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soil recovery for next spring

 
pollinator
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Location: Huntsville Alabama (North Alabama), Zone 7B
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Several years ago I moved a raised bed and had the tractor guy just till in the whole garden, wood chips and all.  Bad mistake I now know but it was a good way to get a deep till and bring up some of the clay.

I am starting to see that plants are still struggling but producing some fruits.  I am hoping to move the recovery along. I added compost tea earlier this summer.  The garden is about 24 foot by 36 foot and I have drip irrigation.  I am in North Alabama.

What can I do now to help the soil recover the nitrogen balance?  

I have a couple hundred pounds of spent coffee grounds, a small dump trailer of composted horse manure and some hot compost I made a couple of years ago.
 
This fall I am thinking of spreading a lot of curled mustard and letting it go.  I bought a one pound bag from a local coop.

Any recommendations on how to use my amendments?

Thanks
 
gardener
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Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
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First off, have you checked the soil with a soil test so that you know for certain that you need nitrogen?  
Plants not doing as well as expected is not an indication of low nitrogen levels in the soil, plants that are stunted and have very light green leaves (when they should be dark green) is an indication of low nitrogen. (but most plants can do quite well with only 10% nitrogen in the soil)
I would mix the coffee grounds, the composted manure and the "hot" compost into a single batch and use that as a mulch, spreading it at least 3 inches thick will hold moisture and allow the microbiome to thrive better.
Using mushroom slurries (or a commercially available mycelium inoculation) will do wonders for your garden soil, far much more than adding nitrogen.

Once you have the above amendments in place a cover crop such as the curled mustard will perform better for you, then it can be used as a chop and drop in the late fall.

Compost teas work best when the soil is carbon rich, the wood chips you tilled in are a nice amendment for fungi but not so much for bacteria and what you want is a balance of equal parts bacteria and fungi.
Tilling wipes out both bacteria and fungi so these are the first things to put back in place. The 2 composts you mentioned will do a lot of good in achieving this balance back from the disruption of the tilling.
The coffee grounds will attract the earth worms, nematodes, springtails and most of the single cell critters the soil needs, the additions of slurries will raise the fungi counts.

Once you have a thriving microbiome going, you probably won't need to add any mineral nutrients unless a soil test shows them to be really low.

Redhawk
 
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In the short term you might not be happy with the results of turning it all in, but long term I think you will be ahead.  Especially if the soil is heavy clay, getting decomposed organic matter below the surface will be a benefit.  I think you have a good plan for this year.  Get more nitrogen to the plants with the coffee grounds.  I like grass clippings as a top cover (not too deep 2 to 4 inches) for sol health.  Monitor the soil temperature to make sure you are not burning roots.  Coffee grounds are 'hot'.

How deep are the chips turned into the soil?  The chips need air to decompose quickly, so ensure the soil is not compacted or too wet.  Perhaps consider a fungal inoculation with a decomposing type to accelerate the process.  
 
pollinator
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It sounds like you have all the ingredients. If you had been looking to bring up clay, I am guessing drainage isn't an issue. I would still keep an eye to ensuring lots of organic matter and perhaps some gypsum grit, so the individual particles of clay stick to everything else but itself and go further in your soil.

If you have them available, I would probably drop some daikon in the mix. That will ensure lots of deep organic matter in the soil, and food for soil life. I would also think about nitrogen-fixing bacteria host green manures and the appropriate inoculants, if they are available.

It's not something you have to do necessarily, and definitely not more than once, if you can keep the hosting plants alive in nursery areas, where you can grab small quantities of the soil to inoculate future seedings. But if your soil lacks naturally-occurring nitrogen-fixing bacteria, adding them will make worlds of difference.

-CK
 
gardener
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There is still plenty of time in this growing season to sew a nitrogen fixing cover crop.  Can you swap out the drip irrigation to a larger sprinkler so that you can get heavier doses of water to that space?  If so, I'd plant a hot-season, nitrogen fixing cover crop now and let it die naturally as the seasons change.  Sudan grass, soy beans, buckwheat and crimson clover would all work if you planted them today.  Or you can wait until about 6 weeks before your first frost date and sew stuff like hairy vetch and Austrian winter peas.  For deep tillage soil decompaction, try oats and winter rye.  They'll continue to grow, even if you get a bit of frost at night.  

N rob is a temporary condition, and my hunch is that as long as those wood chips were not massive, they'll have broken down by next spring and you'll be good to go.  The good thing is that your soil isn't depleted of nitrogen, but it's just tied up right now.  But it'll be released as the chips decompose.

If you get a hard freeze, that's ideal, as then you won't have to terminate your cover crop.  It'll just "melt" down and be a nice mulch for next year.  LEAVE THE ROOTS IN THE GROUND -- either by mowing it or somehow chopping things off at the surface of the soil.  You'll want that biomass to stay underground, along with the nitrogen nodules on the roots.  The worms will be happy that you did.

Next year, can you plant me a couple of watermelon plant?  I'll be over to harvest them when the nights stay warm and the humidity makes you think, "Naw, I'm not working today".

Best of luck.



 
master pollinator
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The first thing you have to test for is the PH level. Without the PH levels right, it does not matter what the soil has for major and micronutrients, the plants cannot up take it. The PH has got to be right. If you tilled in wood chips, you probably lowered your PH levels by quite a bit, so wood ash or lime will most likely be in order.

However, that is just a guess, unless you test. You can taste the plants for flavor...my Grandfather showed me this years ago, so I can tell is soil is "sour" (add lime), or over sweet (add sulfur). BUT that will not tell you HOW MUCH TO APPLY, and why a $12 soil test is well worth the money.

I clear a lot of land into fields, and deal with nitrogen rob quite a bit. That is because I am putting massive amounts of forest duff into the soil. It is not bad, I just have to really over-compensate on the nitrogen the first few years. It is really bad the first year, then gets better after that to about 7 years, after that it goes the other way and I can practically not fertilize at all, and I am okay...for about seven years. So after 14 years, its just a normal field, and I treat them with nutrients as needed...no special treatment because of nitrogen rob.

But you can tell. Look at a plants leaves and look for a yellowish inverted Vee...that is your sign that it severely needs nitrogen. But again how much to apply is given in a soil test. Over apply and a $12 soil test will seem cheap, or save you a lot of work.

A phosphorous defeciency shows up as a purplish tint to the leaves. But again how much to apply is given in a soil test. Phosphorous is the bad boy. Over apply that, and it is not like nirogen and just a waste of money, phosphorous runs off into the streams and lakes and causes algea blooms. And with organics (manure) there is no adjusting nitrogen/phosphorous/potash levels...your NPK is what it is for a given animal manure. In your case, horse manure is pretty bad because the nitrogen content is so low compared to say sheep, or cows. So to get the nitrogen where it needs to be, you might be over on your phosphorous. Due to the nasty pollution caused by phosphorous, you always apply to meet that, and no more, even if it means the potash or nitrogen are lower than what is ideal.
 
Dennis Bangham
pollinator
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Location: Huntsville Alabama (North Alabama), Zone 7B
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Here are some pictures of the plants after a couple of months in the ground and under drip irrigaiton.  
20190727_093144.jpg
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Eggplant
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Pepper
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squash
 
Marco Banks
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They do look a little N-robbed.  Simple solution: just pee around the base of them.  

The problem ("I gotta go!") becomes the solution ("Hey, those plants looks fantastic, green and lush!").
 
Dennis Bangham
pollinator
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I wish I still drank beer. I always had a full load when younger.
 
Chris Kott
pollinator
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I have tomatoes with that issue. Gotta go see a man about a horse...

-CK
 
Dennis Bangham
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I went out and bought a Rapitest pH meter.  It is reading around 5.2 which is confusing since I had this garden tested in November 2017 and the pH was 6.9.  Would decaying wood chips change the pH that much?
Not sure how good the pH meter is and I will get a full soil analysis done soon.

I will use Logan labs this time.  
Is there a place where I can take the report results and use that to figure out how much of  any amendments are required?  

My garden is around 24 foot by 36 foot (give or take). Half of it is a Pawpaw orchard and the rest vegetables.  The Pawpaw's seem to be okay with this soil and the veggies are not.
20190728_111726.jpg
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Bryant RedHawk
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Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
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hau Dennis, did you calibrate that new meter? just because it is new doesn't mean it is reading correct values. (distilled water for Ironing is a pH of 7.0)

Once you find out about the meter's accuracy you will have better usable data from it.

Redhawk
 
pollinator
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Dennis,

I have been looking over this thread and it reminds me of my gardening from about 10-15 years ago.  

I have to wholeheartedly agree with all the recommendations made by others here, but especially those made by Marco and Readhawk.  I have just a couple of other points I would add.

I have been working with fungi for about a year (king stropharia to be specific) and this has changed the way I look at my gardening now.  Before this spring I used to look at soil as a bunch of minerals with a bit of microbes thrown in.  That view is now turned on its head—I now look at soil as a lot of microbes all doing their jobs and a little bit of minerals thrown in.  

I agree that tilling and burying the woodchips probably had a deleterious effect on your soil.  But for my part, I would focus less on the minerals (but do get the ph in check) and more on the soil biology.  In my opinion, planning for next year should start just after harvesting this fall.  As I said before, I am experimenting with stropharia and getting very good results, even though my mushroom bed received no additional fertilizer this year.  That bed is teeming with life and I am trying to replicate this in my other beds.

I saw that you are using woodchips.  Great!  Can you get more?  Can you get your hands on some mushroom spawn?  If so, they can be a great source of fertility.  Alternatively you could build a compost pile directly in the garden, not so much for the compost, but more for the microbes that the pile will create.  I now always make a compost pile in my garden.  My compost is not the greatest (I don’t really get a green/brown balance, I don’t turn it) as I just pile in the fall and spread whatever is left in the spring.  But the soil beneath is magically fertile.

I am just a beginner at the microbial approach to gardening, but I cannot believe the difference it makes.  Use, borrow or leave whatever you want from this post, but if this were my gardening plot, these are the steps I would take.

Best of luck with your future gardening endeavors.   Please let us know how your garden performs for this year and the next.

Eric
 
Dennis Bangham
pollinator
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Eric,  Yeah I like your thoughts.  I can get as much wood chips as I can handle.  Fungi grows naturally here. I have seen a lot of evidence of mycelium growth a couple inches below the top.  I see white strands and orange.  I often get many little brown mushrooms after heavy rains.  I will soon get a little tractor since hauling wood chips is getting harder and harder.  
I do grow Reishi and Shiitake Mushrooms on logs in my little shade house. I live in fungi paradise.  
I just did a large circle of compost covered with sand/dirt and then wood chips and also planted about 96 Block 14 Comfrey around my trees and I do a compost tea.  
I just need to catch up the garden area with the rest of the gardens/orchards.
 
Eric Hanson
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Dennis,

I think you will have some good luck with all the biology you are throwing in there.  I too plant comfrey for chop&drop fertilizer.  Sounds like your woodchips should be breaking down on their own in due time.

I really never fully appreciated the importance of healthy soil biology until this spring.  I have a woodchip bed that is growing wine cap mushrooms.  I added no additional fertilizer this year but nonetheless the bed grew abundant, vibrant squash this summer.  The only way I can account for the dramatic fertility is that I have a very healthy collection of biology doing the heavy lifting for my veggies.  I would be willing to bet that getting all that biology in your soil will produce similar results.

By the way, that tractor will do wonders for your productivity.  What type/brand is it?

Eric
 
Dennis Bangham
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A Rural King will soon open near me.  They sell a TYM (Korean) tractor that has their name on it and has the same engine as a John Deere but is about 25% less.  
My mid-life crisis struck late and instead of a sports car.....
 
Eric Hanson
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I have heard good things about TYM.  If they were available near me about 15 years ago I may have gone that route.  As it was I went green, getting a 2305 subcompact tractor that I sold to my neighbor last year and bought a 37hp JD2038r.  That will be the last tractor I ever own and I absolutely love it.

Eric
 
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