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Newbie questions on soil  RSS feed

 
Jacob Myers
Posts: 9
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Hi, I've never planted a thing in my life, so I'm a bit overwhelmed right now. I finished reading gaia's garden, am halfway through "How to Grow More Vegetables..." - John Jeavons and halfway through "All New Square Foot Gardening" -Mel Bartholomew. About Me:

*live in a small suburban lot in Dallas, TX
*starting with one small raised bed (4'x12'x1')
*doing intensive gardening
*goal to spend no $$

I'm currently trying to prepare my bed's soil. Regarding soil concerns, I have access to:

* tons of free 2-3 month old horse manure (lucky, I Know )
* assorted mulched leaves, not sure what types, just started converting to leaf mold
*some rotting wood/tons of twigs/branches (but I don't want to wait a year before being able to plant, tying up nitrogen is a concern)
*newly composting fruits/veggies/urine (only a couple weeks along).
*current topsoil in bed, which seems to be somewhat loamy up to 3-4 inches down, then turns to red clay. I mixed it with water and softener, and when it settled it appeared to be 1/3 sand, 1/3 silt (or a little less), 1/3 clay.

My understanding is that good soil is 1/3 humus, 1/3 organic matter (compost), 1/3 sand/silt/clay, based on the concept of Mel's Mix. My plan is to steal some topsoil from the woods (better than buying it bagged from a store?) , scrape off the top 3 inches of my topsoil from inside my bed, and use this combination as my topsoil element. I will then mix 2 parts topsoil to 1 part compost/horse manure. I will lay down newspaper, then fill the bed 9 inches with the topsoil mix (3 inches below ground to 6 inches above). The top 6 inches I will fill with leaf mulch/mold.

------------------------------------------------------------------------
Maybe instead I should just follow Gaia's Garden's "Ultimate Sheet Mulch" recipe? That is, use the existing soil, get a soil test, add amendments (which I'll have to buy :<, thin layer of manure, newspaper, thin layer of manure, 8/12 inches of organic matter (leaves/old horse manure?), 1-2 inches of compost, 2 inches of seedless mulch (more leaves?).

I've got a ton more questions, but I don't want to throw too many out at once.
 
Mike Dayton
Posts: 149
Location: sw pa zone 5
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You are well on your way and you are thinking right about adding alot of organic matter to your soil. I would be very careful about how and where you use the fresh horse poop. Horses do not chew the chud. That means that there are alot of weed seeds in horse poop, I mean a whole alot. I would dig down deeper through the clay, add the logs and horse poop deep so that the weeds are not a problem. Then layer the sub soil and leaves in small lifts are you back fill the hole. Top soil with leaves and grass clippings added on top and you can plant this year. You may want to add some lime to the mix as you back fill. Check your PH and see if that is needed 1st. That gives you a good long term bed with a base that will hold water and allow the plant roots a place to run. Remember, If it came out of the ground, It can go back into the ground. Good Luck.
 
Greg Hickey
Posts: 21
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Jacob,

Congrats on taking the plunge. Mike is right on horse manure. Also, it is too 'hot' or green to use on plants before it ages some. Get a compost pile started and mix that manure with the leaves.

One does not need to go with the "Mel's Mix". I like his work, but there is nothing special about the square foot garden program or soil mix. It is a good use of space, but nothing 'magic' there. Do some reading on the difference between 'green' (nitrogen) and 'brown' (carbon) organic matter. One needs a 1:30 ratio and your compost pile with turn out superior growing mix in a matter of months. Those leaves are your carbon and the manure is your nitrogen. Also you can get a 55 gallon drum and fill 1/4 full of manure and fill with water. Use this 'hot' water (nitrogen laden) to water your garden for good results, especially at bloom time for your plants.

Also spot on is Mike's advice on grass clippings. Suburban Dallas if full of great lawns. Grass clippings have almost a perfect 30:1 ratio without any additives. They will break down quickly in a compost pile. Gather your neighbor's bagged clippings and start composting. The debate on pesticides and fertilizers in the clippings will go on till the end of time. Try it and see how it works for you. A mulch pile will also be a 'life saver' when you get a cold snap. One can use the compost to lightly cover plants to insulate against freezing for a time, as long as it is not a hard freeze. After the chill passes, gently remove grass clippings from the leaf area, so photosynthesis can continue.

I would not get overly concerned with your soil quality to start in your raised beds. As you skills and knowledge of gardening improve over the next year, so will your soil as you continue to compost, mulch, and feed the soil. If you are going to scrap off the top layer of the garden, learn more about hugelkulture on this site. If you replace the loss of volume with wood and branches and then replace the soil over the top, your beds will be raised and over time the wood breaks down both feeding and regulating water available to your plants.

Good luck with your project. We are blessed here with good climate and long growing seasons. You will enjoy.

 
Jacob Myers
Posts: 9
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Thanks for the replies. They've been very helpful. The manure I have seems to be very far along in the decomposition process. It pretty much looks like dark, loamy soil, smells like earthy soil, and parts even had grass/weeds growing on it. But good point on the weed seeds! I will definitely bury it. I probably won't bury wood under this bed though as it is 10 feet from the house, and I don't want a termite infestation! I will use this concept on the next bed I do about 35 feet from the house. A few questions I have:

First, is a pH test valuable when I'm adding in so much foreign material? What if I tested the soil, it came back fine, but all the leaves I throw in make the soil acidic? Wouldn't I have to wait until the 'new' soil has settled in, then do tests?

Second, should I try to get more diverse materials to throw in? Just horse manure, soil, leaves, and my tiny compost pile seems like limited ingredients (and grass later when people are mowing there lawns).

Third, there were a few fire ants in the horse manure I brought in. Should I take any preventative measures to prevent infestation?

Fourth, approximately how much water will I be using to water this bed in the heat of summer in Dallas, TX, growing very dense amounts of veggies? Again, the garden bed is 48 sq ft. I ask because I am about to buy rain barrels which will hopefully provide for all the water needed for my garden/compost pile. The containers are 275 gallon each. I understand this is highly variable. Ballpark estimates are fine.

Fifth, is it possible to plant things in this come late Feb/early March? Should I bypass the spring growing season, and throw in a cover crop like crimson clover to further prepare the soil for the summer crop?

Thanks!

Thanks!

 
Leila Rich
steward
Posts: 3999
Location: Wellington, New Zealand. Temperate, coastal, sandy, windy,
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Hi Jacob, I'll add a few ideas...
Myself, I wouldn't bother with just a ph test: do you have a local agriculture extension office? (I think that's what they're called...) Ph is generally pretty stable in areas where the soils are similar. You can probably get a good idea of general ph, at least to the extent of "Dallas soils are nearly always-----".
I'd get a proper test to get a good idea of what's going on in my soil. In NZ, 'they' say spring or autumn's the time to get a a lab soil test, since the microorganisms aren't up to much in winter. The extension guys shoud know where to go. In the US, tests are usually heavily subsidised, so pretty cheap. It's basically a one-off and saves plenty of wasted money, effort and fertiliser.
I'd build the gardens over winter, let the nitrogen etc settle down and test in spring.
Be wary of using excessive amounts of manure; it tends to be very high in phosphorus and sodium. I've used it heavy-handedly in the past and my p levels are extremely high now.
It gets hot and dry in my climate and I imagine you're much, much hotter and drier! I discovered that raised beds can make for major irrigation issues and I've been lowering them ever since.
I'd try and leave the leafmould in the forest: the trees spent ages making it and it's a major part of their diet
I'd just chuck everything (except the twigs) on, mix it up, cover with a thick layer of leaves and let settle for a couple of weeks, or until planting season.
Do your research before taking lawn clippings. I'm generally not too worried about dodgy lawn sprays, but google Clopyralid for a bit of a scare...
If the bed's prepared soon, I imagine you could grow nitrogen-lovers like lettuce and Asian greens in spring. While favas don't need the nitrogen, they're extremely hardy and will give you loads of biomass for your compost. John Jeavons is pretty keen on them! I'd stay away from root crops, they're likely to just produce leaves in a really fertile garden, and it's a good idea to let the manure break down a bit.
 
Jacob Myers
Posts: 9
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What percentage of manure would be considered safe? Currently, I have manure and mulched leaves (and a little bit of compost early in its decomposition). Surely, this isn't enough variety to fill the bed, even if I dig up and mix in the soil as I build the bed up. What would be a good addition to these ingredients to 'balance things out'?
 
Mike Dayton
Posts: 149
Location: sw pa zone 5
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Hard to give you an exact amount of each Jacob, there are alot of veriables. If you dig down farly deep, like 2 spades deep, I would put down the horse poop 1st. Maybe a foot of poop on the bottom, that will help hold mosture for your plants as well as feed the roots. The heat will leave it quickly under ground so I don't think it would burn the plants even if it is fairly green when you put it in. Most people around here use saw dust as bedding for their horses, that will rot and work like a hugalculture bed to hold water. Then layer soil and leaves in small lifts of an inch or 2 each. An inch of soil, an inch or more of leaves. The leaves will rot down to almost nothing in a few years. I put 2 cart loads of sifted sub soil in and then add 2 heeping loads of leaves. I add a few shovels full of lime to the leaves as I go up. Lastly put back your top soil and add the rotted mulch. That system has worked very well for me over the years. I screen the sub soil with a screen that will take out a quarter but leave in a nickle or dime. Some people would let the rocks in to add minerals, My place is ALL rock, so I take out the biggest ones to give the roots a place to run. Good Luck I am sure you will have a wonderful garden.
 
Jacob Myers
Posts: 9
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Thanks Mike. That was very helpful, particularly about the lime with the leaves. I think many of the leaves I'm using are from oak trees, so I'm sure I'll be picking some lime up

Now, the manure I have is pretty well composted, but the leaves are recently freshly shredded, and the lime will be fresh when laid as well. How long should I wait to plant after making the bed? Should I plant a cover crop for a season perhaps to get things settled a bit?
 
Mike Dayton
Posts: 149
Location: sw pa zone 5
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Do not buy hydrated lime, get ground lime stone, some places call it pettet lime. Hydrated lime works very quickly, you get instant gradification. We as americans like that, but too much of it can burn your plants and its good effects are gone by next year so you have to add more. With the Ground limestone pettets you can not burn your plants. They break down and desolve over time, several years. So the effects are not as quick, but they are long lasting in the soil. I plant imediately, no waiting. The leaves break down quickly in the ground. The poop is already pretty well composted, just through the stuff in there , mix it up a bit and plant. If it turns out you get a little nitrogen problem because the mulch is using it up in the decomposition process you can deal with that as your garden grows. From what you have said I do not think you will have a problem. Do not expect your 1st garden to be the best garden ever. It takes time, and it will definately improve over time as you contimue to add more leaves and grass and poop over the years.
 
Jacob Myers
Posts: 9
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So I dug the foot or so into the ground for the garden bed yesterday. Now I understand why people like no-till gardening so much! It must have taken me 6 hours I'll pretty much be using Mike's plan to fill the bed back in. I did read this though:

The soil in most of Texas is clay with a high pH level and is hence alkaline.
http://www.ehow.com/list_6006056_soil-ph-factors-texas.html

So, I'll be skipping the lime treatment. Less to buy
The layers will look like this:

-TOP-
Leaves 2"
Compost 1-2" (either buy or use my month old compost pile - probably a mix of my compost and some bags of vermicompost)
Topsoil 2"

-REPEAT-
Leaves/Lime 1-2"
Subsoil 1"
-END REPEAT-

Newspaper 1/4-1"
Manure 1'
-BOTTOM-

I'll start another thread on what I plan to plant. Y'alls suggestions are really helpful.
 
Mike Dayton
Posts: 149
Location: sw pa zone 5
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Good luck, The Irish call the double digging plan " The Lazy Mans Garden " because you only have to do it once. I hope it works well for you. I would love to hear about your results.
 
George Lee
Posts: 539
Location: Athens, GA/Sunset, SC
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stacking
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George Lee
Posts: 539
Location: Athens, GA/Sunset, SC
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& furthermore
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worm cast
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sand silt manure
 
George Lee
Posts: 539
Location: Athens, GA/Sunset, SC
1
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vivacious growth
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result
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George Lee
Posts: 539
Location: Athens, GA/Sunset, SC
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in good soil plants flourish

running with creative motion to facilitate growth

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I agree. Here's the link: http://stoves2.com
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