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using cover crop to repair barren alkaline clay soil

 
Savaan Davis
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I have purchased some land with neglected soil and a few challenges. I'm trying to make a plan to repair the soil and could use some help. My priorities are to cover crop the soil, grow and haul in organic matter, increase microbial life, modify the land with swales possibly adding a wetland area, then finally planting perennial trees and shrubs. My farm equipment consists of hand tools and a pickup truck. I wish to avoid commercial amendments and I want to avoid using manure because of salts, unwanted seeds and pathogens. The nutrient sources I want to use are compost, leaves, wood chips, rotten logs, straw, diluted human urine and growing the right plants that will both break down minerals and fix nitrogen. The only commercial product (other than seeds) I plan to use will add mycorrhizal fungi and nitrogen fixing bacteria.

My first step is to give the land a quick spring cover mix and I need some ideas that will actually grow in my alkaline, clay soil with flood irrigation. I will not kill the cover crop or till the soil so perennial grasses and legumes that will re-seed themselves are kind of what I'm looking for. While that's growing the second step is to fix the erosion situation with swales, wetlands and finding a better solution for watering other than flood.

The previous owner died so little is known about the land other than what can be observed from Google Earth image history and what a soil test told me. Looks like it was used for a few grazing animals probably horses, the land was tilled every few years and the land is watered with flood irrigation. It looks like the last few years (probably due to owners health) it didn't even get water so most of the veg is either dead or dormant. The land is located in Colorado around 5000ft elevation.

The bad:
7.9 pH
high lime, low N, low P
3.6% organic matter
Under 12" of annual rainfall

The good:
All other nutrients, metals and salts are at acceptable levels
Irrigation water rights grant significant amounts of water
Irrigation head gate opens mid April and closes the end of October.

What cover crop seeds should I use to start the repair? Any constructive comments or suggestions on my soil repair plan are welcome.
 
Tyler Ludens
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Cowpea, black-eyed pea, and tepary bean are all drought tolerant annual legumes which can grow with little water. Since you're looking for long-term fertility, you might also want to look into planting herbaceous and perennial legumes for cut and drop mulch. Here's a list I've been working on for my own place:

Trees - Thornless Honeylocust, Palo Verde, Redbud

Shrubs - Esperanza, Leadplant, False Indigo Bush

Herbaceous - Bluebonnet, Illinois Bundleflower, Purple Prairie Clover

 
Savaan Davis
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That's a great list, thanks Tyler. The chance of perennials getting dug up or ran over the first summer are too high so I will be very selective with these the first year.

Most of the trees and herbaceous plants you listed made it to my list for later. The black eye pea is a great nitrogen fixer and looks like it will work well in my soil. I have never heard of the tepary bean before, it works with alkaline soil but haven't seen anything on how well it fixes nitrogen.

I have also added white or yellow sweet clover( Trifolium repens L.) for it's fungal relationship in regards to P deficiency. I need more plants that help the fungi with phosphate release but haven't found much.
 
Tyler Ludens
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Getting woody material, sticks and twigs, even logs, in contact with the soil will help with developing a healthy colony of fungi.

 
charlotte anthony
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i used on my last project in india a homeopathic remedy for alkaline land. it worked amazingly well. get calcarea in a 6 x dilution. then use 3 pills per 5 gallons (mix until dissolved) and spray this out for 1/4 acre.

i also spray out ferments of weeds from the property, and/or EM. In India i used givumreitum (made from cow dung, cow urine, .molasses and flour from legume (like lentils) these are to feed microbes. I used this in subsoil and spread once every 10 days and had a fantastic crop of vegetables. See the roots of your profits by elaine ingham.

i am planting legumous crops and grasses to harvest in with my food forest and going straight for what i want to grow. As elaine ingham says all soil has everything that the plants need. microbes make it all available. it is like the plants and microbes work together to create the proper pH for each plant. everyone tells me it will take a lot of time for the microbes to work. i say not so. I have been using microbes for 20 years. elaine ingham says microbes can produce a mass the size of the earth in one day.

as an example: one place i worked in colorado, was total subsoil. I could not even get a pick ax into it until i irrigated it. after I flood irrigated it, i could get a pick ax into it but nothing else. I planted with a pick ax squash, corn and other large seeds in my 100 x 60 plot. I planted carrots and onions by bringing down soil from my good garden and covering the seeds. the soil was light brown. I put on one 40 lb. bag of azomite, maybe 10 gallons of lama manure and one round of EM and mycorhizzals. after one month i was down there weeding and the weeds were coming right out. Hm I thought remembering how rock hard it had been. I went and got a shovel and there was friable black soil down 6 inches. When i harvested the carrots and onions the carrots were 14 inches long and the black soil was down to 18 inches 3 months later.



 
Sarah Houlihan
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Location: Central Maine
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I am working on the same project as you right now. I found an excellent seed catalogue at prairienursery.com. They include tons of information on their seeds and they offer mixes for different circumstances. Worth checking out!
 
charlotte anthony
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thank you very much sarah, when you say you are working on the same project as me right now i am very curious. where are you. what exactly are you doing. how large is it.

many thanks for answering.
 
charlotte anthony
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this is a great video on repairing and nourishing soils with cover crops along with making money while doing it.

permaculture methods on 2000 acres:

Keys To Building a Healthy Soil - Organic - Permaculture and Polyculture
Gabe Brown Soil Conservationist -
 
Marco Banks
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You must have a pretty short growing season at your altitude. I would imagine cold winters, and then hot dry summers—less than ideal, but its what you've got so you'll find a way to make it work. Planting a cool season cover crop as early as you can in the spring and another one late in the summer would give you a lot of bio-mass.

Three quick thoughts:

1. Put tons of carbon on the surface of the soil, whether that be wood chips, leaves, spoiled hay, or whatever else you can get. This will hold moisture and begin to soften the soil so as to encourage good root penetration.

2. Cover crops will add to the bio-mass, feed the soil biology, and get the worms and other soil life working for you to loosen the compaction. Anything that has a strong root that can penetrate through that hard pan will be your friend. I don't know your biome, but there are plenty of others on this site that can give you advise and suggested plants.

3. Soil aggregation will happen as you feed the microbial community with mulch, and your plants contribute root exudate. Further, the sooner you can establish a fungal colony by piling up a lot of wood chips on the soil surface, the better your soil aggregation will be. Worms and other biota will thrive under that carbon layer, further loosing the soil and contributing to the aggregation.

Even at your altitude, and even under a layer of snow, there is still good stuff happening if there is a sufficient layer of mulch on the soil. If you laid a foot of wood chips down in spring, it would be less than 3 or 4 inches by fall, and even when the temperatures begin to drop, your worms will still be doing their job.
 
Sarah Houlihan
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Location: Central Maine
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Charlotte, I'm in central Maine. We just built a tiny house on almost 8 acres. We had a logger come through and thin the lot last summer. We are left with a small clearing around the house which is clay mud. I hope to have a no mow lawn in a couple years, but plan on planting clover mostly this year to start building organic matter so things can grow a little better.
 
Todd Parr
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Location: Wisconsin, zone 4
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I have used lots of tillage radish for breaking up me clay soil. Mine is somewhat alkaline as well. Mixed with some of the nitrogen fixers Tyler mentioned, you'll add nitrogen and lots of biomass.
 
charlotte anthony
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so savaan davis, what did you think of all the comments. have you been able to plant anything. i suggested the gabe brown video where he is farming on 2000 acres. did anybody watch it. he says it took him 20 years to get his organic matter up to 7% (although in some areas he is up to 11%) and now he can grow a lot of things (including vegetables) in his 15 inches of rain a year without irrigation. incidentally your organic matter content of almost 4% is better than a lot of folks (well anyone who has been using chemicals). he also says he could have done it a lot quicker if he knew what he knows now.

if he had added microbes to his diverse plantings he would have been able to do this in one year.

what a lot of people say about microbes is that you cannot expect results from just adding microbes. they need something to eat. and yes we want the ones that work with the plants. what is amazing is that the ones that work with the plants also work with the soil directly. so they can eat the soil to grow themselves until they get plant material to eat and the plants to interact with. they are very resilient critters.

where i am we get 8 to 14 inches of rain a year and i am working without irrigation. i want to demonstrate how we can return the ground water, as well as return the rain cycle while we make a great living.
 
charlotte anthony
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just saw this great article talking about soil from the farmers perspective. how to make more money from growing your soil microbes. not talking about how to with with clay or sand, but they will get the job done,.

https://orionmagazine.org/article/dirt-first/#.Vw-RQUDgGg4.facebook
 
I agree. Here's the link: http://richsoil.com/cards
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