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Transitioning Soil From Row Crops To Garden  RSS feed

 
Clay Rogers
Posts: 33
Location: WI Zone 5a
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We recently purchased a new house with some land. About 4 of the acres had been used to grow corn (row crops) by the previous owner. We want to use this same area for our garden and also our orchard. We want to transition to using cover crops and maintaining healthy soil. We are new to this though and our first question is what should be our game-plan to get this soil that was used for row crops back to being good soil? It has been fallow for a year and a half now so we're hoping any chemicals that were used have had a chance to dissipate.

So, what should our plan be to transition this soil from being used for "traditional" row crops to a system where we use cover crops?

I am a complete newb so thanks for any help you guys can provide.
 
Tyler Ludens
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Would it be possible for you to post a picture of the land so we can get a sense of how it relates to the house and other features? How you go about transitioning may be dependent on what you might be using the land for in the future - you mention a vegetable garden and an orchard. Generally the vegetable garden should be quite close to the house for the most convenience. Other features which you might visit frequently, such as animal housing, might want to be close to the house also, but a little further away than the vegetable garden though possibly adjacent to it. The orchard also might not want to be very close to the house since it won't be visited as frequently, but close to the animal area because you might want to be able to run chickens through it sometimes to break fruit pest cycles.

The vegetable garden area might want to be planted with a mix of annual legumes in the Spring, and these cut down for mulch or compost as each bed is made ready for planting vegetables. You might also want to locate a source of wood chips for the vegetable garden. The future animal paddocks might be planted to palatable pasture plants including legumes, some annual, some perennial. The orchard could be planted to many kinds of legumes - annual, perennial, shrubs and trees, which would gradually be removed as the orchard trees are planted and need more room.

 
r ranson
master steward
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Location: Left Coast Canada
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What an exciting adventure. Welcome to permies.com.

My first thought is that the most useful thing you can do to start is to observe your land. Maybe some areas have more ground water than others, maybe some sections are just swamped and the roots have a hard time getting oxygen. Or maybe some areas have too good a drainage. When do your rains start/stop? Frost dates for YOUR ACTUAL farm, not just the regional dates. All stuff that need actual observations to discover.

Another question to ask yourself is what sort of amendments did the previous people use in the soil. Did they use pesticides? Are you going to? (it's your decision if you do, no one here has the bad taste to judge you for it). If you want to let nature do the work for you instead, like allowing predatory bugs/creatures eat your pests, then there are thoughts on how you can make this happen. Hedgerows for example are proven to encourage pollinators, diversify wild life, provide wind breaks... &c. This might be a useful tool for you. Traditional hedgerows have food trees in them. So that's an added benefit. You don't need as much space dedicated to your orchard if you have edible hedge rows that are also helping your other crops.

There are lots of ways you can go with your land. I think you'll find that this site is overflowing with ideas and suggestions. Any questions and there is someone here who can offer solutions.


I dream of having a situation like yours. My thoughts would be that the first year I would start a small veggie garden near the house. Maybe a keyhole garden and another herb garden. I would also get myself a half dozen hens and a roo (for eggs, fertilizer and baby chickens). The rest of the land I would grow cover cops and observe how the land acts. Are there microclimates that mean this area is colder in the morning, that area gets the last sun at night. Every day I would walk a different section and simply drink in all the information the land can give me. What weeds grow here or there.

The cover crops I grow would also be things I like to eat. So, for example, fava beans or grain over winter, dry soup peas during the summer. Things like that which can be tilled under and build the soil... but if there happens to be an awesome patch of growing, I will put aside a quarter acre to mature and harvest for my own consumption and next year's seed.

Probably during this time I would work on my fences.

My thoughts for my future are to do a combination of livestock, tilled land and no-till Fukuoka style farming. On a bad year, I figure that 1/4 acre of a crop would be enough to feed my family and give me lots of seed leftover for next year. In a good year, it would give me all that plus a lot to sell. 1/4 acre is also big enough to work by tractor, and small enough to work by hand. I would probably do a combination of fence/hedgerow so that I can run livestock in the fields/pastures in the fallow times. The hedge rows would be my main fruit source, with a few fruit trees nearer the house.

As I work the fields, I would gather together all the stones I find. I dream of having a walled garden, maybe about 1/8th of an acre, near the house. Filed stones can be used to make this happen... or used for building foundations for a cob house... or lots of other useful things.

I would also create a forest for coppicing. This would involve trees that grow fast, produce food, mulch or building supplies. Some nut trees for example.



Well, that got away from me (as usual). There are so many wonderful things you can do with the land.

Can you tell us more about your dreams and your land... maybe we can come up with some more ideas you can use for inspiration.
 
Scott Strough
Posts: 299
Location: Oklahoma
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Clay Rogers wrote:We recently purchased a new house with some land. About 4 of the acres had been used to grow corn (row crops) by the previous owner. We want to use this same area for our garden and also our orchard. We want to transition to using cover crops and maintaining healthy soil. We are new to this though and our first question is what should be our game-plan to get this soil that was used for row crops back to being good soil? It has been fallow for a year and a half now so we're hoping any chemicals that were used have had a chance to dissipate.

So, what should our plan be to transition this soil from being used for "traditional" row crops to a system where we use cover crops?

I am a complete newb so thanks for any help you guys can provide.


The first thing I would do is mulch it heavily and start the process of feeding the soil food web. Best to find a free source of mulch...like leaves, ramial wood chips, old spoiled hay, etc. If you cant find free, then the most economical is to find a farmer with those big round bales of hay and buy several, unrolling them on the acreage.

If the soil is particularly degraded and the soil food web is not functioning adequately, you can inoculate with compost tea/extract made properly (see how from Dr Elaine Ingham). If you are still a novice at compost and compost tea, you could try a commercial product designed to remediate commercially chemical degraded agricultural soil. revita-N

Once you have healthy populations of all five major functional microbial groups; actinomycetes, algae, bacteria, free living fungi, and protozoa. (both properly done compost tea and commercial products like revita-N can do that for you) Then you can start working on your specific areas according to permaculture design principles. When you plant the first year or two I also recommend a mycorrhizal fungi product, as those populations are also very probably quite low as well. Here is a good one I can recommend: MycoGrow

If your earthworm populations are extremely low, growing some earthworms to later scatter around will help jump start everything as well. Make sure to find the right kind. Different types of earthworms live in different soil zones and habitats.

Keep in mind that because you are transitioning to a organic permaculture type of system that doesn't use all those harsh chemical fertilizers and pesticides, you are only buying these products in the beginning. In commercial ag they generally need them every year. You won't once the soil health starts recovering.
 
Bryant RedHawk
garden master
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Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
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Clay Rogers wrote:We recently purchased a new house with some land. About 4 of the acres had been used to grow corn (row crops) by the previous owner. We want to use this same area for our garden and also our orchard. We want to transition to using cover crops and maintaining healthy soil. We are new to this though and our first question is what should be our game-plan to get this soil that was used for row crops back to being good soil? It has been fallow for a year and a half now so we're hoping any chemicals that were used have had a chance to dissipate.

So, what should our plan be to transition this soil from being used for "traditional" row crops to a system where we use cover crops?

I am a complete newb so thanks for any help you guys can provide.


Congratulations on your new house and land. The first thing to do is lay out a grid pattern on the area(s) you plan to use for gardens and orchard so you can take good soil samples for testing.
If you don't know what you are starting with, you could add things you already have available in the soil.
When you take these samples to your extension service, ask them to do a residual insecticide/ residual herbicide test along with the normal soil test.
This way you can find out if you need to use mycorrhizal remediation methods to remove residuals.
It will also guide you to best choice cover crops so you don't waste money or time growing items your soil doesn't really need.
If you don't want to get the soil tested, then things like comfrey, all the clovers, buckwheat, alfalfa, harry vetch are all good covers that can be chopped and dropped.
The resulting mulch will eventually ad humus to the soil, attract earth worm activity as well as protect the soil from evaporation and erosion.

Since the land has been fallow for a short time, look at the current plants that are in the process of reclaiming the land for the earth mother, they will give you many hints as to what is missing nutrient wise as well as the compaction rate of the land.

I recommend getting a copy of gaia's garden, it will be a very helpful guide to you as you go along.
 
Joseph Lofthouse
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Clay Rogers wrote:We are new to this though and our first question is what should be our game-plan to get this soil that was used for row crops back to being good soil? It has been fallow for a year and a half now so we're hoping any chemicals that were used have had a chance to dissipate.

So, what should our plan be to transition this soil from being used for "traditional" row crops to a system where we use cover crops?


There are fields around here, that have been row-cropped for 150 years, and they still have great soil. My world view is that weeds provide as much of a cover crop as seeds that are bought from The Corporation. When I start using a field that used to be farmed with chemicals, I figure that it takes about 3 years for the field to start growing things normally again.

Last time I checked on the price to cover 174,000 square feet of ground with mulch, it was about the same cost as buying a house. Certainly not in my budget, so I grow lots of weeds, and they return to the soil where they were grown.

 
r ranson
master steward
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So many thoughts and ideas on how to do this. I'm really enjoying reading everyone's input.

Testing soil is a good idea, I didn't think about this.

I can also see advantages to importing mulch. It makes a lot of sense for a quick build up of organic matter.

Definitely things I will think about once I get my own dream property.


There is a huge temptation to go all out and improve the land in one big act. We did that when we moved to this place (I say 'we' when it was really someone else in the household who is no longer here). It was a huge mistake. The people improving the land didn't take any time to observe it first. All the trees were planted in the one part of the property that wouldn't support trees and also the coldest part during the winter so the young trees all died. Soil and mulch were bought and placed in the place where it eroded away with the first fall rain. A few meters left or right, and it would have been awesome, but in the middle of an ephemeral stream...not a success. But one can not see the stream in the summer, and there are only a few small hints that it is a fast flowing water way. That is until the rains come. The individual responsible didn't pay close enough attention to the land as it is, rather they saw the land as they wanted it to be.

All sorts of mistakes like that which cost a huge amount of money and wasted a tremendous amount of time.

Now the next time we move to a new property, I would do almost nothing to the soil for at least one year. All I would focus on is fencing and observation. Once I have a better idea of how the land works, I (being a miserly kind of person) would work slowly at soil restoration. Instead of importing mulch, I would look around the property for free sources, and grow my own food crops that also provide mulch and other good things the soil needs. It may take a few years longer but I don't mind that. I have the rest of my life to improve the soil.

Then again, these other ways also work. I'm a huge advocate of observation then action but I know it's not the only way to do it.

It really comes down to what your hopes and dreams are for the property. Do you mind lots of weeds? If not, then mulching with hay is just the thing for you. Even better if you plan to pasture animals on the field because the seeds that are in the hay grow the plants the animals enjoy. The hay does double duty that way. If not, then maybe a cover crop life fall rye that you can till under in the spring. The rye prevents a lot of the weed seeds from germinating, but is easy enough to work with so that your seeds germinate just fine.



One more thought I had. If the field has been in corn production for a long time, there might be herbicides in the soil that prevent non-corn plants from growing. What are the solutions for this?
 
Bryant RedHawk
garden master
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Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
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hau R Ranson, first I want to second your observe first and act later according to those observations part of your post, sage advice that is indeed.

The best way I've found to remediate lands that have herbicide and or pesticide build up is with mycorrhizal fungi and other fungi.
In our case we had one area that the previous owners (according to my testing with the GC/fid) had sprayed copious amounts of Roundup on.
The levels of residue were 450 ppm at the first test. I got those down to 120 ppb in one year by inoculating the area and beyond with 4 liters of mycorrhizal spore bearing liquid.
This last fall I inoculated this area once again but this time I used 8 liters of a blended spore liquid, it contained several of the local varieties as well as purchased spawn.
I expect this second inoculation to get the levels down to single digit ppb or even into the realm of ppt (parts per trillion).

As you brought up, trying to remediate an entire property at once can be difficult to near impossible without inviting disaster.
I always recommend to use a grid pattern and work on one space at a time, this keeps initial costs low and if you mess up, it isn't total disaster.
I am also a big believer in mapping out a property then use copies of this to plan out each phase of development, this method reduces having to redo something that doesn't really fit like you thought it would.

Going slow is the method mother earth uses, it will work just as well for humans. Observation is where you start and where you come back to repeatedly as you get areas headed to where you want them to be on the development scale.
Peace and many blessings to you kola.
 
r ranson
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This is why it's so fantastic to have such a diversity of ideas.

Before this thread, I never would have thought to use fungi like that. It goes on my list of 'possible tools of awesomeness for restoring soil health' (my brain is odd, it makes creative titles for the lists it keeps). When I finally have my forever farm, I can give it a try and see how it goes.
 
John Polk
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R Ranson wrote:This is why it's so fantastic to have such a diversity of ideas. Before this thread, I never would have thought to use fungi like that. It goes on my list of 'possible tools of awesomeness for restoring soil health'.

Fungi are the first step in restoring soils. See http://www.fungi.com/blog/items/mycorrhizal-management.html

Soil without fungi is called 'dirt'. Fungi is the building block that all other soil life is dependent upon.
 
Clay Rogers
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Location: WI Zone 5a
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Thanks for the info so far. I think you guys are right in getting it tested first. I guess I am assuming that since they used chemicals etc, that it would be less than ideal.

You guys have me thinking that maybe we will spend the first year trying to get the soil in better condition and not worry about actually planting this year. Or, just plant a small garden just to see how it does and work on the soil properties in the majority of the area. We plan on using cover crops so maybe use this season to get the soil right and plant a cover crop this fall?

Part of why I wanted to start so soon though is the orchard. I know that fruit trees take years to produce so I though I should at least get that started.

I may start a new thread and post the layout of my land. I'm not sure where I want the orchard and the garden to go. As you'll see, our land is configured kind of odd in how it's laid out. We have a lot of room....just not much right around the house. So, I was thinking orchard in a farther away area but not sure how far away to put it to allow for orchard/garden expansion in the future. I don't want to over-think it but I don't want to just hastily put it somewhere either.
 
Scott Strough
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John Polk wrote:
R Ranson wrote:This is why it's so fantastic to have such a diversity of ideas. Before this thread, I never would have thought to use fungi like that. It goes on my list of 'possible tools of awesomeness for restoring soil health'.

Fungi are the first step in restoring soils. See http://www.fungi.com/blog/items/mycorrhizal-management.html

Soil without fungi is called 'dirt'. Fungi is the building block that all other soil life is dependent upon.
I sort of agree with you John. However there are five major functional microbial groups; actinomycetes, algae, bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. You need all 5 in balance. And yes I agree, the difference between soil and "dirt" is the life in the soil, both alive and decaying. it's all part of the carbon cycle. Just clarifying that it isn't just fungi that makes the difference.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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I agree with you Scott, there are more organisms in soil that just fungi, but you will not find them in equilibrium in most places. The organisms that make soil operate like plants, in succession, the first to come along are usually bacteria. If you are in a swampy area then you will find the algae and protozoa as the dominate groups with bacteria and actinomycetes tagging along.

The important thing every one needs to keep in mind is that soil is an organism, just like any organism, there are many parts that function in different ways and are found in differing concentrations and levels of activity depending on the needs at the time of the organism.
 
Peter Ellis
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As usual, Bryant hits many excellent points. Rather than assuming the soil is poor, it should be checked. Running four acres as a garden is a pretty big job. Also would produce quite a load of vegetables. Are you planning on commercial production? Because that is the scale with a four acre garden, way more than a single family would need. There is a tremendous amount of information on this site about the many aspects of this transitional process.

Probably the first and most important piece of this whole puzzle is a really clear statement of what it is you want to do with this piece of land. From there you can start looking at your land and working out how to get it from what it is, to what you want it to be. You've described separate orchard and garden, but you might want to look into the idea of the forest garden, an integrated way of growing tree crops and others together.

Mulching four acres to any meaningful degree is out of reach for most people. About 160,000 square feet, mulch it six inches deep, enough to mean something, would be 80,000 cubic feet of mulch. That is an awful lot.

Green manure cover crops make sense on acreage scale and provide living mulch. Rather than thinking about the entire property at once, it might make sense to think in smaller pieces. For example, there's no reason not to go ahead and do an annual vegetable garden on a household scale while observing and planning the larger scale design of the property. Performance in the vegetable garden can tell you things about the soil, while giving you a yield.

You might think about using compost tea on the acreage scale, even though you might not produce nearly enough compost to work on four acres. Compost tea is a powerful means of inoculating your land with all of the microbial life for healthy soils. Dr. Elaine Ingham has several lectures on youtube explaining the use and benefits of compost tea.

Depending on your circumstances, this idea might work - plant a cover crop mix of things like fodder radish, field peas, clover, wheatgrass; let that grow for a while and then mob graze that pasture. Fast way of improving soil, but you have got to be able to manage some livestock (I would think sheep).
 
Clay Rogers
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Location: WI Zone 5a
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I have learned how damaging tilling the soil can be. I'm trying to figure out though how to get the land from the rows that are established now with the remains of a corn stalk sticking up to something suitable for planting. Any ideas?

Like I said, up until recently I would till the soil and be left with nice soft soil ready for planting. Short of doing that here I'm not sure how to transition it.

 
Bryant RedHawk
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Clay Rogers wrote:I have learned how damaging tilling the soil can be. I'm trying to figure out though how to get the land from the rows that are established now with the remains of a corn stalk sticking up to something suitable for planting. Any ideas?

Like I said, up until recently I would till the soil and be left with nice soft soil ready for planting. Short of doing that here I'm not sure how to transition it.



It is possible to use a drag to flatten out land that has "plowed rows" already formed. Another solution is to just leave them as is or you can use a broad fork, or sub-soiler to bring those down gradually and retain the microorganisms that are living there now.

If you really need to "flatten" the land then a single time plowing could be done, but that will mean rebuilding the microorganism colonies through inoculations and application of mulches and green (chop and drop) manures.

Depending on what your use plans are, one of these will present itself as the best and wisest choice once you have observed how the land holds water, grows plants and resists wind damage.
 
Peter Ellis
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Clay Rogers wrote:I have learned how damaging tilling the soil can be. I'm trying to figure out though how to get the land from the rows that are established now with the remains of a corn stalk sticking up to something suitable for planting. Any ideas?

Like I said, up until recently I would till the soil and be left with nice soft soil ready for planting. Short of doing that here I'm not sure how to transition it.



How are you planning to plant in these fields? no till calls for planting through litter, through crimped cover crops. You do not need to do anything other than plant what you want to grow into the field as it stands now, stubble and all. The stubble will break down over time and be part of your soil's nutrition.
 
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