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Worst. Soil. Ever.  RSS feed

 
Giulianna Lamanna
Posts: 4
Location: Pittsburgh, PA
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So I've been halfhazardly reading about permaculture for a while; even got a fancy diploma from a permaculture design course way back in 2008! But I don't remember much from it, and I don't have a whole lot of actual gardening experience. And now that I have an actual yard to garden, I'm completely overwhelmed. The main problem is the soil in my yard: it's clay, it has the acidity of tomato juice, it's waterlogged, it's full of fungus gnats. My husband and I decided to start our permaculture experiment a bit slow, trying to build up the nutrients in the soil by ripping up the grass and replacing it with white clover. We thought the white clover would help build it up.

Well, it's been a year, and it doesn't seem to have made any kind of a difference, but it does look pretty bad. My brother-in-law, who shares the house with us and is wary of permaculture, is getting impatient and suspects that our little experiment with the yard isn't ever going to look good or be functional. So we've got a limited amount of time to prove that we can do this before he just brings the grass back. We've been thinking about just buying a bunch of topsoil and piling it on top of the soil we already have, and planting in that. Maybe ripping out a foot of our soil and replacing it. Is that our best option, or should we continue to try to remediate?
 
Jennifer Wadsworth
Posts: 2679
Location: Phoenix, AZ (9b)
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Giulianna - your soil sounds like the exact opposite of mine here in the desert which is dry, hard packed clay with little moisture content, hardly any organic matter and alkaline as all getout!

I don't know your climate well but it sounds like your garden may benefit from hugelkultur for a variety of reasons not the least of which is the fact that they are raised and that would create better drainage for your soil.
 
Rosco Heber
Posts: 34
Location: Arkansas Ozarks
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My soil was clay and terrible when i bought the place 5 years ago. My first years corn was 12in high. Last year it was 7+ feet. What i did was add organic material. OUr town give out mulch free. I've gotten dozens and dozens of trailer loads. Each year I would dig out an area putting the top soil in one spot. Then dug up down about 18in and then loads of mulch which i tilled in. Next more mulch and some clay in to till. This went on till I'd mixed loads with soil. Its a lot of work and most people aren't going to do it.
Every year i get more mulch and it get tilled and has made a HUGE difference. I'm 62, have a bad back so for me it being too much work isn't an excuse.
 
John Elliott
pollinator
Posts: 2392
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You have to keep remediating. It is a slow process, and the first couple years you wonder what it is going to take. Then 3 or 4 years in, things start to turn around and you begin to get ahead to the point that you can see a noticeable improvement.

Are you tilling in lime? dolomite? It is going to take a while for them to neutralize the acid in the soil and bring the pH back to optimum. And as the calcium is incorporated into the soil, it will also open up the structure of the clay.

I think the fastest results come from building hugelbeds. Put your labor into building a hugelbed, plant some onion sets into it, and you will be able to tell in a matter of weeks that something good is going on there. My onions that are planted in hugelbeds are about 4 times the size of the stragglers that were left in the compacted clay bed.
 
S Bengi
Posts: 1357
Location: Massachusetts, Zone:6/7, AHS:4, Rainfall:48in even distribution
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You need to get about 30lbs of innocculated clover seed and plant them now. then in September plant another 30lbs.
Get about 1lbs of daikon radish and plant them now too. they have 3ft carrot-like tubers. They will help till the soil.
Just dot let them rot in the ground. Harvest them and take them off-site to the landfill.
I leave mine to rot in the ground but they are high in sulphur which I dont think your brother in law will like
 
John Saltveit
gardener
Posts: 2051
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We had the same exact situation. We could have made plates and cups out of the horrible clay. The previous owners method of improving the soil was to spray evil toxic chemicals on it.

I agree with most of the other posters. There is a lot of research showing the value of putting wood chips on your soil. We shaved off the grass, put down cardboard, then put wood chips. We had tons of worms underneath. Our soil has improved greatly every year. After 3 years, we had better than average soil. one year later, we have pretty good soil and it gets better every year. If you have drainage problems, you can add gravel, which you can normally get free off of Craig's list when people have some left over from projects. Double digging the soil helps. If you are planting trees or bushes, but old sticks into the soil to improve the drainage and fungal content of the soil. Gathering leaves in the fall and distributing them through your soil is also a good deal.

Raised beds with good soil is important for a particular plant you want to grow right away.
You can do it!
John S
PDX OR
 
Angelika Maier
Posts: 876
Location: cool climate, Blue Mountains, Australia
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Instead of the huegelbeds you could make lasagna beds too. I would simply start one bed at the time and start with easy vegetables like daikon or silverbeet and green manure in between. Your main effort should be to cart in organic matter. Fungi are actually good not bad.
- Pick up horse manure at a paddock.
- get all the lawn clippings and maybe all weeds and everything from your neighbours professional gardeners
- buy mushroom compost
- get as many leaves as possible, have always big bags (old feed bags) in your car
- get wood mulch and lay the pathways between the beds with it , some cardboard underneath
- get straw, lucerne hay
- think of every source of organic matter which is suitable for you (hairdresser, greengrocer..)
- unfortunately professional mowing companies have now mower mulchers here, if this is not the case in the US simply call them they will love to give the stuff to you.
 
Chris McLeod
Posts: 52
Location: Cherokee, Victoria, Australia
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Hi Giulianna. The title of this thread is just 100% too funny. Nice work.

You get out of these systems what you put into them. Clay + acidity + waterlogged sounds like it was originally a forest soil. Obviously, the forest is now well and truly long gone, but you want to plant some stuff in it (flowers, herbs, vegetables etc).

Simply add some organic matter to the surface. Add as much as you can find or obtain. You can never add too much. If you are happy with a slow process, then don't stress (or have a know it all brother in law scare you off) and simply let nature do its thing.

Then when you think you've added too much organic matter, add some more and start planting into the soil that you are creating.

If you only have a limited amount of time to spend on it, you just need to find a pace that suits you.
 
Cj Sloane
pollinator
Posts: 3725
Location: Vermont, off grid for 24 years!
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What's your goal?
Do you have a permaculture design you're trying to implement?
 
Terri Matthews
Posts: 469
Location: Eastern Kansas
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I grew up on heavy clay soil! It holds water very well, and once it is wet and soggy it drains slowly.

I suspect your plants are water-logged.

If I were you I would try raised beds to get your plants above water, and organic matter. THEN I would see what grows well in the neighbors yard, as those plants like your conditions, and start with planting some of that. As your soil gets better you can branch out.

My parents had a garden on their clay soil they were proud of: to keep the soil from compacting they added organic matter every year. Many cities GIVE mulch away every spring: as they remove fallen branches in the parks they run it through a wood chipper and heap it up. City residents can help themselves: city gardeners like it and it means the city does not have to dispose of it. You might call your local parks and recreation department and ask if your community does this.
 
Michael Vormwald
Posts: 154
Location: Central New York - Finger Lakes - Zone 5
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As others have said, your answer is simply adding organic matter. I've had great success growing two crops of buckwheat and tilling them in, then follow with a winter rye cover crop for the winter. It will grow in the spring to provide a huge bio-mass to cut and/or till under. In the meantime you can be collecting all sorts of organic matter....grass clippings, leaves, kitchen waste... to make some high quality compost (or just pile on the garden when you till in one of those green manures.
For a more instant fix, see if there's a company that sells compost by the truckload. You can find/use manures, but unless you have your own animals, there is a slight risk.
As far as hugelkultur, frankly I'm not a fan at least for the vegetable garden.
Another tip...in the fall, pile on as much organic waste as you can (shredded leaves work great) a let it cover and decompose over winter. Till in or pull back and plant through in the spring. One last thing, consider vermicluture (composting with red worms).
 
John Saltveit
gardener
Posts: 2051
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Another strategy you could use is to put willow cuttings throughout the soil. They will grow in it, improve the drainage, put microbiology into it, and as you grow other things you can cut back the willow and finally remove it.
John S
PDX OR
 
Peter Ellis
Posts: 1432
Location: Central New Jersey
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First thing I would want to know is how deep does the clay go. Is there a subsoil two feet down that drains well, or a hard pan 4 feet down holding all the water above it? Essentially, I would do a perk test as the first step.

If that shows that you can get drainage by digging a bit, then I would start with a modest bed where I dug down to drainage, amend that with loads of organic matter mixed in with the clay, and start planting my veggie garden. That area should drain and even help an area around it to drain.

Otoh, if you have no drainage, your water table is at ground level and it cannot get away, you have to take another approach. First, determine where your water abundance is coming from and consider what you can do to divert it away or hold it back from your property. For example, you might want a Swale on contour along your high side leading to a drainage ditch running to your nearest storm drain. Perhaps you can do a pond and hold some of the water there.

Point being, look at the sources of your water and determine how you can better manage it's movement.

I would still focus my efforts. Make a big difference in a 4x4 bed rather than small changes in three times that. Do a Demonstration Project and show the bil what permaculture techniques can do.

As everyone has said, organic matter is your friend. Daikon will till for you, willow loves water and will pull it out and transpire it away for you. Other dynamic accumulators will pull nutrients and make them available - and help pull water up and transpire it away from your bog.

But, as I said, my first steps would be determining drainage potential and identifying water movement patterns.
 
chip sanft
Posts: 380
Location: 18 acres & heart in zone 4 (central MN). Current abode: Knoxville (zone 6 /7)
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Michael Vormwald wrote:Another tip...in the fall, pile on as much organic waste as you can (shredded leaves work great) a let it cover and decompose over winter. Till in or pull back and plant through in the spring. One last thing, consider vermicluture (composting with red worms).


This is similar to what I did to the heavy clay in back of our house in the city:

First, last summer I planted some leftover forage turnip seed on the area I wanted to make into garden. I let that and the grass and weeds in that area grow for a few months. The only thing I did was pull some turnips for food (some forage turnips are alright for eating, others are woody). While doing that I removed any weeds I noticed were setting seed and threw extra worms from the vermiculture box there.

In the fall I left the turnips in the ground and covered them and the long grass whole with leaves, then put a layer of cardboard on top.

That was the first year and I saw noticeable improvement after just once. I've got some vegetables started now and will be putting leaves and compost over everything again at the end of the season.
 
And now I present magical permaculture hypno cards. The idea is to give them to people that think all your permaculture babble is crazy talk. And be amazed as they apologize for the past derision, and beg you for your permaculture wisdom. If only there were some sort of consumer based event coming where you could have an excuse to slip them a deck ... richsoil.com/cards
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