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Starting a small plot on HEAVY clay soil.

 
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I have an area of about 1200 sq ft that I would like to turn into a garden plot. It is about 20 feet from the south facing side of my house. The soil on my property is very heavy red clay. Just a few inches down it is pure enough clay that I could probably throw it on a wheel and make pottery out of it. That said, the grass over the almost 2 acres grows very well. I'm in zone 7a in Middle Tennessee.

I also have a friend who does tree cutting/trimming from whom I can get truckloads of wood chips. I have been watching youtube videos about mulching with wood chips and composting wood chips. I understand a little about carbon/nitrogen ratios. The current plan is to get a load of wood chips dumped in the growing area, and mix them together with lawn clippings to form a berm about 3 feet high and wide, flip it once or twice, and spread it out about a foot deep when it looks like compost. Then maybe add a few inches of wood chips on top of that, and just keep doing that until the area is covered.

Does that sound like a good plan, or is there something better I could do with these resources?

 
pioneer
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I wouldn't mix anything. I would cover the entire area with wood chips as deep as possible.  If you have lawn clippings and other organic materials,  you can compost them and when they are ready,  just add the compost to the top,  or open holes in the wood chips,  fill with compost,  and plant in them.  You have a great resource and you're very lucky to have the wood chips available.  A great video that goes into all the details is the "Back to Eden" movie.  It's free to watch and had really great information that can answer all your questions.
 
pollinator
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https://permies.com/wiki/redhawk-soil#637639

Nicole Alderman wrote:(This is a list of--hopefully--all of Bryant RedHawk's awesome threads about soil microbiology. I made it a wiki that can be edited so that new threads can be added and hopefully short summaries of each thread will be next to the link for easy reference. I plan on putting a link to this thread on each thread so it's easy to find other's in the series.)

Bryant RedHawk's Epic Soil Series

  • What We Need to Know about Soil
  •     Is it dirt or is it soil? how to know what you're starting with so you can make it what you want it to become.
  • The Quest for Super Soil
  •     How to do it for soil building, nature uses diversity (multiple methods) we should too.
  • What does Complete Soil do for the planet?
  • Vitamins for Plants
  • Settling the Dust around Biodynamic Applications
  • Redhawk's Methods of Making the Biodynamic Preparations
  •     This thread goes into details on how to easily, and with just a few resources, make make preparations that increase certain types of soil mycrobiology to help specific types of plants' thrive
  • Getting the Biology We Want into Our Soil
  • The wonderful world of water, soil and plants   Water, how does it work for us, how does it work with soil and plants
  • Nature's Internet How Plants talk to each other and the rest of their world
  • personal research Redhawk's current research
  •    
  • Bacteri-Fungi and Nematodes Oh My!
  • Examination of Accepted Soil Testing Proceedures
  • Using a Microscope to improve your soil
  • Let's talk about soil minerals
  • Can we make Soil like Nature Does?
  • The book unfolds here
  • Things to know about compost
  • how the soil food web works
  • Improving clay soil fast and almost easy
  •  
    gardener
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    Jason,

    That sounds like a fantastic solution.  The solution to heavy clay is carbon, carbon, carbon.

    Make sure you don't till your wood chips into the soil profile.  Just let them lay on the soil surface and the worms will do that for you, increasing your available nitrogen as they do so.  If you don't have a compost pile, start to build one.  Perhaps build it right on the corner of that space so that any residual compost juice that drains from the pile will enrich the soil you'll be growing in.  Then, as you turn it, you can "walk" the pile across the garden, month after month.

    As you are ready to plant, just pull back the wood chips in the spot you wish to put a tomato or pepper (or whatever) and dig your planting hole.  Put a generous handful of compost in the hole and away you go.

    You'll find that those wood chips disappear quickly once the soil starts to get healthy.  An 8 inch layer of wood chips will disappear within 6 months.  It's crazy how much fungi and micro-biology get activated when you provide a great food source like wood chips.  Worms and other biota as well . . . you'll find that the soil is not only becoming more friable and crumbly, but also alive with organisms.

    Best of luck.
     
    gardener
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    Jason, Tennessee Red Valencia peanuts grows directly in our clay soils. No digging required except a hole big enough for each peanut to be planted. According to the UT agriculture department website only that one variety will grow here. I have had great success using those peanuts (& wood chips) to help improve the soil. They taste great too.
     
    pollinator
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    I would consider making biochar out of at least some of the woodchips.  There are several easy ways to do this, available on a quick web search.  Even a hole in the ground can serve as the kiln!  This will give you organic carbon that will last much longer in or on the soil than the chips in a raw state.  The warmer and wetter the climate, the more important this is....once the soil life is started up, it can break down an astonishing amount of organic matter continuously.  
     
    Jason Barnes
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    Mike Barkley wrote:Jason, Tennessee Red Valencia peanuts grows directly in our clay soils. No digging required except a hole big enough for each peanut to be planted. According to the UT agriculture department website only that one variety will grow here. I have had great success using those peanuts (& wood chips) to help improve the soil. They taste great too.



    You know, I was just looking at some of those. All I have is lawn to work with, atm. Could I just flip a couple square feet of sod and put a seed in?
     
    Mike Barkley
    gardener
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    No real need to flip the sod. Just poke a hole with a stick or something & drop a peanut in. Crumble the shell a bit. Spaced about a foot apart. It probably wouldn't hurt to flip sod & loosen the soil first. Not necessary though.

    If you leave some in the ground at harvest time they will reappear the following year.
     
    Jason Barnes
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    So I got in touch with my tree guy friend, and it turns out he doesn't actually have a wood chipper, so all I could get from him is chunks which would be fine for hugelkultur, but there's no way I'm doing all that digging.

    That said, I can probably still put the word out to local tree service companies that I'm looking for wood chips and get plenty. My county actually has a municipal mulch facility where people take their chips and brush. They're only open till 3:45 on weekdays, though, which means people have to hang on to the chips produced over the weekend, and dump them on Monday morning. There's usually someone here at the house on weekends, and weekday evenings to accept a load.

    Also, we can just take the truck to the mulch facility and they will load it up for us for free!

    https://www.murfreesborotn.gov/258/Yard-Waste-Collection

    They even have a Hogzilla Tubgrinder, for the finest, most luxurious mulch.
     
    Jason Barnes
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    Mike Barkley wrote:No real need to flip the sod. Just poke a hole with a stick or something & drop a peanut in. Crumble the shell a bit. Spaced about a foot apart. It probably wouldn't hurt to flip sod & loosen the soil first. Not necessary though.

    If you leave some in the ground at harvest time they will reappear the following year.



    Wow, I'll have to try those out.
     
    gardener
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    Jason,

    I think others here have given sound advice.  The only major contribution I have to make is that even the very best, most decayed woodchips will show their greatest promise after the first year.  In a years time fungi, bacteria, insects and earthworms (plus countless other creatures) will have had time to break down the wood and especially the earth worms will till the soil for you.  My soil is also heavy, heavy clay and after a year of having chips sit upon it, I can no longer find the old surface of the clay soil.  A years time has really helped my woodchips do something wonderful for my soil.

    A problem I did have last year is that my chips were just chips.  I could not plant in them.  I dug fertile holes for my tomatoes and the tomatoes grew just fine.  If you are willing to use fertile holes, you can use the chips the first year.  The this year I plan on using just a minimal amount of soil in my garden bed and use the decomposed chips as a soil bedding.

    I hope this can be useful to you,

    Eric
     
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    Jason, I'm in zone 7a in Oklahoma and have about 2 1/2 acres of that lovely red clay. I make a lot of compost and spreading that on the ground helps. I don't till and I'm also trying to get rid of bermuda grass so I layer a lot of newspapers, cardboard, and grass clippings. We've been here 5 years and the clay in my garden area is getting better. One thing I discovered the first year - okra seems to love red clay.
     
    Jason Barnes
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    Trace Oswald wrote:I wouldn't mix anything. I would cover the entire area with wood chips as deep as possible.  If you have lawn clippings and other organic materials,  you can compost them and when they are ready,  just add the compost to the top,  or open holes in the wood chips,  fill with compost,  and plant in them.  You have a great resource and you're very lucky to have the wood chips available.  A great video that goes into all the details is the "Back to Eden" movie.  It's free to watch and had really great information that can answer all your questions.



    Trace, I just wanted to say that the current iteration of the plan is to, if I can find someone to deliver about 30 yards of chips from the municipal mulch facility to my property, cover the area with about 8 inches of the mulch, and compost my lawn clippings on top of this area for the lawn growing season, and attempt some kind of gardening there next spring, and I thank you for your input.


    That said, i would just like to say that watching the  "Back to Eden" video Is like, as if, say... I were trying to make a cherry pie, and what I really needed was a recipe for cherry pie, but instead, I watch the music video for the song "Cherry Pie" By Warrant for an hour and forty-five minutes.

    Kind of like that.
     
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    Jason Barnes wrote:I have an area of about 1200 sq ft that I would like to turn into a garden plot. It is about 20 feet from the south facing side of my house. The soil on my property is very heavy red clay. Just a few inches down it is pure enough clay that I could probably throw it on a wheel and make pottery out of it. That said, the grass over the almost 2 acres grows very well. I'm in zone 7a in Middle Tennessee.

    I also have a friend who does tree cutting/trimming from whom I can get truckloads of wood chips. I have been watching youtube videos about mulching with wood chips and composting wood chips. I understand a little about carbon/nitrogen ratios. The current plan is to get a load of wood chips dumped in the growing area, and mix them together with lawn clippings to form a berm about 3 feet high and wide, flip it once or twice, and spread it out about a foot deep when it looks like compost. Then maybe add a few inches of wood chips on top of that, and just keep doing that until the area is covered.

    Does that sound like a good plan, or is there something better I could do with these resources?



    Everyone here has offered great advice. Some additional options for you would be to plant a cover crop blend. Rye(The Grain), Daikon Radishes, and Hollyhocks could all work well for you. You can go ahead and get the soil ready, then plant this blend around the end of August. You will basically let it grow, and only harvest your daikons by breaking off what is above the surface. Leave the rest to rot until next year. You soil will be very ready for your garden at this time. I personally would let the hollyhocks keep reseeding in the garden, they will attract pollinators and predators. The rye will die back on its own when it warms up, then you can plant in the spring, with no need to till.
     
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    In addition to the wood chips (which might be beneficial to throw on top of cardboard), you could also throw down some chicken feed crumbles (to feed worms and soil life), dried blood, molasses, bone meal, and whatever you can find with leaf humus from a neighboring forest to inoculate your "soil-to-be" with all the good stuff to feed future worms and soil microbes.  Good luck!
     
    Don't destroy the earth! That's where I keep all my stuff! Including this tiny ad:
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