cover crops (rapeseed, daikon, forage kale, Korean Les. but no hairy vetch... I did put it elsewhere though, and it took off nicely).  Kind of interesting - the section I hand-tilled with a pick axe and planted ryegrass in over the winter, is actually much less compacted than the virgin area I rototilled.

Will see how those go, but it might be time for straw-bale gardening or heavy mulching.  Worried about herbicides in straw.  May have to pickaxe the cover crops into the soil this fall and add light mulch, possibly with mushroom slurry.  Maybe in the spring that will be loose enough to broadfork.

Fall cover crops (planted with an overseeder into "lawn", separate from raised beds): perennial ryegrass and hairy vetch.  Maybe some native grasses too if I can afford enough seed.
 
Eric Hanson
pollinator
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Josh,

I am not surprised that the tiller did not produce the desired results.  Operating a tiller is surprisingly physical work.  I gave up the tiller years ago and my soil is improving yearly.

Good job on getting the cover crops in though.  While tilling is a faster way to make soil workable, it is only temporary.  I am convinced that cover crops are a much better long term solution assuming that you have the time.  And if you have to till some to get started and cover crop the rest and get to it later, that can work too.  If you do till though, my thoughts would be to do it with the idea that it would only be a one-time event so plan it well.  But from the sounds of things, you do have a good cover crop going as is.

Out of curiosity, do you have plans for the land after having a cover crop?  Is this to be a garden some day?  I am curious to see how the land improves over time and to see how you incorporate the standing cover crops into the soil.

Great gob, good Luck and please keep us informed.

Eric
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Posts: 5833
Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
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on clay soil, straw bale gardening is a magnificent way to not only get your vegetables but it will also condition the soil beneath it at the same time.
We have four garden plots that we have done this for the experimental results year by year.
A first year bale plot will show significant softening of the upper 3 inches at the end of the growing season, leaving those bales in place and growing in them the second year doubles the depth of softened dirt and the organic matter content triples from worm activity beneath the rotting bales.
Third year on this plot we had to add new bales and just placed them on top of the two year old bales, this area now has great tilth, is softened down 15 inches with an organic matter depth of 12 inches, the microbiome is very much improved, to the point of having good numbers of all the organisms.
We have one space that was only straw baled for one year (our initial test site, turned control site) it has continued to improve over the last three years even though no new bales have been placed there, in fact we removed the rotting bales to incorporate them into another, already set up bed.

In my opinion, if you can't do "whole small area improvements" it is not a bad idea to use the straw bale gardening model, it allows you to set up moveable growing sites year by year and if you simply add more sites, you soon have good soil with superior organic matter and microbiome.

Redhawk
 
Eric Hanson
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Josh,

Forgot to add that woodchips are like magic on the soil but it takes at least a year to see the benefit, and more are much better.  In my opinion, straw bale gardening is overrated.  I did give it a try one year, but it requires a LOT of watering.  Basically I had to water every day.  Since the actual crops don’t have true contact with soil, they cannot reach soil’s moisture.  My crops grew great until I left for a warm weekend and everything wilted beyond the point of recovery.  It did make some nice mulch in the long run though.

Your biography states that you are on 50 acres of woods.  I might consider finding some deadfall and chipping it up for mulch.  I trim a living fence every year or two and run the debris through a chipper and get mounds of chips.  I pile these chips on a place where I want a new bed, both to smother existing vegetation, and to get some soil biology into the chips.  After a year I spread the pile into existing beds and inoculate with wine cap mushrooms.  

I am about half way through a roughly 5 year project to create mushroom compost based super soil for my garden beds sitting on hard, dense clay.  The longer I have the chips on the bed, the better the soil beneath gets.

To summarize, I really recommend the wood chip approach.  It takes time but is worth the effort.

Eric
 
Josh Garbo
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Dr Redhawk, I have just heard that straw-bale gardening is dangerous unless you can get organic... the sources I've found on Craigslist so far seem to be conventional.  Eric, I have plenty of woodchips from a local tree company, but have to spread them by wheelbarrow.  This is for large raised beds (low walled construction from fallen logs).

I found it funny how little the large tiller actually accomplished... hand tilling by pickaxe was much more effective.  But hopefully it will allow cover crops to flourish, and I will add whatever organic matter I can find.
 
Eric Hanson
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Josh,

If you have to till, I can wholly believe that hand tilling is less damaging than using a tiller.

I too have raised bed gardens and I am filling them with wood chips to a depth of about 1’.  When I want to plant in relatively fresh chips I dig little fertile holes and fill them with topsoil or manure.  Presently I am decomposing the chips with wine cap mushrooms.  They are starting off year 2 and I think I can direct seed this year.  We will find out soon if I am correct about this theory or not.

Redhawk has the greenest thumb of us all so I am not surprised he got straw bales to work.  You too could probably get them to work, but they require almost daily watering, especially at the beginning.

Woodchips are amazing though, once you get them started.

Let us know how things go for you.

Eric
 
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I have super heavy clay as well and I've used cheater-hugels in my beds (digging out the clay, burying rotting wood and debris) as well as trench composting, with good results. Lately I've been mulching some other beds with deep layers of dirty rabbit bedding, but I think the next step will be hay bales. The soil is VERY productive but just hard to work (we have a long rainy season, and there are no broad forks or even forks to be found here-- you dig with a shovel or a long hoe-pickaxe type thing).
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Many people have issues with straw bales, mostly because they fail to properly prepare the bales, sometimes they orient the bales incorrectly.
In todays market you have to assume that the straw was sprayed, this means that you will have to use mycelium from the beginning so the sprays are being broken down during the composting stage.

If you want to grow in straw bales you set them so the open straw ends are up, next you want to lay on a layer of spent coffee grounds and use a sharpened stick to work some of the grounds down into the top inch or so of the bales.
The next step in prepping the bales is to water them so they are completely soaked, top to bottom, this step is carried out daily for three weeks.
The purpose of all the soaking is to get the interior to heat up, to saturate the fibers of the straw and to wash down into the bales most of the coffee grounds.

When you plant into a bale you need to open a hole, this usually means taking out some of the straw to be able to get the started plant into the bale deep enough and so you can add soil around the plant.
Some people simply make a cut out trench, fill that with their soil and then plant into the prepared trench, either way works very well.

If you are going to try direct seeding, you will fare better if you use the trench method.

Properly prepared straw bales should need water only once a week in high heat areas (temps above 80f)

In Arkansas, which is a high heat, high humidity area, I water our bales about every two weeks but if it rains, I usually don't have to use additional watering.

Wood chips are also great for gardening when used to create a growing medium to plant into.
Once again it is all about the proper preparation of the chip bed and once again spent coffee grounds are the nearly perfect thing to condition the chip bed because they not only have Nitrogen available but they also have many members of the fungi/mold families present if left to sit for a week before use.
Chip beds are usually ready for direct planting their third year because by then you have enough fresh organic matter in them helping with the breakdown of the lignin and that attracts a great microbiome group.
In another thread I mentioned a friend in England and how she used chip beds to be able to grow magnificent vegetables on her allotment plot.

When doing a disturbance event (tilling, etc.) hand tools are more accurate and far less damaging to the microbiome than any machine, the best tool is the properly used Garden fork or a Broad fork, spades are for hole digging and shovels are for removal of materials.

Redhawk
 
Josh Garbo
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Thank you; I've read your straw-bale/wood chip posts elsewhere, and it does seem like I'll have to do something similar to build organic matter.  My property actually has decent leaf duff soils and riparian/wet black/sandy soils elsewhere, but the main flat section where I put my raised beds is just solid clay with no topsoil.  It is probably 40-year old fill subsoil from the house construction (which was built into a hill), and tree shade with erosion stopped much from growing there.

A hard compacted clay soil is no joke - the pickaxe was the only way to break it up, even when moist.  My two-cycle Mantis tiller literally BOUNCES off the soil (even after hand tilling and cover crops), and a large expensive rear-tine tiller only goes down a few inches.  I probably just need to be more patient and more serious about adding organic matter.
 
Eric Hanson
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Josh,

You have my sympathies regarding the difficulty of working in clay.  I too have had clay that hard.  I my case, I once planted a garden on land that had once been a strip mine and the "soil" was a mixture of tailings and clay.  It, too was brick hard.  However, were I to do it all over again, I would have added in copious amounts of mulch and vegetative matter as opposed to tilling as I did.  Given my experience with wood chips on just one bed, I am amazed by how wood chips "tills" the clay soil for you instead of you breaking your back to get a temporary effect.  And the wood chips attract worms and other biota instead of chasing them off.  Hang in there and good luck with either wood chips or straw bales.  Either can dramatically help your soil beneath.

Eric
 
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