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Building up the Soil: Where to Start

 
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My wife and I just bought a piece of property that has about six acres that could be used for growing food at some point in the future. To my knowledge this hasn't been used for farming of any kind in the past, but it seems it was bush hogged a few times a year to keep the land usable for recreation, or perhaps at some point it was mowed. Over the last two years it has not been maintained until this past fall when they bush hogged about 1/2 - 2/3 of the roughly six acres. This portion is now full of small tree stumps (2 inch diameter or less) and weeds/grass. The other half is full of pine and privet that needs to be cut. The soil is either rocky or red clay.

This weekend I planted four apple trees and four plum trees, which was getting the cart ahead of the horse, as I haven't done any soil testing yet, but other than that nothing has been done yet.

Right now I primarily want to focus on building the soil up. As I said, I don't know what shape the soil is in yet - I plan to take soil samples from six different regions this weekend. After that, I'd like to just put some cover crops on the land. We aren't going to move there for 2-3 years, but I'd like to be doing the right things now to prepare for that time.

I'd like to do something this spring if possible, but the problem is I don't have a tractor yet. We are planning to buy one from the previous owners soon, but this is moving a bit slow due to COVID-19.

From what I can tell from reading here, it seems a good mix of annual cover crops that would produce biomass would be best regardless of what soil sample reports say, but I'm just not sure if this is practical since we're doing this without any equipment right now. I'm hoping someone has some suggestions on how we can make the most of this right now as we prepare for better use of the land down the road.
 
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I'm not an expert like some others on here but have farmed land that was fallow many years and was basically grasses, weeds that was like thick sod, I had to use a traditional tractor pulled plow that dug deep and turned the soil over, then harrow it level and before new grasses and weeds go to seed turn it over again, plant cover crops, hairy vetch, buck wheat, winter rye, are so good ones that grow most anywhere. it take years to get rid of all the weed seeds in fallow fields. you just have to keep after it and not let the wild grasses go to seed.
that's been my experience anyway
 
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More specifics will depend on how you want to use it in the future (do you want a 6 acre field? A food forest? A patchwork of gardens and small orchards?) but regardless of those choices, if you could get a good diverse cover crop down and mow it a couple times a year that would get the ball rolling. Its hard to give advice during these weird times but you should be able to rent a small tractor and mower in most rural places, I can have one delivered and picked up for about 260$ a day, the daily rate goes.down with longer use cause the delivery fee is a flat rate.
 
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Hi, Steve  Welcome to permies!  Congratulations on the six acres!

We have a Soil forum that might be very helpful.  Here are some articles I would recommend:

List of Dr. RedHawk's Epic Soil Series Threads

https://permies.com/wiki/redhawk-soil

 
Steve Sanders
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s. lowe wrote:More specifics will depend on how you want to use it in the future (do you want a 6 acre field? A food forest? A patchwork of gardens and small orchards?



It'll be used as a patchwork of gardens and small orchards - certainly not a 6 acre field. Regarding the tractor, thanks for the ideas.
 
Steve Sanders
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Anne Miller wrote:Hi, Steve  Welcome to permies!  Congratulations on the six acres!

We have a Soil forum that might be very helpful.  Here are some articles I would recommend:

List of Dr. RedHawk's Epic Soil Series Threads

https://permies.com/wiki/redhawk-soil



Thank you much - it's actually a total of 18 acres, 12 or so are wooded though. I'm excited to move forward.

Steve
 
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If you have 6 acres, you'll want to enlist the help of a couple of steers in building soil.  They'll mow the biomass for you, convert it to manure and steaks, and keep it from reverting back to forest.  Sheep are also great team-members in that regard because they eat brush and stuff that cattle don't like.  The natural cycle of soil building includes the integration of animals (bison, elk, deer and others here in North America).  We mimic those cycles by grazing cattle, sheep and even pigs.

The second thing I think I'd do is segment your land by permaculture zone.  In terms of soil improvement, what you need for a veggie garden or herb spiral is something very different than you need for a pasture.  Proven techniques such as using wood chips (Back to Eden) or huglekulture are great on a small scale.  But you'll be hard pressed to mulch the whole six acres using wood chips, so consider laying out your land according to purpose and zone.

Best of luck.
 
s. lowe
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Steve Sanders wrote:

s. lowe wrote:More specifics will depend on how you want to use it in the future (do you want a 6 acre field? A food forest? A patchwork of gardens and small orchards?



It'll be used as a patchwork of gardens and small orchards - certainly not a 6 acre field. Regarding the tractor, thanks for the ideas.



Well in that case, and considering that you have so much wooded land as well, I would still get a cover crop in broadly but then you could start building garden areas around hugelkultur mounds or even kratergartens (basically a near complete mound ring) and start plotting out orchard areas by covering those with woodchips.

Other specifics, like your general region and/or the typical weather patterns in your area will help folks give more specific advice but hugels work really well with clay and access to timber. And woodchips can be.made on site or dropped.for free by local arborists and could help prime the orchard areas.

The biggest benefit of soil tests is identifying extreme deficiencies in minerals or out of whack ratios, with heavy clay soil you're likely to be fairly mineral rich, its more a matter of making those minerals available through biology. You might be better served working on building up organic matter broadly and then doing more targeted soil tests on small areas where you know you will be planting a clutch of specific perennials and can use the test results to make a mineral blend designed with them in mind for their plot.

One other thing to consider in the early phases is using a tractor with a chisel plow to rip some trenches into the clay, more or less on contour, to aid air and water penetration deeper. People report pretty good results doing this periodically on heavy clays.

Congratulations on the new place, best of luck, and please keep us updated on your progress!
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