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Restoring agricultural land

 
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hi
Been working heavy clay soils for ever - its probably why my back's so bad 
But - dont believe what everyone on sandy soil will tell you, clay soil is the best there is.............. its just damn hard work to get into condition but once there or there abouts its great.
First job is get a wind break. I'd concentrate on ploughing in (for the last time) a mass of organic material (doesnt matter what)  in a 20 - 30 foot wide strip along the windward sides of the land and get it planted.
mass plant tree seedlings - you should have thousands of birch seedlings in your woods and  transplant the pine/spruce too. Push cut brush wood in between the seedings for protection. And mulch like a fool 
If you're short on trees do a small area well rather than a large area badly plant more next year. Once that shelter belt is in everything else gets easier.
The best soil I have is under big old shrubs and trees that hasn't been dug in 40 years so plough in rough organic material on the rest of the land if you can and heavy mulch everything else. Clay soils kept moist improves itself with time its the drying out and compaction that kills it.
While you're waiting for the shelter belt to survive its first few years you're going to struggle a bit but remember if your neighbour got a wheat crop off the land its not impossible
 
pollinator
Posts: 2103
Location: Oakland, CA
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P. A. Yeomans wrote a lot on this subject. He developed a fairly sophisticated chisel plow, and advocated using it shortly before the wet season, just enough to allow in roots that can restore the soil.

The soil around here is heavy clay, and it will be a long time before I can afford enough of it to justify a chisel plough, but I'm thinking a pick might be used for a similar purpose.
 
                                            
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It seems that this is a good opportunity to mention the technique called hugelkultur (I'm sure you can find more discussion elsewhere in the forum) which uses "durable carbon", i.e. large, woody material ( sticks, branches, logs and stumps) as a medium for building garden beds. This material is either buried below the soil surface or laid on the surface and buried with soil from other locations (e.g. pathways). You will find that it breaks down more rapidly than the same stuff simply laid on the surface and becomes full of mycelium and water. This practice builds high quality soil quickly. Paul, our forum host has posted videos of the process elsewhere. Remember that for every unit of organic matter we incorporate into soils we can increase water holding capacity by a factor of 4 units. The buried wood becomes (if it is already dry and dead) full of water and, subsequently, full of worms, millipedes, pill bugs and roots. I've dug up pieces buried a year or two before and, like a squeezed wet sponge, water pours out of it. The carbon eaters are the principle agents that break down or isolate toxic substances. As Geoff Lawton recommended for his Jordan project, grow whatever will grow fast, then chop and drop for mulch or hugelkultur it. Previous commenters have offered excellent advice. We're lucky to have this access.
 
pollinator
Posts: 330
Location: Southern Finland zone 5
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Thank you everyone for your great ideas! I want to do everything 
Just watched Sepp Holzer's videos  and wow, I want my place to look something like that: a pond would be lovely and to raise your own fish. 

But I ran into a new problem. I planted siberian pea tree around one corner of the field, a kind of trial to see whether I can get anything to survive there. Only to have my neighbour come to me and ask what the hell I'm doing ops: He said the roots would get into the subsurface drain and block it.  My field is surrounded by his fields on two sides, the long northern side and the short eastern side. The winds come from the west and north mainly and the northern winds are probably the most damaging.
... I dug the pea trees out and planted them elsewhere on our property.
Now this is not news really (I already told you about the poor pea trees) but what is new is my realization that even though I could plant trees in the middle of the field without it damaging my neighbour's drainage system, it would still damage my own drainage system. And the question is do I want to do that? It would mean "sealing the fate" of this field, wouldn't it? Meaning, if we ever wanted to sell this field or loan it would be difficult because a) you'd have to dig out all the trees and  b) there wouldn't be a functioning subsurface drain which is probably necessary if one wants to use the modern (damaging) agricultural methods on this land. I mean, because of spring floods you might not be able to get to the field with a tractor early enough in the spring without functioning drainage system? I'm just guessing really...  I don't really see the need for any drainage during the summer because the field is on a slope and the upper parts dry up too much during the summer.  But I guess in the spring right after all the snow has melted AND the river is flooding AND given the clay soil there is too much moisture unless it's drained away.

Oh and it turned out my neighbour is giving up farming altogether and retiring. So right now the fate of those surrounding fields is a question mark. I asked him what will happen to the fields and he said he had no idea and didn't care. From this I deducted that they weren't his fields after all, he had just rented them. So there will probably be someone else taking on the neighboring fields. I don't know who and the neighbour seems unwilling to even discuss the matter. It can be extraordinarily difficult to discuss things with certain types of Finns  this guy is one of them. Oh well, someone knows, I just have to find out who.  Anyway, the new farmer MIGHT be interested in our field as well and maybe that is the best way to go if I can't really think of anything better to do with this land. I hate the idea of someone spraying chemicals right next to our fields and our well! But IF the next farmer (or the farmer after him or her) happened to be interested in organic farming that would be lovely and I'd happily rent the field.

Supposing I wanted to keep my future options open and not  plant trees do you think there's any way of making this field productive? Like I said I'd love to do what Holzer did, with the terraces and raised beds and everything. But would it work without the trees? This is a very windy place. Watering this field can also be a bit of a problem as this field is far from the house and our rainwater gathering systems. Sepp Holzer doesn't irrigate, does he? But he has trees...

On the other hand the more I think about it I don't really want to use this field as pasture land either. It's so far from the house and I couldn't keep an eye on the animals very easily. And I doubt any animal would appreciate such an open and exposed place anyway? (Or can anyone suggest an animal that likes open spaces and is not afraid of them and is not a cow?)  The other fields are much better pasture lands as they already have surrounding trees that give shelter.  I haven't completely given up the idea of horses or goats but right now I'm leaning toward ducks    I prefer animals that do not need to be milked twice a day and that don't have to be fed every four hours like a horse. ie. I want to have some flexibility in my life and that we can go and visit Grandma every once in a while 

So...  something productive, without trees... ? Does hugelkultur work in a very exposed place?

I love the idea of the pond but don't think this is the best place for it because I'd want to utilize the benefits of the pond to the maximum and plant warmth-loving plants near the pond. Without trees surrounding the pond all the humidity and warmth would just blow away, especially in this windy place. On the other hand, we could dig one pond in a more suitable place and then another here. But would the pond be a) stay a pond in a this exposed location and b) be possible to convert back to farm land should the need arise...

Oh god... maybe the best solution would be to turn this field into a wind mill park!!!
After all, there seems to be only one natural resource that this place has plenty of: WIND.

Or maybe... a combination of everything! Wind mill on the upper side. Some really tough plants in the middle part (plants that don't need any wind breaks). And then sacrificing a small part in the lower part and planting some trees or shrubs, accepting the fact that this small part will be forest garden and not possible to convert back to agricultural land. Hmm. wonder what the authorities will say of this 
 
                    
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Great thread!

I'll have to finish it tomorrow after turning my compost.

Ninajay, that is amazing that you are from Finland. I want to hear more about your experience moving out of the city (Helsinki-Espoo?). I spent 2 months in Helsinki with my girlfriend (shes a Finn) this summer. She's from Klaukkala, which is supposed to be famous for being the "ugliest town" in Finland.

I'm thinking of going back to school for ecology/sustainable agriculture here in the States, but will be moving to Europe afterwards. We'll probably be in Finland for at least 3 years while I get citizenship and I'd really like to know what you all are up to!
 
Nina Jay
pollinator
Posts: 330
Location: Southern Finland zone 5
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Hi Finch and congratulations on finding your amazing Finnish girlfriend
Finland,  land of beautiful girls  and ugly towns 
No, I'm not a fan of Finnish urban planning and personally, can't choose which town is ugliest because there are so many very depressing ones. But a few nice ones too. If I had to live in a town I would probably live in Lahti (as I did before) or Porvoo or Tampere or Jyväskylä or Turku.  But I very much prefer the countryside!!

Come and visit us when you're in Finland! Send me a personal message.
 
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Ninajay wrote:
Okay, I'm back with results, if anyone is still interested Took "a while" cause been too busy gardening 
It appears that the field I'm talking about is app. half clay and half sand.  At least so it looks to me in the sample that I took as suggested above.

As summer goes on the situation just looks worse. Lots of cracks, stone hard ground.

It's a tough spot this field. I tried planting hazelnuts in on corner of it.  Dug large holes for them and tried to make things nicer for the roots by adding horse manure and peat plus ash to the soil in the planting hole. I also built a wind break all around the hazelnuts as the field is very exposed and windy. But the hazelnuts did not seem to like it there and after a month of waiting I rescued them, ie. dug them out.

I've also sown a few rows of a robust bean species (Vicia faba hangdown, don't know what's it called in English), few rows of a certain pea species and a small area of "green manure" seed mixture. The Vicia faba hangdown is doing reasonably although looking quite thin in comparison with the huge ones I have in my garden. The green manure clover mixture and the peas are growing really slow despite regular watering. But there are no weed problems either as this spot is too tough for weeds too!

Now I'm wondering what to do with this land. The neighbour does not want it back on rent (I asked) so I won't have to worry about taking this field out of production 

There are too main problems: the seriously compacted clay soil and the exposed location. The latter being maybe the more difficult to fix. It's too large an area to plant a living windbreak. There aren't many wind break trees that would do well there anyway. I tried Siberian pea but out of 10 only 1 is alive at the moment... I did leave the planting rather late so that might explain this. But anyway the area is 140 m x 50 m. I would need at least 190 meters of wind break (north side 140 m, east side 50 m) and it would probably be best to have a wind break also on the west side, another 50 m. It is VERY windy and the prevailing winds are from north and from west. The field is also on a slope. The eastern side tends to dry out as it's the highest point. To the north there are the neighbour's huge wheat fields. The western end is near a river which floods every spring so this end of the field is under water until May. Oh and the location is Southern Finland in case I haven't mentioned before.



Grow vigorous, deep-rooted vegetables or plants to break up the soil and create holes which allow air and water in. After they are harvested or die, they will further enrich the soil with organic matter. This will stimulate soil life and gradually improve soil texture.
 
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