Location: Elgin, Texas 581 ft elevation/ zone 8b/ 34 inches avg. rainfall (hah)/ Mediterranean climate
posted 5 years ago
I've got a lot of projects on my hands, since I just got a new house (hooray!) and there's some energy-efficiency projects I have to do, plus all the fun of moving and I still can't find the box with my favorite shoes in them after MONTHS of looking, and the garage is a mess- anyway. New house. New garden. Large lot, lots of possibilities, but OH MY GOD my soil is crummy. Not delightfully small humic crumb structure, but as in I'm trying not to cuss, seriously horrible soil.
The previous owners were proud of their front yard and sprayed and sprayed and sprayed. The back yard is a weed filled mess- I pulled six of the huge contractor bags full of sow thistle from the yard. SIX BAGS. I live a few miles from two brick plants, and this didn't fully register when house hunting. The yard is such an amazingly compacted clay that the thistle roots often went sideways after a few inches. Digging up a 5 ft x 50 ft garden bed in the front yard, I found a total of 5 worms. I did, however, find many, many, many japanese beetle grubs. Which are pretty gross looking little creatures.
No worms, no organic content, no water infiltration, just crappy dead soil. I'm out in the country now and at my old place, I had a tree service that delivered amazing and fabulous tree trimmings to me all the time. Now? I'm far enough out no one will. I'm just going to have to bother them more, or get some way to haul a trailer back and forth to the drop off center in the nearest city, but that's a 30 mile trip each way. The farms around me either use all their manure, or they feed so much toxic glick to their animals that the manure isn't any good for gardening (monthly dewormers + feed with persistent herbicides = manure that will kill your plants AND your worms).
Oh, and as much as I love my Meadow Creature Broadfork, the clay is SO HEAVY and SO COMPACTED that it takes me an hour to get a 5 foot long section of garden bed done. Watching videos of other people using them, or using them in sandy soil, makes me green with envy. I'm well over 200 pounds and it takes me 5+ minutes to get it into the soil!
Half the back yard is completely dead, the only bits that show any sign of life are underneath an overgrown pecan tree that I don't know if we are going to keep, given that I don't know if it's going to produce pecans. Oh yeah, and the tree providing the shade to keep the front yard alive? It's an Arizona Ash at the end of it's life. I give it another three years, if we don't trim it aggressively to keep it alive.
I know how to fix this- add lots of organic matter, add lots of mulch, double-dig and use the broadfork instead of shallow tilling (I am probably going to roto till to establish the beds, as heavy as the soil is I won't be able to finish getting the beds ready to be able to plant anything with taproots to break up/heal the soil this year). I am going to have to plant a lot of mineral mining, deeply rooted plants that I will have to pull or chop and drop until they die so I have channels in the soil of rotting organic matter that will let water infiltrate. I'm going to need to remineralize the soil, as well, despite it being heavy clay there's some deficiencies.
I'm mostly just whining because it's going to be a lot of work to get the sorts of soil built up that I want. I'd spent years getting the soil at the old place fixed up and was just starting to see some really great results, and now I have to start ALL OVER AGAIN. Meh.
I figured this is the only place I can productively whine, the rest of my garden friends want to know why I don't just spray the ground and toss on some weed and feed, or Miracle Grow, and then THIS YEAR I'll have a pretty garden, and who cares about long term soil fertility? My non-gardening husband doesn't seem to understand why, when he says he can just get a 50 lb sack of 10-10-10 chemical fertilizer, my eye starts to twitch.
I am a super research nerd. Any advise given is worth precisely what you paid for it. Your mileage may vary, proceed at your own risk, I could be full of poo and completely wrong, feel free to ignore me completely.
The best trick I learned for clay is SAND. Get a dump truck load of sand, a shovel, and a fertilizer spreader. Spread it out fairly thick everywhere you have enough vegetation to keep it from blowing away.
"You must be the change you want to see in the world." "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win." --Mahatma Gandhi
"Preach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words." --Francis of Assisi.
"Family farms work when the whole family works the farm." -- Adam Klaus
I have heard, and experienced for myself by making raised beds for carrots in a red clay soil, that unless you completely shift the composition of the topsoil to predominantly sand, you will not help the problem by adding sand. The tiny clay particles just pack in around the larger sand grains, like cement around aggregate in concrete. perhaps the above poster did not mix the sand in but left it on the surface. Organic matter is the answer to both sand and clay.
If you have access to even "toxified" manure I would use it anyway, unless you know it is contaminated with heavy metals. Give it a year's composting....keep it damp and turn it if you can and get it actively composting, and the microbes should take care of any organic (i.e. carbon based chemicals) compounds like most pesticides and antibiotics.....
Weeds are actually trying to help rehab degraded soils and I wouldn't eradicate them without a plan to quickly replace them with something else. And ideally you should be composting or mulching them back on site, along with every other carbon and nitrogen source. Exporting bags of weeds (and in my opinion paper products, prunings, and manures including my own) from a site is diminishing the nutrients available on your site.....
The summer before I started Kindergarten, my folks bought a house in dad's hometown. I don't remember the compaction issues, because it's been so long ago, but I do remember a) the ocher colored clay that passed for soil, and b) the fun we had swimming in the backyard (there was literally a ditch that flooded and retained water terribly whenever it rained.)
Because you live in what I presume to be an addition to the town, or a housing development built after the community was established, there's a decent possibility that your lot was scraped for fill dirt prior to it being designated for a neighborhood. We brought in about 4 grain truck loads of fill dirt from a different building site 3-4 years after moving in, and the productivity went through the roof.
First thing to do for your soil is to go read my soil threads, they will give you lots of ways to improve that mess into very nice, alive soil.
Growing plants is the best way to start, you need roots and lots of them going down into that hardpan and opening channels for air and water to seep in.
Mulching comes later, first thing to do is start a compost heap or two, get materials from anywhere you can. Even wood chips will turn to compost pretty quickly if you add mushroom slurries to the compost heap and cover it with a breathable fabric or even old discarded carpet to help it hold moisture.
Don't forget to add some air channels by poking holes into the heap from all angles (broom or rake handles work well for doing that.
If you must have lots of vegetables now, consider using straw bales, once conditioned they will grow you nice crops and while they are doing that, they will start breaking down the soil structure beneath them, adding lots of humic compounds which will further break up the clay.