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Where do you get all that dirt?

 
Marsha Richardson
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My boyfriend has recently become all gung ho with building hugel beds all over our property. We have plenty of wood. The problem is that we have no dirt or soil to speak of. Our soil is hard clay that is good enough to fire, and rocks. After 25 years of mulching and mulching and chop and drop there are areas where things will grow but certainly no place to dig up enough dirt to cover a full sized hugel bed -- or even a half sized hugel bed.

I have made some wood cored beds by digging a hole, putting in rotted wood, then mixing the dirt I pulled out with compost, manure, anything else organic I can find the putting that back into the hole over the wood. It is like building large planters here and there. By mulching everything with lots of straw, coffee grounds, and chopped leaves and weeds there is some progress but it is taking a long long time. When I dig up soil to make swales, without mulch on the top it is just a nude clay ridge across the ground with a ditch in front of it, also nude. After 3 years of mulch, compost and manure, some mustard and clover will grow on the swales but it is barely an inch tall and not very happy. At least some wispy hints of organic matter is accumulating in the ditch of the swale.

So, back to the question, where does all that soil/dirt in those videos of beautiful hugel beds come from? Do we have to buy several hundred dump trucks of topsoil? I would like some encouragement. I have been working on this piece of property for 25 years and weeds don't even grow here except in the garden.
 
S Bengi
Posts: 1355
Location: Massachusetts, Zone:6/7, AHS:4, Rainfall:48in even distribution
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Don't get dirt envy as long as your plants are growing healthy and don't need too much supplemental water, you are doing good.
You can grow all your veggies on a very tiny parcel of land, your fruit/nut trees about 1 acres.
So even though you might have 25-36 acres of land try to limit your focus on only 2 acres. And even then only your veggie areas.

I would grow kenaf in the summer and rye in the winter for dry matter. Some daikon radish to punch holes in the clay. Don't forget tbat fungi will trans-locate minerals from one corner of the property to the next so dont worry about soil dept too much.
 
Nicole Alderman
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Location: Pacific Northwest
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duck forest garden hugelkultur
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For our last mound, we dug down deep enough that we would have enough soil to cover the top. We then filled the trench with wood and then stacked more wood to make it raised, then put the dirt back on. We also put down 1-2 inches of duck bedding as mulch. Digging down can be a mixed blessing, though, as it can make the bed more wet (if I recall correctly) than one entirely above surface. That may be beneficial or detrimental depending upon your climate and plants you're planning on growing there.

Another place to to get soil is to check places like craiglist. At least around here, there is often free "fill dirt." The only downside there being that you don't know what they've put in their soil, nor what weeds may be growing in it.

As for mulch, you can see if there are livestock or horse pastures with too much manure, you could also use that. Or coffee stands with extra grounds. Or tree-trimming services. Or even people who have bunnies for pets to get their rabbit droppings. Lawn clippings also work, as well as fallen leaven. But, from your description of your climate, that might not be likely.
 
William James
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Location: Northern Italy
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I love the swale-plus-hugelkulture idea.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OavKcBmC1fs

I also like ponds plus hugelkulture and that works well.

If you have that type of soil...the same type I have...you are going to want to be careful in summer. Check my posts for a relevant discussion on how the summer drought turns hugelbeds into terra-cotta.

If I were to build hugelkulture again in this soil/climate, I would want them in ground, not too mounded, next to a water collection element, well woodchipped/deeply and soggily mulched for the first couple years. Oh, and the beginning wood that I used I would want it to be as rotted as possible. The closer to something looking like soil the better.

Spiking is another option you should look into. I've had some good success putting branches into the soil when its soggy, waiting a while, then breaking it off when it sufficiently rots and pounding it in somewhere else. Just don't do it with wlllow or elders, unless you want them as trees.

Buying in soil is way too expensive here. Plus there are tons of government controls over who puts what where regarding construction soil.

William
 
Marsha Richardson
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We have been concentrating on 2 acres. And I'm afraid I do have dirt envy. Or soil envy. Even in the "wild" areas away from the house, vegetation is pretty sparse because of the lack of topsoil and extremely hard . Rumor has it that back following WWII, this county was scraped clean and the topsoil sold. I can believe it. Daikon radishes will germinate and die in about 3 weeks. I have found that mustard and rape (I save seed from non-GMO canola that I have had for years and years), but even these will only grow a couple of inches high when a new area is being started. After a couple of years of chopping and dropping and repeated efforts, things start to grow. How exciting to actually see weeds moving into an area, they provide even more material to try. This has been a great challenge but I am excited to think that as we progress it is going to be so much better here! Bamboo that was planted six years ago is now up to three stalks that are over 4 feet tall (a 30-foot tall bamboo) but they are growing and the mulching is helping, I'm sure of it.

The idea of driving in the stakes is a great idea! Kind of like injecting wood into the soil which would give our fungi some fun as well.

We will never give up! If we can restore this place, we can accomplish anything!

Thanks for all the input, it restores my confidence and makes me a lot more optomistic about our wonderful place.
 
William James
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Location: Northern Italy
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Wow. The size of your site, the conditions, are very near my own.
The owner of my land supposedly removed huge amounts of earth with a wheelbarrow to fill in a low-lying area to build a structure. That area is exactly the place that won't drain. It does vegetate a little, but not as much as the other half.

Have you thought of keyline plowing? Even a soil ripper will help aerate things.

My 2.5 acres are pretty much "messed with" to the point that I would feel weird about bringing in a ripper, but I know the soil in some areas especially could use it. We have lots of young trees and some earthworks, so no tractors for me.

It would be cool if there was a keyline walk-behind ripper. Like a roto-tiller, but for ripping small spaces.

Good work with the bamboo. I'm weary about putting in bamboo. For some reason I like willow and elder more. And wild plum. And hawthorn. And black locust. But bamboo is scary. Good for you that it's working out well.
William
 
Marsha Richardson
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Have a friend who suggested the key line plow. Hmmmm. Since it took a full sized excavator over an hour to dig a 3 foot deep hole. . . it might be interesting. Even a hole to plant a berry plant requires a tunneling bar and most of an afternoon. Kind of interesting anyway, when full sized trees fall over (which they do pretty regularly) the roots do down about 9 inches then shoot off at a 90 degree angle. Guess we will be just piling on the organic matter and making our wood cored beds and let the worms and fungus slowly spread out from our little oasis bits and keep improving the soil. I believe that it will work and it will spread!

regarding the bamboo -- no danger of it taking over. It is very slowly surviving and has spread from 1 little cane to 4 now and they are about 1/4 inch in diameter and not even big enough to stake up a pepper plant. It if ever does take off, we are totally prepared to eat it into submission. It is an edible variety and a runner! Wild black berry and greenbriar barely grow here. The comfrey is up to almost 8 inches tall now! Whoo hooo.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
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chicken dog forest garden hugelkultur hunting toxin-ectomy
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hau, Marsha, do you have access to a tractor? Or are you doing all this dirt work by shovel, pick and wheel barrow? Have you given any thought to using some of your wood to create biochar? I would love to give you some methods that will work for you but I need to know more about the land and what you have available in the way of tools to do the improvements to it. It is possible to rejuvenate just about any soil type if the resources are available.

hau, William, the spiking is a great idea. What sort of remediation have you done to your soil so far? You mention several wonderful ideas for getting clay soil to be able to support plants.
 
William James
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Location: Northern Italy
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Bryant RedHawk wrote:
hau, William, the spiking is a great idea. What sort of remediation have you done to your soil so far? You mention several wonderful ideas for getting clay soil to be able to support plants.


Soil remediation efforts have kind of stopped. The space I'm dealing with is far too big to do anything that will get results in the short term. There is no silver bullet with clay soil, unfortunately. Right now I've planted lots of trees and bushes, included lots of n-fixers, I'm annual gardening around the trees I've planted, adding compost and calcium and the occasional wooden stake near 3-4 year old trees. That strategy will probably gain ground as all the other trees get bigger. Cover cropping and mulching with chip around trees as often as possible. Trying to keep the grass away from the trees. I have swales and we've filled them with mountains of leaves, so we're hoping to get better infiltration there. As for non-tree ideas: turnips have worked much better than daikon for me, they actually get into the ground. Daikon went in a few inches and then popped up, just can't dig down. Dandelion also has deep big roots.

Tree roots are probably the slowest but least complicated way to get more water to infiltrate and make good soil from the bottom up. Especially trees you copice or otherwise force to slough off root matter (chop and drop species).

Here are some threads I've started or been involved with on Permies regarding my experiments in clay.
I have a feeling my soil is much easier to work with than Marsha's. She seems to be working with serious parking-lot type clay.

My soil type:
http://www.permies.com/t/40787/soil/Xerults

A discussion on sand and clay
http://www.permies.com/t/38942/soil/Add-sand-clay-Bad-idea

Agressively rotting wood for use in hugelkulture
http://www.permies.com/t/34266/hugelkultur/wood-rot-fastest

A "Vern Tessio" method, results we're ok but nothing to write home about.
http://www.permies.com/t/28996/soil/Vern-Tessio-method-clay-soil

Heavy clay soil help - my plea for help on permies.
http://www.permies.com/t/26116/permaculture/Heavy-Clay-Soil

Marsha:
Need more info about your climate, rainfall, drought.

You might benefit from hugelkulture and then doing ruth stout's heavy mulching method on top of the hugelkulture. You could try to build lots of top soil in the quickest way possible using lots of different inputs and a diversity of strategies. This is a solution that would work on a very small scale. Nothing that you could feasibly do on the whole 2 acres. Locate a few good positions, build an oasis in those places, and work out from there. In the meantime you could perhaps invest in a jackhammer?? You have the top soil horizons that are, um, restrictive. How is the sub soil, like 50 cm down? Does it get softer further down?

You could also try pit gardening, unless you get too much rain. You dig a few holes and throw everything but the kitchen sink that decomposes into the pit and then you grow something out of it. Look into banana circles and then switch to willow as the main species or whatever is suitable for your climate. Or bamboo. You want nitrogen hogs inside the pit to create lots of biomass with rhisome or hairnet root systems who's growth you then cut and use elsewhere.

The thing about clay also is that it holds nutrients easily but it doesn't give them up easily either. Look into calcium or ag lime.
William
 
Matthew McCoul
Posts: 72
Location: Southeast Michigan
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Was your land once commercial farmland like ours?

Hard dead clay you could fire and rocks described property too. Years of npk, roundup, and tilling had left the ground so compacted that weeds wouldn't grow for a few years in spots. No joke.

You need taproots.
If you feel like putting forth the effort, plant alfalfa and comfrey where you want to garden. Maybe daikon too. All three will grow deep roots down into the ground. Alfalfa will add nitrogen, comfrey will mine nutrients from the subsoil, daikon radish will sink long tubes of soon-to-be compost deep into the soil.

Cut them all near the end of the season, leave the cuttings where they lay, and mulch heavily. I like to add newspaper.

All those deep roots will die and rot into the soil. it'll be completely new. The upper cuttings will form new nutrient rich topsoil.


The lazy way is to let weeds do this. Not as effective but a fraction the effort. Let them grow tall, cut down, mulch.

 
Peter Ellis
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Location: Central New Jersey
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One answer is that not all methods suit all sites. Your situation does not sound to me like a great place for hugelkultur mounds. Pits, maybe, as you are already doing.
Sounds like you really need to get through that clay layer. How deep does it go, and do you have a recognizable anaerobic horizon?
Elaine Ingham has described some substantial successes using compost tea in heavy soils with anaerobic zones due to compaction.
 
I agree. Here's the link: https://richsoil.com/wood-heat.jsp
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