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Nitrogen problem mixing clay with leaves/woodchips/sticks?

 
Posts: 9
Location: Zone 8: hard clay soil
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Hi i have hard native clay here and i would like to figure out a way to uncompact it naturally without importing anything from outside my yard. The only ways i can think of is mixing the clay with leaves or woodchips or sticks or ash even (but i heard ash can be high in heavy metals and acidic).
The problem is ive heard mixing carbonous things like those into soil will cause a nitrogen deficiency. Is that true for all of those elements? Are there any other noncarbonous natural elements i could add in to break up the clumps?
 
pollinator
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if you're concerned carbon will rob nitrogen from your soil, mix in ready-made compost if you have it at hand. if not, urine will keep up nitrogen levels up.
also:

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
  •  
    pollinator
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    Hi Seth,

    Ash is alkaline, and depending on what the ash is from, will determine if it has toxicity. Clean sources of ash, which came from clean sources of fuel, like regular unpainted wood, aren't typically a problem concern for toxicity from my understanding. Ash will however sweeten your soil, so it's an amendment you should use sparingly, unless your soil is to acidic for your intended application. Then a pH test is in order to accurately calculate the application rate, to meet the needs of your required amount of adjustment without over doing it. Not many plants grow in alkaline rich soil above 8 pH, and adjusting pH down can take time. So not over doing soil sweeteners is important.

    The wood chips buried may have an impact on available nitrogen depending on how many chips you bury and how well mixed in they are. Which is fine if you're going to grow legumes that have been inoculated with the appropriate compatible rizobium species, or you have pleanty of surplus nitrogen in your soil. Legumes often time don't mind a sweet soil either, thats calcium rich,but typically not above 8 pH.

    Is this a long term project? Is putting the mulch on the surface not an option?

    My suggestion, if your going to destroy the soil biome by tilling it up to mix in those ammendments, do it right and mix in enough appropriate ammendments, like the mulched leaves and or compst plus other ammendments, to create the perfect soil ballence, so it can heal quickly, then put the woodchips on top to suppress weeds and retain moisture. Otherwise just pile all your amendments on top, and keep adding to it, evenly spreading them out; then the worm population will grow, and do all your tilling for you, only without harming the soil biome. A six inch layer of compost on top can do wonders for trying to grow in heavy clay soil.

    Once you start feeding the worm population and they grow healthy which happens fast. Studies have shown the worms will do the equivalent work of tilling three times per year, and the way they do it actually helps the soil biome!

    If you can scrounge up leaves, grass clippings, coffee grounds from coffee shops, paper, cardbord and fruit/veggie food scraps. You could have some great free compost ready by fall, or you could start sheet mulching now, and have great soil by next spring, as those resources are typically aboundant and free if you just ask around. Oh don't forget to call around for free woodchips from your local Tree Professionals and or Utility Line Clearance Contractors.

    Hope that helps!
     
    gardener
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    hau Seth. Let's do some questions first since you haven't filled out your profile to give us where on the earth you are located, what USDA zone you are in or anything that tells us what your local conditions might be like.

    1. where are you located (country and part of country(N,S,E,W))?
    2. what are you wanting to do with this land (garden, orchard, both, broad scope plantings)?
    3. what are the weather conditions over a year (rain fall amounts, are they monsoon like, is the air humid or dry, on the equator or near the north/south pole or somewhere inbetween)?

    Take a look at my info under my name, that is the sort of info everyone should be willing to share so they can get good answers for their region.

    Let's now look at what the dictionary has to say about soil pH: A sweet soil is alkaline with a pH of 7.5 or higher. A sour soil is acid, with a pH of 6.5 or lower. The pH scale runs from 0.0, the most acidic, to 14.0, the most alkaline. H represents hydrogen ions.
    If we want to sweeten the soil, we are going to be making it more basic (raise the pH numbers above 7) if we want to sour it, usually done because the soil is already basic, we are lowering the pH number below 7.
    pH is important because there is a "sweet spot" in the pH range where most minerals are available to plant roots and the microbiome works best in this range too.
    The goal is dependent upon what plants you want to grow, Blueberries and most other berries like acidic soil (pH of lower than 6.0), vegetable generally prefer less acidic soil (pH of 6.4 up to 6.8) and deciduous trees are similar while conifers are closer to the berries in pH preference.

    Unless you are going to plant immediately after working the soil, nitrogen defects are mostly nominal since over the period of a month or two the nitrogen levels will even out back close to the what they were before the amendments were added.
    This is one of those things that many scientist disagree on, usually because of the particular discipline they are part of. Wood laying on the surface will have negligible effect on nitrogen levels, wood chips dug into the soil will have a slight effect on nitrogen levels.
    The thing to know here is that most plants only need Nitrogen levels of around 10%.
    Traditional Soil Science says you need Nitrogen to be above 20% for good growth, this is because traditional soil science is working on the premise of growing plants in DIRT, not growing in SOIL.
    Dirt is ground up rocks, Soil is dirt occupied by living micro and macro organisms. Dirt is dead, devoid of life forms, Soil is a living thing, full of life forms, all working in the great circle of life.

    If you bury (work into the ground) 1000 pounds of freshly chipped up wood chips [into one acre [208.7' x 208.7'] you can expect to measure a loss of about 10% of the nitrogen for a period of around 6 months at which time the nitrogen level will start to come back up without any thing being added.
    If you lay that same amount of fresh wood chips on the surface, you might be able to measure a nitrogen loss of about 1% for a period of about 2 months give or take a few weeks.

    By laying on wood chips as a mulch layer you are allowing the bacteria and fungi spores that float on the winds a place to land and call home, once they have a home they will grow and do their part in the grand scheme we call nature, feeding themselves and others, communicating and traveling.
    Their by products and excretions will filter down through the mulch layer by rain traveling through to the ground and that ground will become more friable, more full of life, have better texture and more air and water will get deeper into the ground.

    Hopefully you now have enough information to ask new questions, there are lots of people here with lots of knowledge and we like to share it.

    Redhawk

    I forgot to mention that we can tell if a plant is bacteria dominant or fungal dominant by which pH the plant prefers to live in.
    Fungal plants and trees are found liking the 6.4 to 6.8 pH range while bacteria dominant plants and trees prefer that acidic 4.8 to 6.4 range.
    It should be noted that most of the plant world is fungal dominant, meaning they want fungi in the soil and around and inside their root structure.
     
    Posts: 35
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    I find that trapping raw materials under or in clay promotes disease. Instead, I Penetrate the clay with a garden fork (or old potato fork even), mulch over with 10" broken leaves (chopped by lawnmower/leafvac etc.). Plant legumes and root crops through holes in the mulch at the original dirt/grassroots depth (diakon radish is awesome) this year, any crop next season. Plant roots are the natural tillers and will bring life to your clay as they gently mix in the leaf compost, which will attract earthworms and beneficial microbials and fungi. Allow Mother's helpers to make perfect living soil for your health and delicious produce! COVER THE MOTHER!
     
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    my parents purchased an a parcel which had nothing but  alkaline clay on its surface when I was 4 1/2.

    we composted tons of grass clippings and composted everything from the kitchen

    when I left home at 18, they had black soil 10 to 12 inches deep

    others can help you with "not importing any mass from the outside"  but our collection of grass clippings was well worth it
     
    Seth Japheth
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    Orin Raichart wrote:my parents purchased an a parcel which had nothing but alkaline clay on its surface when I was 4 1/2. we composted tons of grass clippings and composted everything from the kitchen. when I left home at 18, they had black soil 10 to 12 inches deep. others can help you with "not importing any mass from the outside"  but our collection of grass clippings was well worth it



    Thanks for the information. When you say compost do you mean that you guys dumped the kitchen scraps and grass clippings on top of the soil you wanted to garden on? How did you harvest grass clippings?
     
    Seth Japheth
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    Brent Jmiller wrote:I find that trapping raw materials under or in clay promotes disease. Instead, I Penetrate the clay with a garden fork (or old potato fork even), mulch over with 10" broken leaves (chopped by lawnmower/leafvac etc.). Plant legumes and root crops through holes in the mulch at the original dirt/grassroots depth (diakon radish is awesome) this year, any crop next season. Plant roots are the natural tillers and will bring life to your clay as they gently mix in the leaf compost, which will attract earthworms and beneficial microbials and fungi. Allow Mother's helpers to make perfect living soil for your health and delicious produce! COVER THE MOTHER!



    Thanks for this. Disease like plant problems? When you penetrate the clay with a fork do you till or do you just make holes everywhere? Do you know what kind of leaf choppers work good? When you plant the legumes/root vegetables do you bury it at all under clay or does it sit ln top of the clay? Thanks again
     
    Seth Japheth
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    pusang halaw wrote:if you're concerned carbon will rob nitrogen from your soil, mix in ready-made compost if you have it at hand. if not, urine will keep up nitrogen levels up.



    Thanks. I will keep that in mind.
     
    Orin Raichart
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    Seth Japheth wrote:
    When you say compost do you mean that you guys dumped the kitchen scraps and grass clippings on top of the soil you wanted to garden on?

    How did you harvest grass clippings?



    Yes. dump kitchen scraps on top of the clay soil, grass clippings and other brown (dead and dried up to be brown) plant material) then use a shovel or pitch fork to turn over the whole mess every two weeks.
    Some of the clay would get mixed into the whole mess too and in this way, soil was created.  We'd use the grass clippings down the middle of the rows in the graden to keep weeds down (russian tumble weed would grow in the clay).

    We'd go to a nearby city to people who cut their own grass and ask for their grass clippings ( I'd make sure I understood what went on the grass as in herbicides, pesticides and other growth chemicals if you try this....now days, people aren't doing so many herbicides like they use to).

    We'd also get bags of leaves from yard rakings.

    To be fair for your knowledge, we also had about 50 to 100 meat rabbits, more chickens than I want to remember, a few meat cows and sheep. Their manure was also used on our garden. In the fall, after the garden was dead, we would spread the manure over the clay soil and turn it over with a pitch fork (not the hay style pitch for, but a 5 or 6 stiff thick pronged pitch fork).  If you use chicken manure, make sure you let it set away from your garden for a year or two other wise it will kill your garden because it is too nitrogen "hot". Rabbit manure I felt was the best, you can use it right away and its nitrogen won't burn your garden.
    .
     
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    In most cases avoid putting hard materials in the soil unless it is being left fallow afterwards or being used for hugelkultur. Also a note My father and I have used hardwood chips for several years now. They will not rob the soil provided them have time to heat up and decompose, usually for at least 6 months for where I live. The time may differ by climate. The longer you wait the better. If you need to amend the soil while planting you can do as I do with apples in our brick-making quality soil. Dig at least a 3 ft wide and long hole by at least 2 ft deep and replace with 1/3 native soil, 1/3 compost, and 1/3 loam top soil. It works very well and we can actually get apples now, whereas the roots were rotting off before.

    An unpopular option you can do if you allow the land to remain fallow is lightly disc organic materials into the soil. This is not plowing, and this should not be done very often. However, if you cover the soil with say wood chips or leaf litter it will help to retain the soil in place and the discing will push the organic matter under the surface where in a year or two it can be better utilized. Also just making sure the soil has ample moisture through the year will allow organic matter to properly decompose into the soil. Also miscanthus grass makes an excellent mulching material that quickly breaking down into really nice top soil. We harvest some every year. And finally a way you may lighten the soil up is daikon radishes, which is common in agriculture now. Funny enough I found that where poison ivy was on the farm usually had lower soil compaction.
     
    Seth Japheth
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    Orin Raichart wrote:
    Yes. dump kitchen scraps on top of the clay soil, grass clippings and other brown (dead and dried up to be brown) plant material) then use a shovel or pitch fork to turn over the whole mess every two weeks.
    Some of the clay would get mixed into the whole mess too and in this way, soil was created.  We'd use the grass clippings down the middle of the rows in the graden to keep weeds down (russian tumble weed would grow in the clay).We'd go to a nearby city to people who cut their own grass and ask for their grass clippings ( I'd make sure I understood what went on the grass as in herbicides, pesticides and other growth chemicals if you try this....now days, people aren't doing so many herbicides like they use to).We'd also get bags of leaves from yard rakings.To be fair for your knowledge, we also had about 50 to 100 meat rabbits, more chickens than I want to remember, a few meat cows and sheep. Their manure was also used on our garden. In the fall, after the garden was dead, we would spread the manure over the clay soil and turn it over with a pitch fork (not the hay style pitch for, but a 5 or 6 stiff thick pronged pitch fork).  If you use chicken manure, make sure you let it set away from your garden for a year or two other wise it will kill your garden because it is too nitrogen "hot". Rabbit manure I felt was the best, you can use it right away and its nitrogen won't burn your garden.



    Thanks for clarifying. How high up did you stack it? Ive heard it should be four inches or less to not go anaerobic. When you spread the manure you said 'turn it over with a pitch fork' do you mean tilling it into the dirt with the pitch fork? I use my pet birds manure in a big pile of wood mulch and i try not to put it near my garden. If the manure is in only small amounts and mixed will it still burn the plants? I have guinea pigs that make a lot of manure but when i compost it it molds immediately and i wasnt sure of that is detrimental? Thanks again
     
    Seth Japheth
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    Kevin Goheen wrote:In most cases avoid putting hard materials in the soil unless it is being left fallow afterwards or being used for hugelkultur. Also a note My father and I have used hardwood chips for several years now. They will not rob the soil provided them have time to heat up and decompose, usually for at least 6 months for where I live. The time may differ by climate. The longer you wait the better. If you need to amend the soil while planting you can do as I do with apples in our brick-making quality soil. Dig at least a 3 ft wide and long hole by at least 2 ft deep and replace with 1/3 native soil, 1/3 compost, and 1/3 loam top soil. It works very well and we can actually get apples now, whereas the roots were rotting off before.
    An unpopular option you can do if you allow the land to remain fallow is lightly disc organic materials into the soil. This is not plowing, and this should not be done very often. However, if you cover the soil with say wood chips or leaf litter it will help to retain the soil in place and the discing will push the organic matter under the surface where in a year or two it can be better utilized. Also just making sure the soil has ample moisture through the year will allow organic matter to properly decompose into the soil. Also miscanthus grass makes an excellent mulching material that quickly breaking down into really nice top soil. We harvest some every year. And finally a way you may lighten the soil up is daikon radishes, which is common in agriculture now. Funny enough I found that where poison ivy was on the farm usually had lower soil compaction.



    Thanks. Why do you avoid putting hard materials in? Does it hurt the roots? Thanks for the apple tree mix tip. When you say organic materials can be disced into the soil what organic materials are you referring to? I will tey daikon radishes again. I had planted some in clay and they didnt grow any. I wonder how loose the clay has to be for it to grow but i will keep experimenting. I wonder if carrots will work since it also has a deep taproot. Thats really interesting sbout the poison ivy. Thanks for the help!
     
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    I’m starting my third year of soil improvement experimentation. I found that even when digging in lots of organic matter (horse manure, kitchen scraps, fall leaves) and loosening the soil manually, my clay soil just seems to return straight to hard brick anyway.


    I’m finding that hard clay is fine so long as it’s kept moist. In my climate that means letting the rainy season do it naturally but putting thick mulch during the dry hot season.

    I’m now experimenting with thick mulch using any organic material I can find. I think this is the obvious solution I’ve been ignoring so far. On one hot dry day I put my hand deep in the mulch and the soil was like a moist refrigerator down there, whilst the identical soil right next to the mulch was as hot as a fever and as dry as dirt. It’s way easier to water too because it stays moist longer, brings up earthworms and insects, and requires no digging: just keep piling organics to keep feeding the soil underneath.
     
    Orin Raichart
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    Seth Japheth wrote:
    Thanks for clarifying. How high up did you stack it? Ive heard it should be four inches or less to not go anaerobic. When you spread the manure you said 'turn it over with a pitch fork' do you mean tilling it into the dirt with the pitch fork? I use my pet birds manure in a big pile of wood mulch and i try not to put it near my garden. If the manure is in only small amounts and mixed will it still burn the plants? I have guinea pigs that make a lot of manure but when i compost it it molds immediately and i wasnt sure of that is detrimental? Thanks again



    Our garden was large so if we were lucky and got 4 inches of grass clippings, we didn't care if it were anaerobic or aerobic in its decomposition. We'd get white fungus on the grass clippings and the grass clippings would get hot in temperature after we watered it. "Tilling into" isn't really just putting the pitch fork in two or three inches in order to turn the cover material....as you know, clay is really clumpy and our goal was rich top soil, too much turned up clay only made things difficult... so we would only use a spade on the soil, about 4 inches down, every two years.

    We found that roots and earthworms made in roads into the clay with dark soil material better than a tiller could effectively due to the high clay content. Our efforts attracted large amounts of earthworms; youtube composting with earthworms if you want black rich soil quickly (raccoons will eat earthworms and we didn't have any raccoons).

    We would put down a thin layer of grass clippings and leaves, cover it with manure, and cover the manure with the "most" of the grass clippings in the fall. Then in the spring, we would turn over the top layer, plant, and put grass clipping down between the rows to keep weeds down...the grass clippings  between rows was as thick as we could get it, more than two inches, if it was six inches or more, we didn't care, but collecting that many grass clippings wasn't easy... two or three inches was what we did usually, anything less was not effective in weed retardant.

    As for the bird droppings, just create two piles, one old one which is the one you'll age for a year or two, and the one you are putting new droppings on. Before you add a layer of bird droppings to the new pile, add a layer of grass clippings or sawdust two inches thick. After a year or two of aging for the old pile, add it in part of your garden really thin to see if it has "aged" correctly; you'll have to experiment for your own local conditions and your bird doo doo.  We aged on pile of chicken manure from the hen house for two maybe three years and then spread all of it over the gardens,  large gardens btw... our gardens weren't hurt by it.  

    Layer your guinea pig manure the same way with grass and leaves two inches under, spray until wet, guinea pig layer, grass and leaves layer two inches spray until wet.  Turn it and wet it if needed every week or two.
     
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