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Poor soil in mountain region for permaculture  RSS feed

 
Alex Stone
Posts: 3
Location: karlovy Vary Region, Czech Republic
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Hello all, i'm Alex, a briton living in the Czech Alps, and i've been lurking here a little while absorbing lots of generously shared tips and tricks. I guess it's time to jump in.

I'm not sure where to post this, soil or perm, so i'm guessing.

I have 4000 m2 so far in a mountainous region, about 920 metres above sea level. (If the local council approve it, that'll be 24000 m2)

The soil, if one can call it that, is a thin layer averaging 10cm above several metres of gravel. It's full of pebbles. I've been using a builders screen to filter the stones out of the mix, and i'm left with more or less "course soil" that has little to no nutritional value. Locally, I've managed to score several trailer loads of cow manure/straw compost, which is over 1 year old. I've spent a lot of shovelling time mixing and blending to try and get some sort of start, short of trucking in loads of top soil.

Unlike Sepp's mountain paradise, the average temps here through the year are cooler, with the growing season a mild 15-20 C compared to Sepps generally warmer comparative months.

As if this tale weren't enough of a struggle, i'm surrounded by spruce. Km after km of Spruce. The soil tests as nitrogen poor and acid. (No rocket science required for that conclusion) I've potted loads of peas and beans as an intent to fix N in the soil, but it's slow going.

I'm watering by hand for my newly built hugelkulture beds in my kitchen garden, which are heavily mulched in an attempt to stop the water draining quickly through the gravel to the centre of the planet. I'm about to build much larger hugelkulture beds outside the KG on the main property. (The KG is my test bed at the moment for soil evaluation, as well as a future role as a, well ....kitchen garden) There's no natural spring or river near me, as my well pulls up water from 52 metres down. (The water is magnificent to taste, so that's something.) The average rainfall here is about 7-8cm a month, which isn't sparkling, but at least it rains fairly regularly, and i have had up to 2 metres of snow for 2 of my 3 winters here.

I still have some spruce on the property i intend to chop down, and replace with food hedges, and nut and fruit trees.
I've watched the usual vids online, as one does, and picked up a lot about permaculture in general, but not really anything related to my particular circumstances.

Ok, so that's the picture. I'm not a complete newb, as i had a decent organic farm in Oz for a few years. I will admit i'm a bit out of my depth with this gravel based growing model though.

So, some questions,

Given the nature of my locale, is there particular varieties of common perennial heirloom veggies that others with similar challenges have successfully grown ? Nearly all the info i've found online recommends the equivalent of a perfect Kew Garden style environment for growing. My place is cool, with a cool wind that blows straight up the side of the mountain to my place. (I'm building windbreaks at the moment to at least partially counter this)

Given the near universal fondness for spruce, is there a common plant of flower i can grow quickly in my particularly poor soil that will cover quickly, and improve the PH? I've got plenty of grass, some stinging nettles, dock, and moss at the moment, that work together to ridicule my attempts to improve things here. I can almost hear them laughing in the still of night.....

I'd also like to start 2 food forests, and plant trees and food shrubs asap, as it'll take a while, obviously. Any recommendations for fruit and nut trees that will enjoy toughing it out up here?

More to come, but i guess that's enough to begin with.

Regards to all,

Alex.

 
Dave Dahlsrud
Posts: 502
Location: North-Central Idaho, 4100 ft elev., 24 in precip
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How steep is your land? If you could get the machinery up there you might look at something like a swale system with some fast growing pioneer species planted heavily into the down slope berms. I'm thinking some things like locust, seaberry, clover, the nettle you already have, etc. I wouldn't expect to get much of a harvest until you build up the soil with those pioneers (seaberry will get you something though). If you can integrate some type of livestock into the system you should increase fertility exponentially if properly managed (sheep, chickens, geese, and ducks are all pretty easy to manage, and cattle if you can swing it would be pretty nice). You could start chop and dropping that nettle now to increase organic matter quickly. It sounds like you have a pretty rough piece of land there... perfect canvas for a permaculture masterpiece! Don't give up!
 
Alex Stone
Posts: 3
Location: karlovy Vary Region, Czech Republic
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Dave Dahlsrud wrote:How steep is your land? If you could get the machinery up there you might look at something like a swale system with some fast growing pioneer species planted heavily into the down slope berms. I'm thinking some things like locust, seaberry, clover, the nettle you already have, etc. I wouldn't expect to get much of a harvest until you build up the soil with those pioneers (seaberry will get you something though). If you can integrate some type of livestock into the system you should increase fertility exponentially if properly managed (sheep, chickens, geese, and ducks are all pretty easy to manage, and cattle if you can swing it would be pretty nice). You could start chop and dropping that nettle now to increase organic matter quickly. It sounds like you have a pretty rough piece of land there... perfect canvas for a permaculture masterpiece! Don't give up!


Dave, thanks for the reply. The land around the house is not that steep, so machinery is ok. I've walked over the ground with swales in mind, and although they'd be fairly shallow, i've got a couple of spots where a swale or two would help. Good tip on the nettles. I've spent two days chopping nettle patches on my land and the surrounding wild areas, and there's a lot, so hopefully that will help. I've already put some cow manure down, and the local farmer told me yesterday he's got more at another location.

Yes, the land is rough, but i'm far too stubborn to give up.

Thanks again for the tips,

Alex.

p.s. We had decent rainfall last night, and it's given me a more clues where the water's going.
 
James Everett
Posts: 94
Location: Gaines County, Texas South of Seminole, Tx zone 7b
3
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I am looking into the same things for the most part I have thirty acres along a naturally watershed here in West Texas that is usually dry except when it rains But as you can see in this picture I have to tend with thick caliche. I am just getting back to my area where I can start working on it due to obtaining the land while I was off in the Army. This view is also the edge where previous owners cut into part of the land where it slopes down to the draw where things are in a better condition but in the long term I would love to convert this 30 acres of rock to something good for wildlife and self reliance. I just need to figure out where to start in the first place besides buying a 100 lbs of mix clovers and rye grasses to get some ground cover started last year.

 
Steve Hitchen
Posts: 30
Location: Yorksire - North England
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Hi,

I am on deep sand, rather than deep gravel, and I am in cool, rather than cold climate (North of England). I will throw out my idea's and you can make of them what you will.

It sounds like you have got the basics either in place or in your head. You need to get shelter in place - so you might want to think about felling slowly rather than large swathes at once and cover crop what ever you fell to keep what soil you have in place. I would mix stuff with deep roots - lupins and the like and get something really fast growing in there - vetch or radishes would be OK - although radishes smell a bit when they rot.

Anything you fell you should be thinking of in terms of soil amendments - if you have the funds I would hire an industrial chipper and shred everything that will fit through it, and then shred all the shreddings a second time. That is a lot of effort, but it'll give you a jump off point. You can spread it out as a mulch Garden of Eden style or just make a damn big pile and cover it with tarps and you'll quickly get a woody version of compost. I would also consider burning a good deal of the wood and getting the woodash back into the soil - nitrogen you can sort out with other roots, but if the soil is total trash then your P and K will be washed out, making any growth hard. If your already planting fruit trees, make sure they get generous doses.

In general, I would be mulching what ever you can, with what ever you can get hold of. The whole permaculture thing is about playing the long game, so I don't think it especially matters WHAT you use as mulch - anything you can get hold of. If you can get some straw, some woodchips, some .... what ever.... just get it down on the ground. Especially around the area's you've put the woodash.
If you have funds, I would also get some mushroom spawn - some of them are very cold tolerant - and get that into your mulches to get the soil you have working, and get the mulch breaking down faster to improve the soil, while also giving you a crop ( not sure about the market for fancy mushrooms in Checz replublic however )

For crops - potatos are the first thing which spring to mind - they love acid soil, and if you are struggling with Mains then you could use Early varients. They will grow in mulch as well, so you don't need a vast amount of digging. Any of the brassica's as well will be right up your street - use hardier variants.

I think you are going to need to give yourself a jump start and extend your growing season. The standard farm way to do this would be poly tunnels, and, if it was me, I would do that no matter where you lie on the eco spectrum. If not, then I would be thinking about building large cold frames from scrap wood and glass - LARGE - and packing one corner with either a big pile of manure of raw compost ingredients - either of which will act as a heat source. This will give you an extra month of growing, but is more effort as you'll need to plant out.

Apples, pears, raspberries, red currents, whitecurrents are all species that it's worth considering - again it depends as much on you rlocal market as it does what will grow easily.

What WILL grow well in your world is animals. You can get a good revenue stream out of them, and if you do the whole Holistic Grazing thing then you also rapidly add soil structure as well. Pigs would be a good option - Sepp Holtzer has written a lot about pigs in cold climates, but with your lack of plants, you will need to spend money feeding them. I would also consider goats - goat meat can be more revenue bearing than pork ( depends on the market ) and they will eat spruce. They'll also devour all your fruit and veg crops, so you'll need to move them often and carefully. Goats are hardier than pigs, need no feeding, taste nicer and their skins are useful as well - also goats milk.

If your on a cold slope, be super aware of frost pockets - where ever the water is going to run, the frost will go as well - think about this when you add swales - your swales will be automatic frost pockets - and if your getting two meters of snow, then they are going to move a LOT due to frost heave - you may need to think about heave when you build them - a standard Mollinson type swale with dimensions you see in books are not designed for deep freezing and then unthawing in the wet. More traditional terracing might be a lot better and more stable.

I would question the effort put into the hugel's - I know it's very "permie" but there is still no scientific evidence that that have any benefit, so you could be doing would for no uplift in quality.



 
Donald Kenning
Posts: 78
Location: Tri-Cities, Washington
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Hi

First a few conversions for those of us who use English units. You have 4,000 m^2 of land, about an acre. At an elevation of 920 m, or 3,000 feet. Your warmest times are between 15-20 C or 60-72 deg F. You get 7 to 8 cm of rain per month, which is 3 inch a months (36 in a year). 2 meters of snow is about 6 feet. And lastly 10cm of soil is an average of 4 inches of soil before you get to gravel. OK. I think that is it.

Let me just say one thing, I love Spruse (Sitka, Englmans, Blue, etc). I like the way it looks, and how prickly it is and just everything about it.

So, I am going to make a suggestion. You know Spruce grows well up there. Why not plant some more. If they are sub-alpine or alpine they will grow ultra slowly, I get that, so it may be 6 or 7 decades before the timber is merchantable. However, not everyone is in a situation where you can grow bananas and oranges. You can try, but it may be more efficient to try other things that will be as bountiful as a permiculture farm in Florida. Remember, we are encouraged to look at a problem as a solution.

The keys to growing a lot of fruits and vegetables is sun, soil, water and some time with each. You have lots of water but little else. At first I was going to say, you need to build the soil. That is still true, but the method may be a little unconventional. I would normally tell you to chip up some of the dead wood and put that all over your property, then take the rest of the dead wood and make hugel piles. However, you have no soil to cover the beds (yea, you can truck it in). I would say, plant your Spruce on a grid 4ft x 4ft (1.5mx1.5m) everywhere on your property (use seedlings, not seeds). What ever grows, grows, what ever dies, dies. Do not water these trees (you get enough rain). Now, Your soil can only hold so much water before it gets to the gravel. This is fine, because it will come out in a stream for the neighbors down hill from you. However, you do want more water to be retained on your property. This will be done with years of soil building. This building must be slow and steady say 1/3 of an inch (1cm) per year.

So, what can build the soil, and what is usable to you or trade able (sell able) or others over the next 60 years? Let's look at the trees themselves. You can cut branches and collect cones and make Christmas wreaths. I am not sure people will like such a prickly wreath but it is worth a try. Another thing is, you could create a Spruce nursery, that grows seedlings of Spruce and other local trees. You could become the local Spruce expert or even the regions expert silviculturist. Neither of these things will build the soil, however.

So, we come to the dead trees on the ground. Some, I would inoculate with the local edible mushroom species. They like the shade an damp areas, the forest is great for that. Some of the other dead wood I would chip up and broadcast throughout your new forest of Spruce. Apply it sparsely and do not cover with soil. Eventually this will decay and become spongy pieces of soil. Do that every year with the dead wood. No dead wood? Cut down a tree or two and make some chips. Shear the trees and chip up the branches. You may leave 1 or two dead trees (snags) standing for habitat for wild animals. Eventually, the logs you are using for the mushrooms will be unusable. Chip these up as well and fall a few trees for the next generation of mushrooms. You can also become a local expert on mushrooms.

Want to build the soil even more? have animals poop on your land. Here I would say, since you are up in the mountains, you are far from big population centers. Because of that, I would say you have a few choices to get animals to poop. You can do wild animals or you can try your hand at animal husbandry. Now there is a bunch written about keeping animal in this forum and in other places. They talk about the virtues of cows, pigs, chickens and so on. However, at your temperature range and elevation you may need to winter your animals for 6 months instead of the usual 4 months out of the year. It is generally maintained in permaculture circles to use a paddock shift method of pasturing your animals, which may be a little difficult to do in a forest, but your grasses will get eaten.

I would actually recommend fertilizer (and soil) be carried onto your property by wild animals. This is done by planting things that will grow in a forest at 3,000 feet elevation in acidic soil. These things should be plants that deer, bear, voles, moles and any other Czech mammal, bird, reptile or amphibian like to eat or gets eaten by. I live in the Northwest (Washington State) and I would plant Huckle berries, salmon berries, black berries, dandelions (for the rabbits) and rabbits for the raptors and so on. In a young forest I would place a few perches for the raptors, then as the trees get tall, the poles would not be needed. Put bits of string and other things out so that birds have extra materials to build their nests with. Try to satisfy their needs several feet from the house, you will not want a bear barging in your front door asking for dinner. You may even plant a thick row of Spruce or two around your house to keep larger mammals away from your house. Make a few piles of 2 -3 inch (5 - 8 cm) diameter rock a foot high or so as habitat for reptile friends. If you are a hunter, you could probably shoot a deer every once in a while on your property, but you do not want to tell the deer that this is a dangerous place to go. A deer on your property every 3 or 4 years would probably be best. You could also get rabbit and other small game almost continuously.

OK, What if you do this for 20 years and the soil gets thicker but it is not very dense with nutrients and still a bit acidic? In the northwest, we have stands of second growth Douglas fir that, if it is in poor soil it can make white truffles (very expensive). I do not know if a similar thing will happen for a second growth stand of Spruce at 3,000 feet. My point is, you may find more advantages to your situation 20 years from now as well, you simply need to be open to what the land is telling you.

Now, for those hugel piles. In this string, I see people recommend against it. That is up to you. The closest thing I would do, is have a South facing hugel green house. That is like a keyhole garden, where the entrance is on the south side of the garden. On the North, East and west side, I would pile rocks. This "U" shaped pile of rocks would act as a thermal mass for the plants within the keyhole. If South means down hill, then bring the level of the wood down. In other words, make the key hole entrance the highest point of the garden, to allow water to come in and be collected by the rotting wood. Some plants that do better in cooler weather will do great, and over the years you can get adventurous and experiment. Hugel beds build soil well, but like I said, you need dirt (or soil) to begin with. Shipping soil in to cover the beds makes for some expensive vegetables. Try to make soil on your property.

What about swales at the top of the property (and throughout)? Swales are a good idea for places that have a lot of soil for rain to soak into. Every month, this ground gets about 3 inches of rain on 4 inches of soil. Digging down (on contour or not) at the high side of the property, I would be a little worried.
First, It will not help with the water table of your ground. You basically have a 4 inch water table and another table 150 feet down (your well depth). A swale at the top may help the level you need to pump from in your well, but your land will not get any more continuous water feed that a swale usually provides.
I might even worry a little about a land slide. If I were to do anything on the uphill side, I would place a gabion (on contour), particularly if there are any channelized areas. I would use rocks found on the property. After a few years of catching some soil up there, you can bring some down further onto your property.

Did I tell you that I love Spruce?
 
Alex Stone
Posts: 3
Location: karlovy Vary Region, Czech Republic
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Firstly, thanks for all the suggestions and shared info about your own patches. After a lot of experimenting, and thought, including a fairly hefty 2 weeks studying water flow,etc, all over my patch, i've decided to go with terracing, with a pond install at the top of the property. (Although i'm the "highest" house on this side of the valley, there's still a fair chunk of mountain feeding me water, when it rains, and particularly when the snow melts.)

We had a sustained period of rain here for about 2 weeks. I was able to quickly dig out a set of test terraces, each 1.5 metres deep, and fill them with some upside down sods and mulched wood/grass/manure. During the last week i carefully monitored water flows, absorption rates, etc, and to my surprise, water retention was better than i expected, and those terraces are still damp, despite the last 3 days being hot and dry.

On top of that, i built up the leading edge of each terrace to about 60cm average. This was enough to direct the strong wind upwards, and create "quiet" pockets on each terrace. Suffice to say the leading edges have now all been planted with low bush varieties to raise this quite zone a little further, without blocking the sun. (Terraces run across the hill north/south so the terraces march down the hill from east (up) to west (down)). I expect the bushes to reach about a metre in height (they're a variety of currant) which will be dense enough and high enough to give me some real opportunities for growing a more varied overall basket of crops.

The hugels in the kitchen garden are doing ok, and i've cut a large tarp length ways and wrapped it around the fence on the windward side. This has helped a great deal, and will suffice until my fruit and windbreak hedges are more mature.

I've also built 2 crescent moon shaped hugels with the open side facing up the hill, for water retention, and the encircled area inside the crescent dug out, down a metre. When these are planted out, and have a season under their belts, i'll have a better idea if this approach is successful. The dug out section will get a layer of clay to try and keep the water as along as possible. The intent is to retain water for the bed itself, and also create a more humid microclimate. Both beds get good sun exposure, and both are built up taller where their backs face the ever present wind.

I have no idea if this will work as i think it will, but i think it's worth a try.

So far so good, and i'm more optimistic i can make this work.

Thanks again for your input,

Alex.
 
Jim Gagnepain
Posts: 71
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Add some gypsum or calcium carbonate to treat your soil. This will bring the pH up. Add eggshells directly to soil. Use some strong manure - chicken would be good. Get some leaves, and mix some green grass clippings in. Within a year, your soil will be adequate. When planting, add a tablespoon of blood meal, and mix into the soil near the roots. This will boost the nitrogen, and give the plants a great start. Repeat for a few years, at the end of the season. Try to keep the evergreen needles out of the garden.
 
Cristo Balete
Posts: 428
Location: In the woods, West Coast USA
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Alex, one thing to consider, your critters that need to help you keep everything in balance need spruce trees. That's what their ancestors are used to, that's where they nest, where they feed, where they hide to hunt and bring back a catch to be safe. So maybe don't completely get rid of the spruces or the native plants. They are part of your ecological balance. Maybe thin them out, but your birds that eat insects, your rodent eating mammals need those trees. And acidic soil is not a problem.

Sounds like your earthworks have done well as far as capturing water. Permaculture is about seeing how Nature does it, and improving/ using that. Look around your general area and see what the native plants are, which are good for beneficial insects and are the least vulnerable to disease and bad weather conditions. You want to coexist with where you are, not change it into something it isn't
 
allen lumley
pollinator
Posts: 4154
Location: Northern New York Zone4-5 the OUTER 'RONDACs percip 36''
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Alex : Look around you for species that do well under your conditions, and when selecting plants -always ask about "Winter hardiness''.

Planting Edelweiss a member of the daisy sunflower ( also some good choices ) Where your neighbors can see the effort will bring a smile to their faces
and stiffen the back of many an old soldier !

Lupin should do well in your soils and is a nitrogen fixing legume sometimes grown ( world wide ) for animal and human food !

In another post I recommended contacting any local Excavation contractors, as they will need to pay to dump the spoil from their Excavations and you will
accept free "Clean Fill'' and top dirt, you can get free dirt every time the haul to your place is shorter than the haulage to someone else !

Make sure the area where you want the dirt dumped is clearly marked ! For the Good of the Craft ! Big AL
 
Mark Roeder
Posts: 12
Location: Helena, Montana, Zone 4A, semi-arid, cold, mountainous
bee forest garden trees
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You've got a bit of work ahead of you, but it will be well worth it.
I've got the same type of soil and conditions. Gravely-sandy granite and cold temperatures, Montana mountains. First, like you've heard, you need to get as much organic matter into your soil as possible. Did I say first? I think we'd better first start with ground work. Swales are good, but terraces with a south facing rock retaining wall is what you need. You can incorporate hugelkultur into this design. We are looking at water slowing features and heat retention. Next is the soil treatment. If you can get some way to keyline plow while you introduce compost and bio-char into the drill valleys you will be golden. Get as deep as possible. You can use the compost to inoculate your bio-char. Next comes the wood chips and even pine needles for your mulch. Pine needles will not affect your soil acidity. Clovers, peas and alfalfa would be great cover crops for building nitrogen.
If space is limited,(a couple of acres?), you can get feed such as hay, you could raise a few head of cattle for milk and meat production. Goats or Geese if you can't fit in the cattle. Bring in the hay for the first couple of years and let the animals deposit the fertilizer. Send in chickens a few days after you "mob graze" with your largest herbivore. They will mix thing up and consume fly larva. Let the animals work for you.
With such a cold climate you're going to need a greenhouse. You could even incorporate cheap movable hoop houses with your retaining wall/terrace setup. Get as early of a start as possible with your plants. The greenhouse will help with starting plants. Waste heat from bio-char creation will help during extremely cold nights. Compost heat should be able to provide the rest with a good insulative cover and water storage tanks for a thermal buffer.
You'll need all the woodchips you can get. Chickens can winter over in the greenhouse and provide heat, CO2 and fertilizer. The bio-char can act as a carbon filter and remove ammonia from the composting process. Look up Jean Pain and emulate his methods. Stack as many functions as you can. Every year you can add on terraces with orchards, grazing land, gardens, ect. Good luck and let us know what you come up with.
 
Henry Coulder
Posts: 32
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Hi, if I can visit you please let me know.

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