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Garden / soil help please

 
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I've been thinking through a soil plan for my garden and I'm hoping for input from those more experienced. I was just going to experiment, but last year was a lost year for much food production and I'd really like this year to be different.  I've been doing a lot of reading and keep reading conflicting suggestions so I have no idea what to do.

Last year I had grand plans for a garden but some personal things got in the way. The area where I'm putting it is fairly clay heavy but still has a fair number of worms. I created an inverted hugelculture in a section of it by digging down, adding a layer of wood, then dirt, etc. And replacing the top layer upside down. I got some things planted but was unable to care for them and the whole thing ended up covered in native vegetation. The rest of it the garden area was covered with a layer of leaves and clippings from trimming the tops of fruit trees and blueberry bushes and then left.

Last fall, I did chop and drop of the vegetation on the entire area, and then put down a surface layer of cut wood that had been piled and started to rot. I added a thick layer of maple leaves and in some areas, old coffee grounds. I covered it for the winter with thick pond liner held down with cement blocks.

I just got a truck load of aged horse manure. Dark, wormy and no sign of straw / hay but it's sort of a gummy / sticky texture compared to what I'm used to. A pain to shovel. I hope that's normal... I haven't used horse before.

I'm wondering if I should uncover the garden area soon and put a layer of manure over everything and let it get rained on until it's time to plant and then dig down to dirt to plant seeds. Or should I move some of the wood to create walkways, add manure on top of the wood, and then dig up the walkway area and put that dirt on top of the manure and plant in it?

Or are both of these plans bad and I should do something else?

I hope my explanations make sense.

I can't add a ton of food scraps because anything sweet or higher calorie attracts bears, but I do have some shredded cardboard that I could add to something if that would be helpful.

Thoughts? Thanks!
 
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Sonja Draven wrote: I just got a truck load of aged horse manure. Dark, wormy and no sign of straw / hay but it's sort of a gummy / sticky texture compared to what I'm used to. A pain to shovel. I hope that's normal... I haven't used horse before.



I don't want to discourage you, but horse manure can sometimes be problematic. Sadly, some people are using herbicides that are so persistent that they don't break down even when composted. So you have to be very careful to only use manure from animals that have not been eating any pasture or hay that was sprayed with these kinds of herbicides.

Some people are doing test plantings a few weeks early because the damage these herbicides do doesn't show up until plants are a few weeks old. I hope that the manure you got is free of anything like that. Creating new soil is complicated, and some components tie up nutrients as they break down.

Hopefully, someone with more advanced skills than I have will be able to read through what you've done and give specific suggestions.
 
Sonja Draven
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Gail Gardner wrote:

Sonja Draven wrote: I just got a truck load of aged horse manure. Dark, wormy and no sign of straw / hay but it's sort of a gummy / sticky texture compared to what I'm used to. A pain to shovel. I hope that's normal... I haven't used horse before.



I don't want to discourage you, but horse manure can sometimes be problematic. Sadly, some people are using herbicides that are so persistent that they don't break down even when composted. So you have to be very careful to only use manure from animals that have not been eating any pasture or hay that was sprayed with these kinds of herbicides.

Some people are doing test plantings a few weeks early because the damage these herbicides do doesn't show up until plants are a few weeks old. I hope that the manure you got is free of anything like that. Creating new soil is complicated, and some components tie up nutrients as they break down.

Hopefully, someone with more advanced skills than I have will be able to read through what you've done and give specific suggestions.



Thanks Gail! I'm not discouraged. :) I read a bunch on here about horse manure too. Haha some people love it and some say it's bad for the reasons you mention. I decided I won't know if I don't try and it's the only manure I know to get around here. I am open to a test planting. Just not sure how to know if it's then bad manure or not add aged as they said.
 
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Personally, I would put the manure down now and let it get rained in a little bit ahead of planting. What form of wood did you spread over the top of everything? Is it chips? The only thing I'd worry about from your description is burying that wood too deep, but I think spreading the manure on it soonishly and then clearing down to dirt when you plant ought to  work well

 
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Hi Sonja,

Any chance you can get some of those chips on top of the manure?  It might help to absorb any runoff and buffer any odor—if any—and generally help to rot down the manure.  Of course I say get mushrooms growing, but that is up to you.  Is there any chance you can test for those problematic long acting herbicides?  If they were present I don’t think I would want them in my garden.

Sounds like an exciting project!

Eric
 
Sonja Draven
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The wood is bigger pieces of wood, not chips. Like firewood rounds or pieces of varied sizes and types. Some chittem, some from different evergreen. Like I said, they were starting to decompose and grow mycellium before I spread them out so I was hopeful with that.

Does that help with advice?

The manure is old enough that there's no odor. The fresh stuff did and some of it was growing grass but I didn't see this pile before he loaded it. I'll ask if my friend who had a better angle in the truck did. Give me a better idea of if it was growing things.
 
Eric Hanson
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Sonja,

I got you now about the wood.  Good to hear that it is already composted to the point of little to no odor.  That suggests to me that you have a healthy population of microbes.  I did check on those persistent herbicides and they do eventually break down with time and biology but I could not find a timeline on that.  Apparently it varies widely with microbes and temperature.  

This might be a perfect situation to bring in fungi for their ability to break down most anything in time and they can only do your garden bedding good.  Of course it is up to you, it’s just a suggestion from me.

I would love to hear how this works out.

Eric
 
Sonja Draven
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Friend confirmed that stuff was growing on and around the manure pile...
 
Eric Hanson
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Sounds like you have good stuff then.  I say use that garden gold!

Eric
 
Sonja Draven
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Thank you Eric! I will. :) Do you suggest leaving dirt on the bottom with wood and manure on top and just planting in the dirt beneath? Or add dirt on top and plant in it?

Where do you suggest I bring in fungi from? Does it need to come from offsite? I'm asking because where I live, it's pretty much standard to have mushrooms growing everywhere and white networks spreading if you leave wood on dirt too long.
 
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When I spread aged composted horse manure I cover a strip about 18" deep across the area I'm working so that I'm not working in the manure and then dig that in with a spade. Then make a new strip. When I'm finished with that area I start over. If on the first pass I had the spade edges facing east/west then I work north south. On this pass I dig in another inch. Changing directions helps break up the clods. I dig the sod so that it gets flipped over down deep.
The manure I'm getting is always from the same pile. Nothing is being added and I'm the only one working it and I've been working it for a couple of years. So I know it's aged and it's well composted. I get a few weeds from it. Mostly tall grains that grow so fast that I can pull them, easily, without kneeling. And I get a few parsnips, but don't know if that was in my lawn that I've been conveting to a veggie garden.
The only other things I add are lime if the soil is acid, mine is, and wood ash. I grow very nice tasty heirloom tomatoes, corn, beans peas, onions, garlic, lettuce, carrots, potatoes and other veggies. I have a rule that I only grow leafy crops and root crops in soil if I added the manure the previous season. I count last fall as being last season. I don't add any fertilizer all season. Nothing!
I believe they use beans as the veggie to grow as a test crop. And I believe if the beans germinate the manure passes the test. I'm being cautious here because I don't test it myself.
 
Eric Hanson
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Sonja,

Just so I understand, at present you have three layers to your garden bed—wood/logs etc. on bottom, soil in the middle and chop & drop and compost on top.  Is that correct?  And further, you have a pile of horse manure ready to use?

If this is essentially correct I think my approach would be to add in the horse manure and mix approximately 50:50 with the soil.  Maybe make the soil dominate up to about 75%.  This would be to ensure the final mix is not too hot.  You could always add in more manure later.

I would want the soil/manure mixture to be at least 6” deep and more like 12”.  This should give you some good depth to work with.

If you felt really ambitious, you could try adding in mushrooms (of course I suggest Wine Caps but Blue Oysters are a great option as well).  One approach would be to add the spawn to the wood before burying with soil/manure.  I honestly don’t know how well either mushroom will do if buried under 12”, but it can’t hurt and should speed up decomposition of those logs.

A second approach involves getting your hands on some deciduous wood chips or straw.  In either case apply these on top of the soil/manure (or possibly mix with) and mix spawn with the straw.  In both cases the fungi should quickly grow through the wood/straw and be able to interact with plant roots.

Even if you don’t want to try the mushrooms just yet, I would aim for about 12” of bedding material.  Eventually that buried wood will rot down, but it does take a lot of microbial action to do so.  Several years ago I tried making an inverted hugel bed like you and buried some already-rotting oak logs.  They are still there so while they do give up their goodness to the soil, they do so slowly.

If either of these broad approaches sound good, we can go from there.

Eric
 
Eric Hanson
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Sonja,

I forgot to add.  If you want Wine Caps or Blue Oysters, you will have to bring those in unless they run wild around you.  In time various fungi will inhabit that mixture on their own, but the two species I mentioned are the really fast decomposers.  Personally, I buy from Fieldandforest.net.

Eric
 
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If you are using a shovel on the manure, have you tried a manure fork?
 
Sonja Draven
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Thanks everyone! Eric, you're understanding pretty well and you gave me enough suggestions to have a plan. I'll look up that site too.

John, I hope my garden is as successful as yours!

Jordan, I haven't tried a fork (I'm not sure the difference between a manure and non-manure fork) but I definitely will.

I'll post pics when I work on it. I'm not sure how much weekend time I'll have since I already committed to helping friends with some of their outdoor needs, but with the time change, I'll have more evening light soon. Yay
 
Jordan Holland
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If it's wet and heavy, a potato fork may be better, actually, depending on your strength. A manure fork will typically have five longer tines that are thinner since they do not need to be as strong as one designed to dig in soil.
 
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If you want to test the manure for aminopyralid, it looks pretty easy and would take a few weeks.  You just grow something like beans or tomatoes that quickly show symptoms in suspect material, and separately in known good compost and check them at about three weeks growth.  See Stephanie Hafferty's blog for more details.
I would think it would be worth a delay and keep the manure quarantined until you are sure.  If the worst happens, you can still grow corn and other grasses but most other plants will be affected to some extent.  Eventually the aminopyralid breaks down, but it will take a few years depending on your soil organisms.
 
Sonja Draven
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Thank you, Nancy! I'll do that. Corn doesn't grow well here and I sure would hate to have my favorites not produce well.

Jordan, okay, yes I have used both kinds but only own the thicker kind. I'm definitely getting stronger with all the shoveling and lifting lately!
 
Gail Gardner
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Sonja Draven wrote:Friend confirmed that stuff was growing on and around the manure pile...



You want to know that broad-leaved "stuff" was growing and not just grass. Here's how to Test soil or compost for herbicides and what plants are affected.

And here's a video:
 
Gail Gardner
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Sonja Draven wrote:I haven't tried a fork (I'm not sure the difference between a manure and non-manure fork) but I definitely will.



A potato fork has wide flat tines and the handle is usually shorter or may have a place to put your hand. A manure fork also known as a pitchfork has long, thin tines that are often more curved and often a longer handle. A seed fork is really wide with a lot of tines and gets way too heavy for me to use for moving manure.

A broad fork is used to loosen the soil. I'll try to share a photo here:

"From left, a spading fork, digging fork, manure fork and broadfork. (Barbara Damrosch/BARBARA DAMROSCH)" from Washington Post.
 
Sonja Draven
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Thank you. Gail! Great, clear video.
 
John Indaburgh
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I have an aerating fork, which has shorter tines than all of those in the photo, but heavier. Also I have a short handled fork similar to the manure fork in the photo. When I go to the barn for horse manure I take a spade and a flat shovel to unload it off the plywood in the bed of the truck.
When I dig out a spade full of packed manure many shovel fulls come out about 18" square. I can barely lift it, I can't flip it into the truck. I have to chop it up with the spade. So over the years I learned to just leave the forks at home. They are good for moving compost.
 
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Eric Hanson wrote:

They are still there so while they do give up their goodness to the soil, they do so slowly.

In the PNW weather system, it rains all winter, getting that buried wood good and wet. Then we get a summer drought just when we've got enough sun to actually grow stuff. So having large, buried logs seem to really hold that water and the plants need less frequent care. So the goal isn't necessarily for them to "decompose quickly" - they're your "sponge full of water", rather than a source of nutrients for your plants.

Wood chips on the surface are a different matter. If I'm using them to build soil, I usually want them to decompose, however, at the moment I'm inoculating with duck shit instead of mushrooms, so I usually try to bury it below the surface for the reasons John Indaburgh implies - water splashing surface manure on to leafy greens can risk E-coli contamination if the manure isn't sufficiently aged. I'm less sure how much it can enter through the root system, but I've read the odd case that implied it can if it's really fresh and in high concentrations, although the information was vague and it wouldn't at all surprise me if the issue was contaminated water used on the plants, rather than contamination from the soil. There's a lot of misinformation out there spread by reports not understanding biology and not telling the whole story, but just the "oh my god" parts! The description of Sonya's manure suggest to me that it's past that high risk period.
 
Sonja Draven
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Yes, Jay, that's been my experience with why to bury. In some areas I didn't have to water at all in dry times.

I did start seeds in trays yesterday, with and without manure, to see how they do. Really hoping they do great.
 
Sonja Draven
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Sharing some garden pics as promised. Covered and then uncovered today. There should be a fair bit of rain still between now and planting.
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