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soil too dense, how to make soil fluffy?  RSS feed

 
ellie acorn
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Hey. We are gardening over here in some raised beds. Have been sheet mulching with compost every year for the last two years, and this last fall did a pretty consistent weekly/bi-weekly compost tea regiment. All in attempt to boost up the soil fertility and health. Now it appears very rich and full of worms. however the soil is now pretty dense, when i pick it up and squeeze it, it doesn't really crumble but stays in a clump. Wondering how to bring in some more fluff and spaces. can i just add sand and mix it in. would that be a good option? i even have perilite that i use for propagating would that also work. Any ideas would be very appreciated. thanks. ellie
 
Casie Becker
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Perlite could work, but seems both labor intensive an expensive. As I understand it, the chemicals that cause soil to be come crumbly as produced by fungi. Do the materials used in your compost and your sheet mulch layers encourage fungal or bacterial decay?

I think generally leaves and woody materials encourage fungi, but I don't know what else.
 
Russ Chase
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Location: Enterprise NWT Canada
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I have seen this before and experienced it myself. I'm not sure if you have any sand in your area but once it's mixed in with your soil it will improve things also peat moss works well.
 
Steve Oh
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Location: SW Ohio, 6b, heavy clay prone to hardpan
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A quick way to loosen dense soil is to add sand and peat. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who don't like to use peat due to the way it is harvested, and the ensuing damage to the ecosystem.
However, the addition of peat is simple a way to introduce un-decomposed organic matter, adding loft to the soil. There are other ways to do that.

We have a terribly dense clay here, at the house, that preferred to grow puddles of green slime rather than plants. There was no real soil, just a red clay over blue clay. A situation obviously brought about by poor soil management. In areas where we wanted a quick fix we hauled in a semi-dump load of medium sand and another of coarsely shredded yard waste (rather humorously labeled as "mushroom compost"). We spread those by wheelbarrow, rake and shovel then tilled it in. Yes, I know tilling isn't good for soil, but there was no soil. In other areas where we were willing to wait, we simply started mulching heavily with uncomposted wood chips, shredded leaves and sawdust, repeated every year. Prior to the next mulching we would lightly fork over last year's mulch and add some compost, to add nutrients.

In the first year, the tilled area recovered amazingly, and the soil's structure showed massive improvements, the area went from a giant piece of unfired pottery to a healthy garden and lawn (we live in suburbia, so some lawn is inevitable). However, the more telling findings required five years to discover. Eventually the mulched and forked areas produced a better soil than the tilled areas. Dark, rich, full of life and almost spongy, the mulched areas have grown some amazing plants, sunflowers reached the third story, yard long beans produced so prolifically that we finally pulled the plants and composted them, because we ran out of space to store the beans, we even have a pair of chinese yam plants growing there, that produce ten gallons of bulbils every fall. Fast forward to ten years later and the results remain the same. The best soil is that where we mulch heavily with uncomposted organic matter, it strongly resembles to deep loam in out local forests. The big areas we tilled are doing very well, but the soil structure is still rather dense. All areas always have something growing in them, even if only grasses, and the roots and worms seem to be able to keep the soil healthy now.

We also have a friendly neighbor that uses traditional "natural" compost gardening techniques, and can see the results in his soil, which is certainly better than the original clay, but not all that great, compared to the improvements in our soil. The "compost only" soil in his garden is still heavy and clay-ey, and tends to clump. He recently added some peat, which did improve things quite a bit.

Compost is a wonderful thing, but If you want to improve the soil structure, I strongly believe that you need to let the soil do the composting in situ(mimicking the natural process), by adding uncomposted organic matter. We use compost quite a bit, as fertilizer. We use sand and uncomposted matter for soil structure. I am glad to have had the experience of seeing, literally side by side, the differences produced by several techniques. Yes, uncomposted mulch can drain nitrogen, but, perhaps because we add compost each fall, we don't have any problems. We also leave the mulch on the soil's surface and only disturb it by forking it over in the fall.

Usually, uncomposted yard/garden waste is plentiful, just be careful if you have diseased plant bits. Debris that may spread diseases should be hot composted or burned. For this reason we used mostly wood chips and sawdust.

 
Jon Marx
Posts: 1
Location: NE Tennessee
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I would be very careful about adding sand to 'dense' soil as that can often result in exactly the opposite of what you're trying to achieve. If you decide to go that route, I would strongly recommend using a test plot before amending your entire garden.

It's difficult to make a recommendation based on the information available, but gypsum (often sold cheaply as 'soil conditioner' but check ingredients) could be your answer. Even if it doesn't solve your problem, it won't cause any harm.

Beyond that, the default response to most soil woes is, "Add organic matter." Peat can be useful, but be aware that it is acidic and will likely lower your pH.
 
Bryant RedHawk
gardener
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Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
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ellie acorn wrote:Hey. We are gardening over here in some raised beds. Have been sheet mulching with compost every year for the last two years, and this last fall did a pretty consistent weekly/bi-weekly compost tea regiment. All in attempt to boost up the soil fertility and health. Now it appears very rich and full of worms. however the soil is now pretty dense, when i pick it up and squeeze it, it doesn't really crumble but stays in a clump. Wondering how to bring in some more fluff and spaces. can i just add sand and mix it in. would that be a good option? i even have perilite that i use for propagating would that also work. Any ideas would be very appreciated. thanks. ellie


hau ellie, the problem you describe is indicative of soil with lower humus levels. There are several things you can do to fix this issue.
1. grow a crop of deep rooting vegetables then chop the tops and let the roots decay, things like rape, daikon radish, large carrots all do wonders when used to loosen soils.
2. get some wood chips on the soil or even better gather up some tree fall branches that show fungi at work and crumble these on the soil, this will introduce local fungi to your plot(s).
3. find some mushrooms, put the caps in a blender with some non chlorinated water (purified water from the grocery store is great for this) and blend them up, pour this suspension onto your plot.
4. amendments like peat, this will help but it also will add acidity to the soil, unless you plan on growing acid lovers or have basic (alkaline) soil, I would try to stay away from this one.
5. cotton seed meal, this stuff is great if you can find it, it will loosen soil, provide a nutrient base for fungi, doesn't increase acidity of the soil. It does take a lot of this stuff to really make a difference though but it is usually pretty cheap to purchase when you can find it.
6. continue as you have been doing, the soil will come around, it just takes time to build up the humus in such a plot.

compost tea does a lot for bacteria but now that you have those installed, it is time to get the fungi going. If you like you can go to paul stamets site mycogrow and purchase some of his mycorrhizal inoculant, this will really jump start the fungi as well as boost your crop plants.

Overall it seems that you are on the right track and well along the way to having as good a soil as you can get. Keep up the good works, they will pay big dividends.

By the way, please add your location information so everyone can give you site specific recommendations, it helps us be more able to help you. Thanks
 
ev kuhn
Posts: 55
Location: N-E edge of Atlanta
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ellie acorn wrote:Hey. We are gardening over here ... however the soil is now pretty dense, when i pick it up and squeeze it, it doesn't really crumble but stays in a clump. ..

where is 'over here'?
at least down here
it is mid of February, it is cold and WET
my soil will stay soggy, lumpy, heavy until it warms up and the soil dries out some

if you need it nice and crumbly RIGHT NOW dig it up and take it inside, will work wonders
 
chip sanft
pollinator
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Location: 18 acres & heart in zone 4 (central MN). Current abode: Knoxville (zone 6 /7)
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We have dense clay soil and made significant, fairly quick improvements by:

1. Adding stable scrapings (i.e., fairly fine wood chips with horse urine and manure mixed in) to the garden in a really thick layer of 10 - 12". This has broken down and left a nice soft layer of good stuff. The breakdown of wood takes up nitrogen (which will be freed up later) and manure/urine have lots of the N to help balance that. If you do it right, this turns into a nice start to soil that gets better as the fungi, worms, etc. act on it over time.
2. Adding many pounds of homemade vermicompost with the worms still in it.
3. Adding leaves and similar on top. This breaks down into humus, which will mix into the rest, and the worms love it.

We've been planting lots of different plants to try to get roots down into the clay. It's proving tricky, as some of the usual suggestions (e.g., daikon) didn't dig down well for us. Forage turnips did. YMMV. But we're experimenting and not pulling any roots out, strictly chopping and dropping veggie waste plants. Any addition of healthy organic matter should help clay. Grow what grows, I says.
 
Bryant RedHawk
gardener
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Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
243
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hau chip, The best things to add to clay soil to get it to accept humus are gypsum and lime.
These two items, along with what you are already doing will get your clay soil headed towards friable soil.
By adding either one or both you should see great improvement in one year.
 
Casie Becker
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Location: Just northwest of Austin, TX
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Bryant RedHawk wrote:hau chip, The best things to add to clay soil to get it to accept humus are gypsum and lime.
These two items, along with what you are already doing will get your clay soil headed towards friable soil.
By adding either one or both you should see great improvement in one year.


I don't know anything about gypsum (except hearing that you can source it from scrap drywall in dumpsters) but you probably want to check your soil before adding lime. In my area of Texas you have a choice between caliche and dense clay for your soil. (The bricks for many of our government buildings came from this area.) The catch is that both of these are highly alkaline because limestone is the base material that has broken down to create these soils. I can't imagine what someone would have to do to their soil to need added lime in this area. Reasons like this are why we strongly encourage you to put some location information into your public profile. Especially with gardening, your answers may vary with your mileage.

Oops, I see this was directed at Chip, not the original poster. Sorry, you probably did use his information before posting that suggestion. I'll still leave the above as a reminder for others looking to apply the same technique. I've read enough of your posts that I should have double checked before thinking you'd posted generic advice, sorry Bryant.
 
chip sanft
pollinator
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Location: 18 acres & heart in zone 4 (central MN). Current abode: Knoxville (zone 6 /7)
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Bryant RedHawk wrote:hau chip, The best things to add to clay soil to get it to accept humus are gypsum and lime.
These two items, along with what you are already doing will get your clay soil headed towards friable soil.
By adding either one or both you should see great improvement in one year.

Our soil is already much improved, I was just explaining how we did it. I always hesitate to add outside materials if I can avoid it. So while I've taken ruminant by-products from people who have horses (and tested it for persistent herbicide residues before use), that's about it. Everything else is our own product. I only meant to note to Ellie that if one plant doesn't work down into her dense soil, others will.
 
Bryant RedHawk
gardener
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Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
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Chip, I don't know if you have read many of my posts but I always like folks to do soil tests first so they know where the land stands and they have a base line for improving their soil. Sorry, I didn't mention that in my post to you.
I was just trying to offer some things that you had not mentioned doing.
I am a huge proponent of observe first, develop plan of attack, carry through the plan while continuing to observe the results as you go.
I apologize if I said anything that offended you.

I have some friends that are in the same situation as you, choice of caliche or dense clay.
We have improved the friability of their heavy clay to the point that they can grow root vegetables easily.
I still haven't found a really good solution to the caliche but we are working on some things that are showing a little promise.,

 
Casie Becker
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Location: Just northwest of Austin, TX
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That was actually me with the caliche/clay comment. I'm just always trying to remember that a lot people who have NO experience are looking for advice on these forums. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

We've always combated the caliche by building soil right on top, either in a raised bed or digging a pit. Just like with clay it boiled down to organic matter. But we probably have the easiest to deal with caliche, usually it's chalky rather than concrete and so determined roots can force their way through.
 
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 Cassie, I'm sure you know that I always recommend soil tests before doing anything.
In Arkansas one of the things that is usually found upon initial soil testing is that either gypsum or lime is needed to some extent.
On occasion we find that after an application of gypsum, a light pass of lime helps the gypsum be utilized better, this is determined by a soil test after the gypsum has had time to incorporate.
Observation is always key to every process I use in soil improvement.

In highly alkaline soils like yours, coffee grounds are a super amendment, and it doesn't take long to gather up enough to make a difference.
In fact if a site is really basic, using brewed coffee can add a lot of acid quickly, we have used our morning left overs for that purpose (works good for moving ant colonies too).
Worms love them and I have places on our farm that worms now thrive because of all the coffee grounds we've put on.
Prior to adding the grounds, there were no worms present. I've even been using them to ready one area for planting blueberries.
The soil in that area had an initial pH of 7.5 and after adding 5 lbs. of grounds the pH is reading 6.5. I plan on adding 5 lbs. this spring and again in the mid- summer if the pH tests shows it could use them.


BTW, you can get agricultural gypsum in a bag, which will not have some of the additives (glues, arsenic, etc.) that could be found in drywall.

It is awesome that your caliche is not the concrete type.

one of our current experiments is with that concrete caliche, we have taken a plot 6' square and are using organic citrus left overs and (to old to consume) fermented vegetables as a compost on top of the exposed caliche, since this material has some acetic acid, it has started to show signs of dissolving.
There is still a lot to work on in this experiment but I am optimistic at this point that it might end up working well.

 
Casie Becker
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Location: Just northwest of Austin, TX
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Bryant RedHawk wrote:I've even been using them to ready one area for planting blueberries.
The soil in that area had an initial pH of 7.5 and after adding 5 lbs. of grounds the pH is reading 6.5. I plan on adding 5 lbs. this spring and again in the mid- summer if the pH tests shows it could use them.


I'm taking special note of your experience for blueberries. I just finished potting up two bare root blue berry plants to baby them into better root systems before installing them in the raised bed we've been preparing. It's been compost, manure, logs and wood wood chips. We do occasionally hit up the local coffee shops for coffee grounds. I think we may start directing more of those to our future blueberry plot. Thank you.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
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You are welcome Casie, Philamayaye (thanks), since I am a soil scientist and horticulturist, I'm always looking for better methods and I love sharing what I find that works, it is what brought me to this site in the first place.
I consider everyone on permies a kola (friend).
 
steve bossie
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Location: Northern Maine (zone 3b-4a)
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i had heavy clay in my garden. i added some coconut coir and it solved the problem. its relatively cheap. i get mine from amazon. is neutral ph so it won't mess things up and its a renewable resource. wet it before adding it to the soil. good luck!
 
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