Thank you for this site. It is a little bit of heaven.
I purchased my home several years ago and I am still dealing with the previous (original) owner's misguided gardening techniques. Her rules: Miracle-grow on everything at least once a week. Water the grass every day. Amend everything with peat moss and wood ashes. Make sure if you plant something new, plant it no further than a foot from something else. If your sumac branches split, lots of duct-tape and an old yellow broomstick will fix it right up. If your glads and iris fall over, pound a 16 penny nail into the siding and tie them up with the ugliest yarn or wire you can come up with. OMG! Warning: Not the best of ideas! Bless her heart.
It took 3 years to get rid of the sumac trees and the suckers from their well spread roots.
The lawn had used up all 2 inches of the pathetic commercial "sandy loam" and had grown thatch 3 to 6 inches deep. The lawn was barely rooted in the brown dirt, below the thatch. I could actually score the turf and lift it up like a carpet. I was out of town for over a month a couple years ago and paid a neighbor kid to water the lawn. He took shortcuts. The turf died and the subsequent winter it rotted into a peaty consistency. In the summer it shed water better than DWR. After years of trying to save it I de-thatched it but good--With a sod cutter! I could go on forever. My apologies.
It is reported to rain-all-day-every-day here in Western Washington. Well, that is except for the 6 or so weeks of summer when it does not rain a drop.
Earthworms were rare and grubs were plentiful. It took almost 3 years to get the earthworms back under the lawn and in the beds.
For the most part, I have stripped the lawn since it rotted and I am composting it, all 3200 sq. ft. of it. It was itself turning into a peat like mess, so it had to go. While it reduced in volume somewhat, it still remains at about 25 cubic yards in volume. Much of it is what remains of the sandy loam, devoid of nutrients, that were spread originally. There are some clumps of the thatch remaining. I intend to incorporate this material somewhere in the mix.
The original grade was too steep for a good garden due to run-off so I re-graded it. I’m in the process of completing a retaining wall.
My existing dirt is the brown, rocky, Pacific Northwest native fill. A water/mason jar sediment test of my soil shows much sand and very little organic matter (< 1/16"). I purchased a truck load of local fill dirt wich was gray and had a higher clay content than mine. I think that dirt may not be the best for this project.
I am an avid residential composter with only 1/3 acre to work with. Thus, I can only compost so much. Though, I am very successful with hot and cold composting. I also chip and shred with a little Bearcat 5.5 (b&s) shredder.
Since I am able to start from scratch, I want to do the best I can.
I have about 12" to 18" yet to bring up to grade on an area of about 2800 sq. ft.
When my wall is complete I need to bring in the remaining bulk materials to bring it up to grade. I will put in some grass and beds. I want to ensure proper drainage and water retention along with a good ecosystem for the beneficials to dwell. I do not intend to use petro-chemicals in this project.
It is obvious to me that I should bring in some more fill, and then begin mixing/tilling in varying degrees of OM until I get to the final grade. I know how potato sized rocks seem to sprout continuously toward the end so I would like to finish with a screened product to complete the last several inches.
Any ideas on what the optimum finish to this should be? Such as, "Bring the fill up to the last "X" inches and start tilling in "X" inches of "X" OM material and finish with "X" inches of "X" mix."
Additionally, how much will this settle?
Keep in mind that the Pacific Northwest is a quirky marine climate unlike most any other. Also, I live on the Kitsap Peninsula which makes my bulk suppliers of quality materials limited or increases my delivery fees.
I think how deep to mix in the organic matter is going to depend on what is growing that particular spot.
I think that if I were moving a lot of soil around like you are, I would take advantage of this rare opportunity to get my organic matter down deep - but no deeper than 18 inches. I might also do a thorough soil test and see if there are any ammendments I might want to add. A little lime perhaps? Or boron? Or iron?
I think that no matter what your project, you don't want your OM deeper than 18 inches unless you are going to work out some wacky system to get fresh air that deep. Below 18 inches, you will get anaerobic breakdown. The OM will form glie (glee?) - a layer of slimey stuff that water and air cannot get through - then things go icky.
A project like the one described can be taken to almost any extreme. Tilling 18" deep is almost impossible and adding that much product is hugely expensive and even if you got all that done, you wouldn't get a big pay off as far as results go.
Start off with a pH test. Take a few samples from around the work area. Lawns can do well almost anywhere between 6.0 and 7.0. Add lime if you need it. If your numbers are over 7.0 you have a challenge. We have products like Earth juice "Natural Down" to get the pH lowered or you can opt for a cheaper more time consuming method like tilling in Pine Needles and raw leaves. that method will take time and needs repeating as often as you can get to it. One technique I used to use for clients who had abused and or abandoned yards was to till up the entire lawn about two inches deep, making sure to chew up the old sod till it was more like soil than clumps of sod. I used a 5 foot tiller on a three point hitch with legs for depth adjustment so it was easier for me to do than most. Using a walk behind will be a lot of work. If you can get a reverse tine tiller you can bury a lot of the old stuff and bring new material to the surface. If you're able to get a nice loose "chop" you can rake that material around to rough grade any holes or valleys you had when you started. Then, if you need more material you can bring it in with a loader or for small areas a wheel barrel, placing the new topsoil right where you need it and then grade each area. If you have massive dips and valleys, you can bring in sand and fill them in with the sand and then cover the entire work area with a finish grade of top soil. Using sand as a grading material is a technique used on golf courses to make all the shapes and mounds you see. If you use a lot of sand the lawn will be a little tender and easily scuffed until the roots get down into the sand and beyond. Good organic fertilizer will aid this process.
Soil around flowers and shrubs in the beds can be amended with top dressing with worm castings, compost and soil amendments like green sand, bone meal etc as needed according to the needs of the particular plants. Some plants might be inappropriate for the soil or location so you'll have to do some research as to what the needs for sunlight, water and soil conditions are required for the plants you have and any new ones you want to install as well.
You've got your work cut out for you but it's always worth it. Having you own sanctuary at home is a blessing you can bestow upon yourself and knowing you did all or most of the work is very gratifying in the end, even if the middle part sometimes makes you swear out loud!
One more tip... be careful where you top soil and fill materials come from. Many contractors use ditch dredging material as top soil and some just till up clay and deliver it. That can look good at first but after the rain hits the pile once it turns into a stone hard pile or muck, neither of which is desirable. If at all possible, go see the pile before you buy it.
I could say more but who would listen?
John Meshna (owner)
Blue River LLC
1195 Dog Team Road
New Haven, Vt 05472
Thank you for the input. While not born there, I was raised in Rutland, VT. My sister, her family, and my mom live in Milton.
The house I grew up in there had the blackest soil I have ever seen. What I would do for soil like that in my present home.
The information you provided along with Paul's enlightened me in my quest to do my project the right way. I can see how things can get anaerobic at certain depths. This is just the type of information I am trying to glean.
Soil and subsoil in my area differ greatly from the native soils in Vermont. The part of my yard I am landscaping, is void of topsoil. It all came up with the "de-thatching" job and is in a heap with the composting "sod."
To avoid water run-off, I rented a bobcat and leveled my subsoil. I started a retaining wall which is 95% complete on the lower end. I will be bringing in bulk materials in to bring the landscape up to the desired grade. All the grade will be sloped away from the house, of course.
The subsoil is coarse sand populated with rock "potatoes," with less than .05% organic matter and less of silt. It drains excessively well. Of course it can dessicate a lawn or garden in a heartbeat.
Needless to say, the current subsoil needs to be amended and I intend to do this as I bring the last 18" of elevation up to grade. Tilling in the OM should not be a problem.
I purchased a 15 yd. load of soil that was much higher in clay content than my native subsoil. I do believe it was, as you mentioned, ditch dredging. I separated the larger balls of clay before using it. I do have concerns of what might be lurking in the dredged soil. It seems to smell alright, not swampy or low-tide-ish.
I was wondering if I should/could somehow improve the clay content of my soil ever so slightly during this project due to the complete lack of clay in my soil. I have heard that you should not add sand to clay-soil but what about adding clay to sand-soil?
If it is best not to use clay soil, I will have to hunt for a source of brown dirt fill. Also, I do not want to spend much time raking rocks out of the final layer of the mix, so I will have to purchase some screened brown fill dirt to complete the upper layers.
Locating an OM component for the mix is going to be my most difficult problem due to my geographically isolated location. No matter how it gets here, it will be a "long way around" if it comes from a Seattle area vendor.
The locally available composted materials vary in quality. Good quaility OM is not always available and not cheap. I can't compost 30 yds of OM on my small residential lot, so I will have to pay what the market demands.
after reading through all the other comments, the thing that strikes me is that this particular yard sounds like a lot of work and a lot of tilling.
silverdale slug: have you heard of sheet composting? it's like building a compost pile, with all its carbon-nitrogen layers, not in a pile, but over a large area, like a yard. i've had friends build soil on a driveway they weren't using by continuosly layering nitrogen-rich material and cardboard. the soil they made was so good they took it with them to their next rental!!
it's still a bit of work, but a different kind. materials wouldn't have to come from seattle. maybe there's a juice bar or a horse-boarding where you can get veggie pulp or horse poo for nitrogen. and then cardboard... and then something on top to look nice, mulch-like, so you don't stare at a cardboard yard for a year. it's more of a 'workparty with friends' kind of endeavor, to spread it all. and then wait. i suppose you could always plant some bigger plants into it before its all composted if you shoveled through the layer mix and provided the plants with enough soil to grow in...
the only thing that might be tricky is the critters in your area. what i mean is, are racoons and possums going to munch out on the juice pulp before it turns into soil? but maybe if the top layers are sturdy enough, they might smell juice pulp but not want to bother.... hm
I do have several critters that already paw through my compost materials when they are not covered, raccoons and "mountain beavers."
One concern I am trying to avoid is the settling effect of actively composting OM. One goal is to finish grade the area. Additionally, the grade slopes away from my house, in the direction of the retaining wall and on toward the street. I cannot risk any of the lightweight composting OM, which would be much higher than the finished grade elevation, washing over the top of the retaining wall, onto the landscaping below and working its way onto the pavement.
I need to rent or borrow the equipment to move and grade the bulk materials, and it's not much more trouble to rent a tractor with a tiller on the back. There is the concern of compaction using the equipment but I am willing to deal with that.
I need the material I intend to use, to be a finished compost and mix it with a soil component so there is a minimum of reduction in volume of the final grade.
There were two main goals in mind when I started this project: 1.) Lessen the slope to prevent water run-off; 2.) Incorporate organic material into the soil (since I have to bring in bulk product anyway) to a.) reduce watering, and b.) foster an environment for our little friends, the soil biota.
My original slope was 6.5% (55" elev. over 70'), which was causing the original lawn to lay down and have the water run off. Installing a 36 inch high retaining wall and altering the grade allowed me to reduce the slope to 2.25% (19" over 70'). Granted, that is average. It will be more near the building and less elsewhere, yet reversed near the wall with a raised bed adjacent to the wall.
The local climate usually causes homeowners to water their plants and lawns until the most severe part of the summer drought, which lasts 6 to 8 weeks. If a homeowner has a lawn, it is best to allow it to go dormant until the rains return, before resuming watering. My old dormant lawn, on my old slope, would shed much of the water after the drought.
From my reading, altering the slope to <5%, yet >1% and amending the soil to create an environment for water absorption/retention, and fostering a home for soil biota, could, quite possibly, eliminate all but perhaps one watering during the drought once the new plants and some grass are established.
Politics aside, Puget Sound residents are advised to do what they can to prevent water run-off and keep all nitrogen out of the streams and storm drains, in order to protect the salmon environment. My old configuration did the opposite.
It is great to hear of other concerns and other solutions. Thank you.
One way I used to overcome the settling and loss of grade effect from using pure compost as a grading material is mix in about 20% sand ahead of time. At first I used to take a couple tandem loads of compost and lay it out about 2 feet thick and dump sand on top of it with my bucket loader and then run over it with the 5 foot tiller until it was completely mixed. Once I got the technique perfected I showed my compost supplier the trick and then I just bought the product premixed from them. They were making compost on a forty acre plot with huge equipment and they could be more efficient about it.
So, if you have to buy in compost, maybe you could teach your supplier the sand trick and make what you need in any quantity. It's not really rocket science and you can use it to make any kind of soil for any nature of plant. I used to make custom mixes with greensand, bone meal and what ever ingredients I needed for the jobs I was doing.
John Meshna (owner)
Blue River LLC
1195 Dog Team Road
New Haven, Vt 05472
Soil and compost blends are available in my area. They are of varying quality. The vendor closest to my residence does carry several blends. I hand checked the temperature of two compost products. The name brand was somewhat warm to the touch, the unnamed product was actually rather hot (about 115 F.)while the ambient temperature that morning was 50 F. That tells me that they were both excessive in N for finished compost. Would you agree?
I purchased some compost from another local vendor 6 years ago, as a lawn top-dressing. It had an excessive amount of bark and wood chips dyed brown or dark gray. The finished part of the product worked its way into the soil but I observed the wood and bark for at least 2 seasons.
Due to the local vendor's habits of dying their "top soil" products in order to seem like soil, I am leaning away from the blended mixes. Since it has been so long since I purchased any, I will have to revisit the two closest vendors and perhaps reconsider.
Like everyone else, I resent paying $30+ per yard for what is represented as finished compost and receive halfway composted, dyed bark and woodchips. Especially when, local tree service will bring by truckloads of fresh woodchips for free and dump them on my lot if they are working in the area. Unfortunately, I have neither the space or time to compost that much OM myself.
Do you think it is important to mix different layers into the previous layer? I will be starting with a fill dirt layer. Do you think I should at least somewhat mix in the compost layer in with the existing to foster downward rooting? I hear that due to a plant desiring the best condition possible, the roots may stop their downward progression when they encounter a less than desirable soil and grow horizontal?
aho! you talk of not-completely-composted stuff being dyed dark. Wow, I've worked with that stuff while working for someone else. I remember thinking 'what the heck Is this?' thanks for the description. I can't believe people are selling Dyed Soil. that's more than pretty bad. anyway, I hope your project is going well!
Mixing layers of product is a good idea. The only time you don't want to do this is when the lower layers are made up of sticks, stones and debris. If you stir up all this stuff then you have to rake it all off. Best to let sleeping dogs lie as they say. If this is your scenario, you only want to fluff up the surface inch or two to give the roots of the grass a place to get a good start. Unless the soil is badly compacted the roots of the grass will make their way into more dense soil on their own as the lawn matures. If you have clay and hard pan as a base material, you'll want to use a sub-soiler mounted on a three point hitch tractor to break up that bottom layer before you begin. Without proper drainage your lawn can drown or dry out depending on conditions. The books all tell you that you have to have at least 6 inches of top soil to grow a lawn and it's true that that is the ideal but, I've created many successful lawns in less depth than that so long as soil pH, nutrition, watering and proper cultivating practices like not mowing too short, not mowing in the hot sun, not mowing with dull blades and not allowing the lawn to get really tall between mowings and lopping it off all at once, are observed. If the base material is ledge, you best go for that 6 inches of soil and more if you can get it. We'll talk about tree planting later. There will be a quiz on Friday!
John Meshna (owner)
Blue River LLC
1195 Dog Team Road
New Haven, Vt 05472