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looking for insight into making soil in the cold climates

 
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I need to make soil for my soon to be garden.  

I live in Fairbanks, AK.  We live on a low ridge and there is bedrock at the top, and deepening loess as you slope to the sides.  All that is covered in < two inches of soil.  

My goal is to build some raised beds and some hugelkultur beds.

I have been planning on buying (gack) garden soil from the local pit and adding compost comprised mostly of wood chips from the yard, house scraps, and chicken manure from my neighbors.  

Does anyone have any more suggestions for making soil?  Especially as it pertains to cold climates with fewer scrap kinds of resources to tap into.

Or does anyone have some creative ideas for soil additives?  Especially water retaining additives!

Thanks!
grcg
 
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I would definitely add biochar.  I would think you would have the resources for it in that area.
 
pollinator
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Hmmmm...that is an interesting place to grow. It seem hugelkulture would be a good way to build soil and increase water retention. We have worm bins indoors for our kitchen scraps. Every spring we set the vermicompost free in the garden and give the worms fresh bedding materials.

I'd pee on the compost pile too

The raised beds are great. With raised beds, one could layer cardboard, woodchips, kitchen scraps, sticks, leaves and anything else that will compost. You may even been able to add worms. Worms will go dormant until the soil warms. Definitely add the worms in spring/summer, when the soil is already warmed.
happy growing
 
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Hugelkultur might be just the thing. If you have woody biomass lying around, you could try piling it where it will stay moist and inoculate it with winecaps or another voracious wood-eating fungus. Spent mushroom substrate is chock-full of stuff that worms love to eat, so if you bring in worms, or if you already have some in the environment, they will thrive, and you will end up with lots of worm casting-based soil.

I strongly suggest that you check out this list of Dr. Redhawk's Epic Soil Threads. There is so much information there, you will probably find some that applies specifically to your set. And if not, pop him a Purple Moosage. He's the one to ask.

Let us know how it goes, and good luck.

-CK
 
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though not as cold as you are, our soil is rocky clay and difficult to grow in. what i did is i made 24in high 4' x8' beds out of pallets. the 1st foot is branches, chick manure bedding and some smaller semi rotted logs. then i covered with regular potting soil mixed with more chicken manure and comfrey leaves. i let the bed set over the winter and planted in spring. been going for 3 years and I've only added some soil to compensate for settling. i rarely have to water. i also mulch around my seedlings with wood chips to keep weeds down and conserve water.
 
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Leaves and shredded paper are also helpful additives, and they will both boost the carbon levels of the overall mixture. The carbon is your organic matter and the future fluffy stuff I find it's good to layer shredded paper and dried leaves on top of the soil surface and then continue layering greens (i.e. manure, kitchen scraps) and browns (i.e. woodchips, more leaves) until you have at least a good 4 inches or so of layering.

The thing I have found is that it takes a lot more carbon (browns) than one might think to get things to compost really nice and fluffy in place. If I mistakenly rely too heavily on greens (i.e. manures, kitchen scraps, fresh chop-and-drop) it seems like it disappears by the end of the first season because it burns up so fast.

As someone else mentioned, moisture is helpful, too. It helps to wet down the layered stuff on top of the soil. Over time, those layers will begin to breakdown and compost together, and they will be able to hold moisture pretty well on their own at that point.

I try to think about it in terms of a forest floor, if that makes sense.

Hopefully, this helps some.

Good luck!

~Rachel
 
steve bossie
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Rachel Yocum wrote:Leaves and shredded paper are also helpful additives, and they will both boost the carbon levels of the overall mixture. The carbon is your organic matter and the future fluffy stuff I find it's good to layer shredded paper and dried leaves on top of the soil surface and then continue layering greens (i.e. manure, kitchen scraps) and browns (i.e. woodchips, more leaves) until you have at least a good 4 inches or so of layering.

The thing I have found is that it takes a lot more carbon (browns) than one might think to get things to compost really nice and fluffy in place. If I mistakenly rely too heavily on greens (i.e. manures, kitchen scraps, fresh chop-and-drop) it seems like it disappears by the end of the first season because it burns up so fast.

As someone else mentioned, moisture is helpful, too. It helps to wet down the layered stuff on top of the soil. Over time, those layers will begin to breakdown and compost together, and they will be able to hold moisture pretty well on their own at that point.

I try to think about it in terms of a forest floor, if that makes sense.

Hopefully, this helps some.

Good luck!

~Rachel

exactly! i put down 6in. of fresh wood chips every spring around all my trees and shrubs. been doing that for 6 yrs. now. if you dig around my trees , theres a black soil layer 5in. think under the current years wood chips. its also full of earthworms. it does take a lot of browns. 6in. of chips breaks down completely by the following spring. considered mulching again the the fall but don't want to attract voles.
 
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Humanure.  I also incorporate dog poop into the bottom layers of hugels.
 
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There are probably poplar trees in your neck of the woods.  If there are, or if there are birch, or cottonwoods, or even willow forests, go there to those deciduous groves and scrape away the top layer of drier leaves and get to the area that is blending into soils.  It is black rich, and great for gardens.  What I do, is bring a large barrel out, and slowly fill it up using a smaller pail.  I go to a spot, remove the dry leaves and get into the decomposing layers and soil.  I dig an area up around the size of a dinner plate and then put sticks and leaves in the hole and carry on at least 10 feet away and do it again.  The forest will heal these little wounds, just as it would if a bear had dug up some grubs there.  Anyway, this forest soil is super teeming with life, and is fungi rich for your area.  These will help decompose your woody material in hugulkulur or help to innoculate your biochar or any carbon substrate which will be a long term nutrient store and help to retain moisture.

I'll second biochar and hugulkultur and the layered gardens that are mentioned above.  All of those things will help do the trick.  
 
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For soil you need
1) crushed bedrock(sand/silt/dirt/mineral/etc) .... You already have that
2) carbon (compost/woodchip/logs/sawdust/biochar/leaf litter/hay bale/cardboad/etc) ..... You have a bit
3) soil life (it's not just cows that pee, poop, and die-decompose but so does bacteria/mushroom/etc, they also turn rock into bio-available minerals)
4) water (irrigation, swales, carbon with sponge like pore-space to hold water, aerated soil that isn't compacted)
 
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I don't share the common enthusiasm for hugel stuff in that environment.  I grew up in Eagle out east of you, and our land was on some prehistoric sand dunes about a mile from the Yukon.  Not dunes today, but permafrost ridges, just enough clay/silt in the dune substrate for it to stay frozen year round, so it might as well have been bedrock.  Before we started building, the property was lightly forested in the typical boreal forest mix of birch, aspen, and black spruce with a few white spruce.  Shallow "soil" (anything dark in color and not frozen) consisted mostly of roots with moss overgrown, in a layer just a few inches thick at best.

The reason I'm dubious about hugel up there is that the climate is fundamentally arid.  Down here in Oklahoma, you have to bury your hugelwood to get any benefit from the method; if you pile it up, the piles dry out  (wood in 'em or not) and the non-wood material you use blows away.  Where you are, you can't go down with your hugels, and it's often just as dry and (from your description of your site) probably windy.  In both cases, you could probably get around the problem by building the hugels bigger, but if you had the soil to do that, you would also have enough to put it in your raised beds.  Built wooden raised beds is where we ended up after 25 years of gardening in Eagle, so I think it's smart of you to start there.  Or even just the mounded rows type if that's where you're starting.  But, what to put in them?

In a word: scrounge.  Scrounging doesn't generalize; you have to look for your local opportunities.  In our case, Mom had four kids for forced labor and a huge piece of expanded metal on four legs that made a dirt screen.  She'd send us out into the woods with buckets, and instructions to come back with moss (live but preferably already dead and dried), spruce duff (the discarded spruce cone petals under trees where squirrels sit to eat, plus dropped needles), rotten wood from deadfalls, and actual soil (black humus) anywhere we happened to find a shovelful that we could scrape into our buckets.  There were also some piles of pushed up "topsoil" (mostly roots) from where a guy with a loader had prepped our driveway before graveling it.  All that stuff we'd run through the dirt screen, then carry to the garden to build her rows (that eventually became raised beds).

She also found a place by the bank of the Yukon that had been a sawmill in the 20s, or perhaps where they cut up firewood for the riverboats.  In any case, there were seams of sawdust (brown but still sawdust shaped, due to the arid environment) that had been there for fifty years or so.  We'd load that in buckets and tubs and haul it home to add to the garden.

In fall, she had her children (she was ruthless about using labor that didn't cost her anything) collect birch, alder, and willow leaves to add to the garden.  We did have a few chickens, but I think most of their bedding went into her small hot compost pile where she composted the household food waste.  And most of that compost went into the greenhouse.  However, she encouraged her children to board dog teams for people who traveled out of town in the summer time; we'd charge mushers five bucks a day to keep their team, but mom would make us collect all the poop and dig it deep into the garden, usually putting it in the rows between the beds under a deep layer of sawdust.   That's also what we did with the salmon offal -- in those days there were still enough salmon in the Yukon to be a staple, and all the heads and guts went straight into the garden.  Buried deep in cold soil, it sometimes got nasty even the following spring when dad would rototill (this was when we were still using raised-bed type rows, before the framed-in beds got built) but it built soil.  

And then she was not above just flat stealing dirt.  Any time there was a pile of pushed-up or exposed "black" soil somewhere that nobody was in sight of, she likely had a pickup truck full of kids and buckets shoveling up a load.  Road cuts, construction sites, pretty much any public place with disturbed ground and nobody watching...

At peak (a few years after she broke ground on the garden) we were growing 600ish pounds of potatoes a season, plus carrots, beets, turnips, rutabegas, cabbages, and other root-cellar staples.  About ten years after she passed away, when the alders in the garden got to be about wrist sized and Dad figured Mom was too far away to come back and haunt him for doing it, Dad sold the soil to somebody who came in with a front end loader, smashed the rotten beds, loaded it all in a dumptruck, and hauled it away to their own garden.  Which is another way of saying Mom's garden soil was legendary in that little town.

How much of this works in the metropolis of Fairbanks, near half-a-century later when the rules (especially about private appropriation of resources from public land) are much more rigidly enforced?  I'm not sure.  But I think there are still lots of places to scrounge organic material.  You just have to find them.  And if the "stealing from public land" ones (moss, soil from road cuts, leaves, spruce duff) are harder to find, you've got a lot more private land and activity where, though you may have to ask someone, they'll just laugh and let you.  Plus I expect there are a lot more people who may have animals with poopy bedding who aren't gardening.  And then, private waste streams of compostables, if you can find them.    Lots of people still cut firewood -- at least outside the urban ice fog zone -- and may appreciate your willingness to come and clean it up when it melts out of the snow in the spring in an inches-thick layer in front of their woodsheds.  Again, this is intensely situational, but the general advice is: be willing to scrounge.

I hope this helps, or at least gives you an idea or two to play with!

 
Dan Boone
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Roberto pokachinni wrote:There are probably poplar trees in your neck of the woods.  If there are, or if there are birch, or cottonwoods, or even willow forests, go there to those deciduous groves and scrape away the top layer of drier leaves and get to the area that is blending into soils.  It is black rich, and great for gardens.  What I do, is bring a large barrel out, and slowly fill it up using a smaller pail.  I go to a spot, remove the dry leaves and get into the decomposing layers and soil.  I dig an area up around the size of a dinner plate and then put sticks and leaves in the hole and carry on at least 10 feet away and do it again.  The forest will heal these little wounds, just as it would if a bear had dug up some grubs there.  Anyway, this forest soil is super teeming with life, and is fungi rich for your area.



Precisely this.  We were kids in the 70s doing forced labor, in places where nobody would likely walk again until new leaves fell, so we just scraped up rich soil and any loose organic material (like decomposed needles and spruce cones) in small areas and didn't worry about the divots.  But when I steal soil from the forested bits of our land today here in OK, I do it the way Roberto describes.
 
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