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Creating soil where there isn’t any - transforming a pile of rocks

 
pollinator
Posts: 189
Location: Italian Alps, Zone 8
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I have a tendency to write a lot, and being stuck during lockdown I have time as well so bear with me here. If you want to jump into the main part, just head over to the part where I explain the plan!

So while I’m stuck in our garden-less appartement during the Covid-19 lockdown, I have been using my free time thinking about what to do with a part of the garden on our new property that has, well, less then ideal soil conditions. Maybe it is better to speak about the complete lack of soil.
We have about less than an inch of topsoil (just enough for some pioneer plants to root), and below that, too my utter disappointment, nothing but rock. Not like bedrock, no it looks more like they dumped an endless amount of rock debris on a big pile, bulldozered part of that to make a flat surface. I think this is actually exactly what happened, as the previous owner had mentioned that the current entrance way to the mill is not the original one, but that they created it with some earthworks, probably burying whatever soil there used to be under a big layer of rocks.

Just to give you an idea of how much rocks to soil ratio we’re talking about: I tried to make a hole, about the size of a large bucket. And somehow out of that bucket sized-hole, I pulled two buckets of rocks, and maybe a handful of dirt. So the rocks are stacked in a really compact way as well. Picture for reference.

So basically this piece of land is currently worthless to grow anything on, but it’s orientation is pretty nice. It is the first piece of land to catch sun, it is the closest land to our home, and because of two rivers crossing the piece of land, it has really easy access to water.

So I’m thinking about transforming this barren rock pile into a plot onto which we can hopefully grow some kitchen essentials. Shallow rooting plants, Mediterranean herbs that are adapt to growing between rocks etc, and overtime as we start building soil, hopefully some other goodies.

This is the plan I have currently:

Instead of seeing the overabundance of rock as a solely bad thing, I’m trying to see how they could benefit me instead.
I’m thinking about using the slope for terracing, and on the flat area, create a bunch of raised beds. In both cases I can use the rocks I excavate to build the walls of the terraces and the beds. These rock walls will create a nice hot mass when the sun is shining on them, which will probably make it ideal for me to grow Mediterranean herbs, eventhough we are situated in the alps.

For the slope I’m thinking to divide it into 3 terraces. First remove a deep layer of stones, then use those stones to build a retaining wall (preferably using drystone methods or using cement to stack them if the stones are too small), fill the bottom of the hole with woody material as a debris trap first: so cardboard, hay, dried grass, sticks, larger logs. I’m trying to create contacts with the local sawmill to get their sawdust and leftover woodchips. I would then fill the holes with that material. Maybe add some leaf litter or kitchen scraps to the pile as well. Basically I’d be making small composting piles in place. Once the beds are established, I’d plant perennial herbs on the slope.

I would do the same for the raised beds, but I’d have those beds about 50 cm to 70 cm deep underground. And then sticking about 40 cm above ground. The raised beds would be for growing some annuals (those that aren’t very well suited to being planted in between the orchard/ food forest)
Overtime the composted beds could be emptied onto the existing ground around the beds to add onto that layer of soil, and the beds can start over. I would combine that with mulching and chop-and dropping the existing soil so what little soil there is doesn’t get washed away into the river. And hopefully in a decade or two we’ll have a decent piece of land. I’m willing to play the long game here, as I’m hoping our kids can benefit from the property as well some day.
I’ve already planted trees at the edges of the plot so hopefully the leaf litter will also add to the system. I’m also planning a composting system with chickens, the results of which can hopefully also go into improving this plot.

Now I would love your input about these ideas.
What I’m mainly wondering about is the following things (in no specific order)
-should I try to remove (a part of) the layer of stones (although I have no clue how deep it goes, atleast 50 cm), so I’m currently thinking about just working on top of the rocks and go from there.
-should I be worried or happy about the draining effect of the rock layer. Much of the water that I would give to my beds, will drain really easily into the rock layer below. I know well drained soil is good, but I also don’t want to be watering these beds daily. So I’m wondering if building mini-hugels into the bottom of the beds would be enough to counter this. Or would I be better of putting some perforated plastic in the bottom of the beds to slow down the water run off (although this doesn’t sound too attractive to me at this point).

I look forward to your valuable input!
A-bucket-sized-hole-magically-producing-almost-two-buckets-worth-of-rocks.jpeg
A bucket sized hole magically producing almost two buckets worth of rocks
A bucket sized hole magically producing almost two buckets worth of rocks
The-plan.jpeg
The plan
The plan
 
gardener
Posts: 2507
Location: Southern Illinois
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S,

What a beautiful plot of land!  And what a challenge for growing!

I actually like some of your basic ideas, I will throw in mine, but they are fairly close to yours.

For starters I would definitely get some raised beds going.  You seem to have all the appropriate materials available on or near site.  I would use those rocks to build stone walls, maybe 2’ tall.  I would then fill with sawdust, chips, sticks etc.  To start out, you could fill with woody material, then dig little fertile holes for your annuals and wait for the woody debris to break down.  I will of course go one step further and recommend my standard suggestion and suggest using wine cap mushrooms or perhaps oyster mushrooms to break that woody material into the greatest of soil beddings.  You will have to top off every year but you will get amazing composted material.  I would think about keeping one or more beds as permanent raised beds.

You did say that you could get woodchips/sawdust for free/cheap correct?  If so, you could build a bed designated for making “soil” by filling with wood, letting mushrooms do their work and then emptying after 1-2 years.  This would be a slow process and I would try to grow something along with the mushrooms, but you can certainly make it work.  BTW, I like your idea of using rock to build beds and terraces.

Another option is to get *some* type of cover crop growing, just to mow it down and help to build some topsoil.  This is not a short term solution, but you are in it for the long run.

Last option—can you bring in enormous heaps and mounds of chips and sawdust to cover your land as a mulch to deliberately rot in place?  It’s just a thought but maybe worth considering.

Ultimately, I think your best bet is get the organic matter in there and I certainly think that getting an aggressive fungi like wine caps or oyster mushrooms will get you results sooner rather than later.  I continue to be amazed by how much “soil” my wine caps make each year out of woodchips.  They seem unstoppable, especially if they have some vegetable crop (I like using tomatoes for this purpose, but numerous different crops can be used) growing in them.  If you want more help with mushrooms, I can certainly help if you are interested.

Over I like your project—make soil where none existed before.  It’s a great goal and I am certain that you can succeed, especially given that you are in this for the long haul.

Please keep us updated, I am very curious as to how this works out.

Eric
 
S. Bard
pollinator
Posts: 189
Location: Italian Alps, Zone 8
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Hi Eric,

Thanks so much for your informative reply.
I'm glad you see some worth in my ideas. I like your addition of the mushrooms, although I have no experience with mushrooms so to speak of. I tried growing them in a bucket on inoculated coffee grounds, but they ended up with colored mold and I had to chuck the whole thing out.
I'd love some extra input on the mushrooms.
Do they grow on whichever type of wood chips?
I'm still building relations with the sawmill (I'm completely new in the area), so I don't know yet how big this supply of wood material is going to be yet. I do guess that most of the wood they process is likely going to be lark, pine or fir. Maybe some birch.
There is also a woodworking shop in the village where I'm negotiating with on having their sawdust. This sawdust will be a mix of wood types (including pinewood, oak and teak... the kind of wood types used in making furnishings and doors). Though I need to establish first if the sawdust they have would be contaminated with products they use to treat their wood with.

If I get both the sawmill and the woodworking shop to give or trade me their sawdust/ wood chips, then I would have a stable supply of it year round. The only problem is transporting it to the property. We don't have an asphalted road leading up the property, but a steep dirt/rocky mule path. Just wide enough for a small 4x4 car to get up to. But too small for a dumptruck or any other large vehicles. Maybe a small tractor with a bed could get up there. But whatever we want to haul up to the property would need to be hauled up there in small loads. We don't have a tractor. We don't even have a car with a truckbed or a trailer(yet). So we can only bring in limited amounts right now. I will however try to make friends with a local farmer who has a small tractor. Maybe we can work out a trade where he can bring over some stuff with his tractor once in a while. We'll see.


What are your thoughts on the drainage of the bed? Do you think the fact that the beds would be built on top of a rock pile would be a problem (beds drying out too fast)?
I'm still in doubt as to what to do with the bottom part of the beds.

 
Posts: 383
Location: Richwood, West Virginia
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I'm trying Jerusalem Artichoke for 'chopNdrop' with the tubers decaying between the stones underground. The tops could also go in the compost pile and I've had success with relocating the above ground portions during the growing season to extend it's range.
 
Eric Hanson
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S,

I’m glad that you like the idea of mushrooms!  If you want help with that I will definitely help out as you need.  

Regarding your drainage, I guess I am puzzled by that.  My initial thought is to go dig a hole 30-50cm deep, fill with water and see how it drains.  This is a case where rotting woodchips are definitely your friend as they will tend to buffer the moisture—get too much and the wood fibers absorb the excess, too little and the chips hang on to left over moisture.  If you have raised beds, say 50-60 cm tall, then leave a couple of little drains near ground level and excess water should seep our.

Do you see yourself getting a tractor or truck in the near future?  It sure would be nice to take advantage of all that free wood just down the road, but even if you don’t, you could fill up some Rubbermaid containers, it would just take a lot of trips.

Despite your challenges, I think you are actually off to a great start.  Once you get the woodchips, we can talk more about mushrooms.

Nice going,

Eric
 
master steward
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Location: USDA Zone 8a
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Eric has given some great suggests and I like Burl's idea about the 'chopNdrop'.  

If you have trees that are mostly shady where grass will not grow, you may be able to find leaf mold. It is mostly leaves that have fallen and have been undisturbed for years.  Think leaf compost.  This will be a great addition.

 
pollinator
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You should watch Man of Aran

Per Wikipedia:

The film opens with a boy crab fishing. We then observe three fishermen landing a flimsy holed currach in the force of the wind and the huge waves. Next, we see some of the hardships of mundane Aran life: making a field on the barren rocks using seaweed and soil scraped out of rock crevices, fixing holes in the boat with a mixture of cloth and tar, rendering the liver of the giant basking shark.

The film follows as the men of Aran harpoon the huge beasts from their bád iomartha (a wooden carvel hulled craft).

The film ends with another storm sequence where the distressed family on shore watch the prolonged struggle of the boat to land safely against the elements.

FA97EC34-6658-475C-B390-6437701A5F82.gif
[Thumbnail for FA97EC34-6658-475C-B390-6437701A5F82.gif]
 
S. Bard
pollinator
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Location: Italian Alps, Zone 8
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James Whitelaw wrote:You should watch Man of Aran

Per Wikipedia:

The film opens with a boy crab fishing. We then observe three fishermen landing a flimsy holed currach in the force of the wind and the huge waves. Next, we see some of the hardships of mundane Aran life: making a field on the barren rocks using seaweed and soil scraped out of rock crevices, fixing holes in the boat with a mixture of cloth and tar, rendering the liver of the giant basking shark.

The film follows as the men of Aran harpoon the huge beasts from their bád iomartha (a wooden carvel hulled craft).

The film ends with another storm sequence where the distressed family on shore watch the prolonged struggle of the boat to land safely against the elements.



Thank you for this, James! I will definitely keep this film in mind for a slow evening!
 
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My garden beds extend into what was once part of a gravel driveway. I started out by placing a layer of dampened cardboard followed by layers of wet newspaper  (I did this because grass had grown over the gravel).  Next I added the best topsoil mix I could find and mixed that with composted cow manure.  After planting, I added a generous layer of year-old wood chips on top.  It was a really dry year and my garden did great!  I kept my parents and friends supplied with fresh tomatoes long after their plants had died.  The only difference I noticed was that one bed required no water while the other did.  The only difference was in the wood mulch I used on top of the beds. The bed which had the finer and more decayed chips on it retained water better than the one with larger and less decomposed chips.  

I have been planting in those beds for four years now and my harvest gets better every year. The only time I’ve dug down into the gravel underneath is while harvesting extra Jerusalem artichokes that I mistakenly planted in one of the beds.  The beds are 8” in depth.
 
Posts: 65
Location: Southwestern Ohio
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If the drainage is a concern, you can make a false bottom for any raised bed. use that clay they use for making ponds -- Betonite i think? and tamp it down with just a slight slope. place some of the rocks on top so any excess water has a clear path to escape, then whatever soil/compost etc on top. organic material holds water more, so maybe replacing the rocks with wood like in a hugel bed would be even better. The only thing is that with the clay you'll have interrupted normal water flow so drowning could be a real possibility.

I saw a sort of raised bed where you could water into one PVC pipe and another would let water over a certain level out. place something under it to catch the water and it wouldn't even be too wasteful.

If you want to turn the whole area into a producing area quickly, raised beds would be fastest. if you want to plant right into the dirt I wager anything but a root crop would grow because roots are very good at sneaking between obstacles. Another option would be to dig it all up and sift. the larger rocks would be used for stone wall, smaller as gravel for walkways or similar, but that'd be a lot of labor.
 
gardener
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I have a lot that has stone debris throughout the soil, much like yours,  but with bigger chunks.
I only dig there to plant trees, most everything else is in a raised bed.
The raised beds are made of pallets and filled with compostable material.
I plant into them to encourage soil formation and create biomass.
When the pallets start to break down,  I knock the whole bed down,  spread the contents out with a rake,  and toss the bigger bits into a newly built raised bed.
 
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I agree that the main goal should be adding organics to your garden.  I realized this, and water (to help composting), is the limiting factor.  So the trick is to get large volumes.
I spent many years carpooling curbside bags of leaves and grass to our garden. Even that was not enough.  One day, I spotted a truck full of bags pull into a parking lot so I followed, asked him for the bags, and offered a free place for him to dump.  Now, he saves $, and has brought 200 bags since March!!

Your land looks more fertile than mine.  I use 5mil polyethylene liner on some raised beds to save water.  Those beds are the best ones!

I made about 4 videos on the liner/leaf composting/self watering/adjustable water level beds, with results and mistakes I made, here is one:


You have to get material delivery to really boost productivity.  I'm in your same situation: my garden isn't accessible from the road, so the wheelbarrow slows me down.  My compost pile is huge!!
 
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I love your land! That is such a great piece of property.

If I were in your shoes, I'd say you are in a PRIME situation to utilize the no-dig gardening approach. Plants can still root in the rock and you can build topsoil and microbial life via top dressing.

Personally, I do not like doing more work than I have to and excavating rocks sounds like a chore I would not want to start. So, I would personally get some good compost and pile about 6 inches of compost on top of the areas you want to plant in. Afterward, I would just grow as if it is normal ground. A tilling approach will cause you a LOT of problems there. So, by utilising the no-dig method, you can get great crops without having to deal with the craziness beneath your soil. You will also help "fix" the ground over time, building up fantastic soil on top of the rock. You will also get much of the nutrients into the rock layer, meaning you might actually get BETTER growth there. I wouldn't go out of my way to put rock into property like that, but I think it would be awesome to use as a base layer.

The other aesthetic stuff is okay if that is what you want to do, but your property looks great as-is. I would just mound on some dirt and start planting ;-)
 
S. Bard
pollinator
Posts: 189
Location: Italian Alps, Zone 8
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Chris rain wrote:I agree that the main goal should be adding organics to your garden.  I realized this, and water (to help composting), is the limiting factor.  So the trick is to get large volumes.
I spent many years carpooling curbside bags of leaves and grass to our garden. Even that was not enough.  One day, I spotted a truck full of bags pull into a parking lot so I followed, asked him for the bags, and offered a free place for him to dump.  Now, he saves $, and has brought 200 bags since March!!

Your land looks more fertile than mine.  I use 5mil polyethylene liner on some raised beds to save water.  Those beds are the best ones!

You have to get material delivery to really boost productivity.  I'm in your same situation: my garden isn't accessible from the road, so the wheelbarrow slows me down.  My compost pile is huge!!



Hi Chris,

Your beds look great! How much rainfall do you get?
I’m still doubting if I need to add a liner or not to my beds. I’m leaning towards not doing it simply because I don’t like to have to buy and bury that much plastic!
I have honestly never seen leaf bags been put on the streets here in fall. I keep reading that on this forum, but maybe that’s something they do in America but not in Europe (or atleast the countries where I’ve lived in, which are Belgium, Netherlands and Italy)? But maybe I just don’t spot them.
In any case, I’ve got my hopes up for wood chips and sawdust though as we have a sawmill less then 5 min from our home!

 
S. Bard
pollinator
Posts: 189
Location: Italian Alps, Zone 8
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Jonathan Fudge wrote:I love your land! That is such a great piece of property.

If I were in your shoes, I'd say you are in a PRIME situation to utilize the no-dig gardening approach. Plants can still root in the rock and you can build topsoil and microbial life via top dressing.

Personally, I do not like doing more work than I have to and excavating rocks sounds like a chore I would not want to start. So, I would personally get some good compost and pile about 6 inches of compost on top of the areas you want to plant in. Afterward, I would just grow as if it is normal ground. A tilling approach will cause you a LOT of problems there. So, by utilising the no-dig method, you can get great crops without having to deal with the craziness beneath your soil. You will also help "fix" the ground over time, building up fantastic soil on top of the rock. You will also get much of the nutrients into the rock layer, meaning you might actually get BETTER growth there. I wouldn't go out of my way to put rock into property like that, but I think it would be awesome to use as a base layer.

The other aesthetic stuff is okay if that is what you want to do, but your property looks great as-is. I would just mound on some dirt and start planting ;-)



Thanks Jonathan. We feel really blessed with our little paradise, rocks and all :-)
Do you think plants can really grow roots through that much rock? It looks like 95% rock and 5 % dirt! I know plants are amazing, but I find it hard to imagine they are that awesome either. But then again, I’ve never tried either! Getting the compost will be difficult though. Buying premade compost is really expensive, and since we don’t live there yet, nor have chickens yet, making that much compost ourselves in this first year or even the second will not be possible either. I’m hoping I can just get my hands on a big supply of woodchips, and start the beds from that.

I think a lot of the woodchips from our local sawmill is pinewood though. Would that be a problem?
 
Chris rain
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Pine is great for growing mushrooms on accident.  My pine raised beds deteriorate with mushrooms, and they get added to the soil.

I also use pine boards as mulch by laying boards over leaves to reduce evaporation.  The leaves under them have white streaks from fungi. I've used this to speed composting action.
 
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I suggest reading up or finding a film on The Butchart Gardens in Victoria, British Columbia. They are some of the most remarkable gardens to see but their history is even more remarkable. They were built, over time, in a limestone quarry by the wife of the quarry owner.
 
Chris rain
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Jenn, I read your comment then realized we visited a couple years ago.  The spelling of the garden didn't ring a bell until you said, "limestone quarry".  Yeah that is one lush garden!

-TheRainHarvester on YouTube
 
Chris rain
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S. Bard,
Just saw your reply. Thanks!  If I could snap my fingers and have any type of raised bed, these would be it.  But they require lots of labor initially!  Some beds are limestone, but when you sit, you get a chalky bottom.  That gets transferred to the dining room chairs if you pick lettuce before dinner!

We get about 13" of rain a year.  I only use rainwater collected in black barrels.  One day, I'll show my system on YouTube.  The stack of barrels is 34 feet long and will serve as a fence for garden #2 one day!

-TheRainHarvester on YouTube
 
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