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Turning sand into soil

 
Steve Farmer
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Location: South Tenerife, Canary Islands (Spain)
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I've had some success growing peas in a container with nothing but sand that I collected from the back of the beach. Once the peas were harvested and the plants died, the container wasn't just sand anymore, it was sand plus the remains of a pea plant - ie organic matter. I thought if I repeat this enough times I will end up with soil instead of sand.

So now I'm formalising this as an experiment/demonstration. But peas don't live long and the plants don't grow big so I'm using fast growing nitrogen fixing trees instead.
And I'm using river sand from a creek that's currently dry because it's easier to collect and won't contain salt, cigarette butts and dog turds like the sand on the beach does.

I'll update here on permies.com and there's more info and background on my site at https://www.facebook.com/TFSForest/



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Bryant RedHawk
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Good experiment Steve.

You will find that the more organic matter you can get into the sand, the better it will support plant growth.
If you want to really turn that sand into soil though, you will find that small additions of clay will go a long way to helping the sand hold on to water longer.
I've grown many plants in pure sand, I even start tree cuttings in this medium but the reason it works so well for cuttings is because it drains so quickly.
To make sand a soil there needs to be a mix of particle sizes so that the open channels are partially plugged up, this slows the percolation of water.
The more particle sizes, the better the soil becomes at holding water. The ideal would be an even ratio of large (sand) to microscopic (heavy clay) particle sizes so that one gallon (4L) of water percolated through a 1 foot depth in an hour.

Humus in pure sand tends to last around a year before it has been used up, so continual addition is required for water retention.
 
Steve Farmer
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Location: South Tenerife, Canary Islands (Spain)
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Bryant RedHawk wrote:small additions of clay will go a long way to helping the sand hold on to water longer


Great idea, and I've got plenty of (too much) clay, so what clay I take from the garden can be replaced by river sand.

For this experiment I will not add clay, just to see how it goes and as an example for areas that don't have clay, but for other beds I will definitely mix with clay to enable my plants to grow better with less work.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
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Steve, if you're going to add sand to clay, you would need to also add compost or straw at the same time.
I've seen folks that added to much sand to our thick, red, clay here and ended up worse off than if they had not added the sand.

First check the particle size of your clay soil, you may be better off using compost and other humus builders (wood chips, straw, alfalfa, buckwheat (last two as green fertilizer), and other organic materials if the clay turns sticky and very slick when wetted, this would be the best method to start making the soil better.

If the clay tends to be powdery, even when slightly moist, then you would be able to use sand from the start as one amendment.

The way I tell the two types apart is "if it will make terracotta or stone ware, it needs humus first" and "if it would make porcelain then go ahead with the sand".

 
Su Ba
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Southern New Jersey farmers started out with all sand. Over the decades of plowing back in crop residue and flipping in manures each spring, they've developed soil. Of course, those commercial farmers also use commercial fertilizers. But it doesn't have to be the case.

I started out learning gardening in those South Jersey sandy soils. Some things grew wonderfully in that sand. By tilling in homemade compost, horse manure, and autumn's leaves, my gardens were very, very productive. But back then I hadn't mastered gardening and didn't accept that I needed to spend more time than a few weekends in the spring on it, so I grew lush beds of amazingly healthy weeds. But I did manage to ferret out some tomatoes, potatoes, squash, and few other things from that tangled mass of greenery. But at least I'd till all that weedy mass back into the soil and give it another go the following spring. After several years, my sandy soil developed a richness that I wish I had today.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
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Su Ba, you are going to have great soil in the future.
I know you know what to do and are doing it.
Some of my best gardens were in Florida, took me two years of intensive amendments but I got great crops out of that sugar sand.
One thing you never have to worry about with sandy soil is huge puddles that last forever.

Where I am in Arkansas I'm pretty blessed land condition wise. We have a 2.5' sandy, stony loam on top of a 1' thick layer of pottery quality red clay and then you hit bedrock that is sand stone.
Water drains nicely and the deep clay holds on to water for a while, slowly leaking down the mountain side (wish I owned the valley portions for ponds).
When I lived in California I got to try out all the different types of soil that state has to offer, quite a learning experience that was. My job was to improve soil for growing French grape vines, then I was improving soil for vegetable seed growing, then I was improving soil for reforestation.
Seemed that every time I got the client's lands to the point they thought was really good, I got to move on to the next group of clients.
 
charlotte anthony
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wanted to share my sand planting into sand subsoil in india. we got great crops immediately. this soil was dug up by a backhoe for trenches in between coconut trees. in india you cannot plant in the direct sun in sand as it gets over 140 degrees. we were in the shade of the coconut trees.

i spread the sand from the trenches out to 6 to 8 feet. then I planted corn, many nitrogen fixers, and other crops like tomatoes, eggplant and medicinal herbs. This was over 5 acres. I had a little compost so did a base experiment with 50 feet of corn, etc. with this compost mixed into the sand. compost was from coire mixed with old cow manure.

over this test section plus the other 5 acres i fed with givumreitum. this is a mixture of cow dung, cow urine, legume power (lentils) and molasses. the recipe is 1 gallon of cow urine, 1 kg of cow dung, 1 kg of flour and 1 kg of molasses. this all goes into a drum (100 gallon or therabouts). then it is fermented for 3 days. it is stirred twice a day.

at the end of 3 days it is diluted at 10:1 and spread as soon as possible. if not spread that same or the next day, more material needs to be added to feed the microbes.

this is a version of microbe tea. elaine ingham makes it with weeds from the property. she ferments hers for 3 weeks, stirring every day. some people use aerators.

at any rate i got magnificient yields from this crop. the soil was black with good tilth down about 6 inches in one month.

as i have found out many times on my own and was delighted for elaine ingham to come up with the science behind it, all the plants need is contained in every soil. the microbes make it all available. the microbes can add tons of organic matter. no need to add outside organic matter.
 
Steve Farmer
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Location: South Tenerife, Canary Islands (Spain)
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Great info, thanks Charlotte.

Here's how my test bed looks today....

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charlotte anthony
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forgot to report on the composted 50 feet. the first 2 weeks my composted section was ahead, after 2 weeks i got exactly the same growth on my composted section as on all the rest that i just treated with essentially microbe tea.

 
Joseph Johnson
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charlotte anthony wrote:

over this test section plus the other 5 acres i fed with givumreitum. this is a mixture of cow dung, cow urine, legume power (lentils) and molasses. the recipe is 1 gallon of cow urine, 1 kg of cow dung, 1 kg of flour and 1 kg of molasses. this all goes into a drum (100 gallon or therabouts). then it is fermented for 3 days. it is stirred twice a day.

at the end of 3 days it is diluted at 10:1 and spread as soon as possible. if not spread that same or the next day, more material needs to be added to feed the microbes.

this is a version of microbe tea.



This is very interesting. I wonder if it will work in my little corner of the desert? I do have one question though, how does one obtain the cow urine? Obviously following the cow around with a bucket isn't practical. I am laughing while I type this and I am sure many will while reading it, but please believe me when I say I am dead serious and would like to know.
 
charlotte anthony
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very good question joseph about cow urine. in india they have been doing this for thousands of years. they have a connection to the animal. they touch gently a spot about an inch to the right of the anus and the cow pees. the other way is to have the cows stand on concrete for a part of the day and rig that so the urine can be caught.

you can also use any kind of microbe tea, weeds gathered from the area, and then fermented, EM (effective microorganisms) plus soluble micogrow from fungi perfecti.
 
Joy Oasis
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"this is a mixture of cow dung, cow urine, legume power (lentils) and molasses. the recipe is 1 gallon of cow urine, 1 kg of cow dung, 1 kg of flour and 1 kg of molasses."
I was wondering, would it work with some other animal or human urine too since I live in the city in climate where not many cows around. I could buy cow manure from the sore, but that probably would be useless, because I think bacteria would be dead in them. I do have guinea pigs, so I could use their manure. Their urine goes into pine pellets, so not sure how that combination would work.
 
charlotte anthony
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joy,i would not use the guinea pig manure on pine chips. where are you located. i would gather weeds and submerge the weeds in water, ferment for 21 days by stirring twice a day for one minute in each direction, and then dilute it 10 times when you spread it either by spraying or drenching. do use your guinea hen manure womewhere, maybe under your trees (in the drip line).
 
Todd Parr
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And now I'm picturing Joseph chasing a cow with a bucket in one hand and the thumb of his other hand stuck in a cow's butt... Thanks for that Brother
 
Joy Oasis
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charlotte anthony wrote:joy,i would not use the guinea pig manure on pine chips. where are you located. i would gather weeds and submerge the weeds in water, ferment for 21 days by stirring twice a day for one minute in each direction, and then dilute it 10 times when you spread it either by spraying or drenching. do use your guinea hen manure womewhere, maybe under your trees (in the drip line).

Thank you, Charlotte, for your answer. They are guinea pigs, not hens. I use their manure and urine in pellets, which become saw dust, when wet, on my garden directly since they are like rabbits, their poop doesn't burn plants.
I live in Los Angeles, and garden in the 17 by 17 foot community garden plot, so my permaculture is on a very small scale. For now anyway. Do you think weeds alone would create enough beneficial microbes? I actually did something similar with seaweed from the ocean (which I washed at first to remove as much salt as I could).
 
charlotte anthony
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yes joy, a fermented weed concoction with the soil already having everything it needs, just not available, will unlock your nutrients.


Charlotte Anthony 5:58pm Sep 28
an easy to understand description of living soil, how every soil contains what is needed for plants to grow and therefore why adding fermented microbial "potions" can dramatically improve your plants access to what they need. .

this is from anne melloy from Elaine Ingham who is working mainly in the U.S. but very relevant to Goa as to soil everywhere. great for helping us get out of "green erwevolution thinking."
An Ecological Approach

Elaine Ingham Seminar
Elaine Ingham <soilfoodweb@aol.com>
Mon, Sep 21, 2015 at 3:34 PM
To: ameloy75@gmail.com, info@nature-technologies.com
Reading through your summary, there are a couple things I would like to point out.

You describe sand, silt, clay particles, rocks, pebbles, gravel, etc as the framework for the soil "house". In fact, sand, silt, clay, rocks, etc do NOT make any such structure on their own accord.

It is the life in that matrix that builds the framework. Sand, silt, clay, rocks, etc are merely the base materials from which bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, microarthropods, earthworms, enchytraeids, etc build the framework, build structure.

No life, no aggregates, no pores, no way to maintain structure, no way to alleviate compaction.

Soils people who do not understand how soil structure is built will often talk about how tillage aerates soil. No, really, all that tillage does is fluff soil for a very short period of time. As soon as water begins to pass through the mineral particles, the fluff is lost. Rather like making cotton candy. Sure, blowing air into a syrup solution causes a light, airy structure, but at the first sign of moisture, wind, or other disturbance, the fluff is lost and it all compacts right down again.

Life builds structure. Soil organisms are much more like people, who build houses, buildings, urban, sub-urban, town, village, farm infrastruture. Without humans, none of that structure occurs. Any disturbance can destroy that structure and it may take days, weeks, months, years to re-build. But, without life, no structure will be built.

Definitions:

Probably best to start with what soil is.

As defined by Hans Jenny, the Father of Soil Science: 1. The mineral component (sand, silt clay broken down ---- by organisms for the most part --- from rocks, parent materials, gravel, pebbles, boulders, etc), 2. Organic matter component (plant detritus, debris, residues, exudates, whatever label you want to give plant material, and any and all decomposed organic materials --- possibly we need to be clear what is meant by organic: any material which contains carbon in chains ultimately produced by photosynthesis) and 3. Organisms which perform all the processes in soil that transform organic matter, release nutrients in plant available forms, structure soil, retain, hold and sequester nutrients, including carbon, etc. Of course all abiotic factors affect rates of transformation of organic matter, building of soil, etc.

Dirt then is comprised of factor 1 above: the mineral component, with a minimal amount, or no organic matter or organisms.

• compacted soils --- Compaction occurs when compression, occurring by whatever means, packs the mineral fraction, and if present, the organic fraction of soil to greater than 100 to 150 psi. Work done by Penn State clearly shows that most plants cannot push roots through soil more compacted than 150 psi. Taprooted plants may be able to pressure their way through soil up to 300 psi. Compaction as low as 50 psi can reduce oxygen and all gas movement as well as infiltration of movement of water. This means if any organism activity is present, these compacted areas will rapidly become anaerobic.

• soil structure is the formation of microaggregates (bacterial function), macroaggregates (fungal function), peds (all soil organisms working together), passageways, hallways, small pores and large pores, allowing for the movement of oxygen and other gases, water, organisms and roots.

• soil aggregation: flocculation (chemical surface interactions involving clays surfaces), and structures built by bacteria and fungi,

• mineralization/oxidation actions Mineralization requires organic compounds to be converted to mineral forms. For each compound on the Periodic Chart of Elements, mineral (including purely mineral forms in the crystalline structures of rocks, sand, silt and clay, to the soluble and exchangeable forms of each nutrient) and organic forms occur, and the role and function of each in plant growth should be understood. Oxidation: forms of nutrients when partially or wholly oxidized, along with the recognition that in SOIL, all these interactions are typically dependent on organism transformations. Extreme environments operate differently, but those conditions do not exist in soil. Reduction: All interactive sites wholly or partially occupied by hydrogen. pH: the concentration of hydrogen ions expressed in a logarithmic scale. Note that in SOIL, pH is completely dependent on BIOLOGY. Organisms control the pH of soil.

• photosynthesis, the process of storing sunlight energy in carbon - carbon bonds

• Dynamic Soil Property, ----From Anne's summary: Dynamic Soil Property (DSP) studies which quantify the changes in soil properties over a short time frame such as differences from native condition to cropped land on similar soils. Whoa ---- this concept is extremely scale-bound. When is soil NOT in a state of flux? Daily changes in organism activity abound. What are the daily, weekly, monthly inputs of organic matter? When did the herd of herbivores walk by? Rainfall, snowfall, temperature,s humidity all work to invoke changes. there is a seasonal cycle, and that cycle must be understood. This Dynamic Soil Property seems to actually be talking about DISTURBANCE impacts, not a dynamic property. A dynamic property, to me, implies how the system responds to normal seasonal shifts in conditions, not how the system responds to one particular disturbance, which may not happen again for decades, or centuries or eons.

How does each system respond to being plowed with a mould board plow? A chisel plow? A disc plow? A sub-soiler? A deep-ripper? A keyline plow with or without compost extract or tea? The response to each is different, and the effects will be different, especially if amendments are added in: inorganic feritlizers, or reduced waste, or compost or teas? If compaction is broken up and structure built, the long term response is going to be massively different than the soil just compacting back down again because no life survived the tillage event. What happens if a herd of cattle walks over the tilled ground too soon? Or when the ground is wet? Will there be a difference if there is lots of organic matter, or none? how much life was present in that organic matter? Massively different end points............

So, by DSP do you really mean, what's the effect of disturbance? There is much more useful ecological terminology present that covers this type of subject material.
----------------------------------------------
So the question for the microbiologist is: What is the role of the mineral soil?
1. Mineral nutrients: The crystalline strucutre of clay, sand, silt, rocks, pebbles, etc hold withiin it a great deal of EVERY nutrient that plants require. Bacteria and fungi make the enzymes to remove those nutrients from that crystalline lattice work and pull those nutrients into the body of bacteria and fungus, retaining, holding and keeping those nutrients bound inside the organism. The organic matter, or food, for the bacteria and fungus to do this work is usually provided by the roots of plants, or to a lesser degree, organic matter present in the soil.

Consider that there is no soil on this planet that lacks nutrients. Do not be mislead here by thinking I'm talking about SOLUBLE nutrients, because I'm not. Plants need a certain amount of each nutrient important to that plant's growth. Those nutrients are present in the sand, silt, clay, rocks, pebbles, gravel, parent materials, and so forth. No soil lacks the nutrients to grow any plant you care to grow. Please look at tables that show TOTAL NUTRIENT CONCENTRATIONS from all soil, in any part of the world where they have been tested. All the nutrients the plants could possibly want are present. And if life is present, every second of every day, new nutrients are being replenished in that soil from the bedrock, parent materials, rocks, boulders, pebbles, gravel..........etc. Until the bones of the planet are gone, there will always be nutrients in the soil.

So why do plants grow better, green up, yield more when inorganic fertilizers are added? Because those fertilizers are the soluble forms of nutrients that plants require. All that is necessary is to convert the TOTAL sets of nutrients present in any soil, in the sand silt and clay, into plant available, soluble forms, and you don't needed inorganic fertilizers.

How does that conversion occur in the real world? Soil biology does that job. Inorganic, soluble fertilizers ONLY WORK, only give a plant response if soil biology is destroyed.

How did human beings destroy soil life? Tillage; compaction; use of high salt manures, and we have maintained that lack of life by using inorganic fertilizers and pesticides.

Want to return to an agriculture where we don't destroy soil, but build it? Must return soil life, in the proper balances, to cycle and retain nutrients, prevent disease and pest organisms from being able to grow, build structure to allow water, air and root to move as deep as they can into the soil, decompose toxin, present weeds..............

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A clay particle is about the same size as a bacterium. But bacteria growing, increasing in number, given enough food, can increase to larger than the size of the Planet Earth within about 96 hours. Luckily, lack of food stops this from happening, but given infinite resources, they could do that.

So consider that within a few hours, a bacterial aggregate can be the size of a sand grain, and those bacteria happily glue all sorts of organic matter, clays, silts, etc into that aggregate. With the help of a few fungi, the microaggregates can be turned into macro-aggregates that people can see with their eyes. And consider all the benefits that come with building these structure, and that this structure can only occur IF THE ORGANISMS ARE PRESENT AND FUNCTIONING.

We can certainly see clays, silts and sand grains using a 400X total magnification. but if the sand is big and hard to see what is on it, then we back off to 200X, or 100X or 40X. Or a hand lens. We can look at interactions are any scale that is useful.

“The secrets of soil are being un-earthed. <wink> All puns intended!” Elaine R. Ingham. 2015

Elaine R. Ingham
Soil Life Consultant
 
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