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no decent soil on 1 acre

 
                    
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Hello,
I have about an acre that was scalped during the
building process. There's about 2 to 4 inches of soil over
sand. No shade east, south or west. Any planted tree grows
shorter each year (top branches die) if it manages to survive.
Some areas, not even weeds or moss will grow. Now would
you have some suggestions for something this size in this
much trouble?
Some suggested tilling but there's rocks and sand under it.
Landscaper would like $11,000 to take up what's there, put
down new look loam and seed and, he said don't bother
without installing irrigation. Which would probably empty my
well.
I'm not looking for an acre of lawn. Just not an acre of
sand and weed.

Thanks for any suggestions you might have.
Amelia
 
paul wheaton
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Posts: 20451
Location: missoula, montana (zone 4)
bee chicken hugelkultur trees wofati woodworking
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I think if you have sand there, and it's a fairly loose sand, you're in luck.

I would want to focus on the trees first. I'm a big fan of mulching and my favorite mulch is bales of moldy alfalfa (thanks ruth stout). Lay the alfalfa down about three to six inches deep around the tree. Keep the alfalfa at least six inches away from the tree. Worms will show up and work the alfalfa into the soil. Deeper and deeper.

Some folks will whine about how the alfalfa will have weed seeds and those weeds will sprout. If that happens, add more hay to smother the weeds.

As the trees and shrubs grow and grow, grass will find it easier to hang around and your sand will become more like soil as time passes.
 
                    
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Amelia, I second what Paul said and will add some general principles.  Consider how Nature builds soil -- from the top down, by depositing organic material (OM) on the surface and letting it rot in place.  Start in one small area of your yard, probably around the existing trees so as to get as much nourishment to them as possible before their growth is irretrievably compromised.  Do what Paul suggested.  Also think about sources for other OM.  Newspapers under the straw are great.  Worms are attracted to wet, decaying newspapers (no glossy material).  Get produce waste from your local grocery store.  Do you have access to horse manure and stable bedding?  Do your neighbors bag all their leaves in the autumn and place them curbside for pickup?  Do they bag their lawn clippings?

(If you want to be totally organic, you'll have to give thought to whether the manure contains worm medicine, and whether the lawns have been chemically treated.  That's your decision.)

As for weeds, consider them your fallow crop until you have time to do something more in the next areas.  Let them grow a bit, cut them down, leave them in place to rot.  They've taken nutrients from the soil; now let the rotting plants return those nutrients, plus whatever the plants made via photosynthesis, to the soil; in addition, their decomposition adds yet more OM to the soil, improving it.

In the same vein, you might check seed catalogs for cover crops for poor soil.  Sow as directed, cut down, let rot, etc., as for weeds described above.  Some of these are particularly useful for mining nutrients deep down and also for breaking up hard soil.

You don't say where you are.  That might figure in whether you really need an expensive irrigation system (I suspect not).  We live in central Virginia, land of the relentless summer sun.  We had 35 days without rain this past August and early September.  The heavily mulched veg garden never needed watering all that time but kept on producing, the soil remaining cool with the slightest suggestion of moisture to the touch.

Building soil this way takes a few years but I think it's a fascinating challenge.

I'll be happy to continue this discussion if you like.
 
                                
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Love the suggestions.  I have two large trees in my front yard, one oak the other maple, and have very little grass under them.  The grass I do have is beautiful when it comes up in the spring, but is gone by mid-summer.  I don't know what kind it is, but I don't like it!!

What kind of grass would you recommend for me?  I live in Cincinnati, OH.  The rest of the front yard is in full sun so I need something that takes full shade & full sun. Hmmm.  Sounds like a mystery to be solved. 

Oh, yeah.  I also have a 40 ft. cedar tree that doesn't have grass under it.

We have lots of clay under about 3 inches of soil & very (VERY) poor drainage, not just in our yard, but the entire neighborhood. 

We currently have a lovely lake in our backyard, where it will remain until approximately late May when the monsoon season ends.

So we have all sorts of fun issues to deal with.  I have installed a small creek which is helping some with the drainage, but it's not nearly enough at this point.  It's lovely in the summer, though.  We even built a little bridge over it.  I put shells & fossils in it, which the grandkids absolutely love finding.
As for the mosquitoes, which love the wet neighborhood, this year I am installing a bat house to attract the bats to roost in my yard.

But...any suggestions are much appreciated.
 
paul wheaton
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Bats:  most people do it wrong and get no bats.  Cruise the net and make sure you do it absolutely the right way, or your efforts will be wasted.

Drainage:  This can get into big expenses.  Hmmmm ....  If you could get a ditch witch in there and some drain tile and you had a place for the drainage to go ....  Here's an idea:  can you reshape the surface of your yard a bit?  Make the center about an inch higher than the edges?  That way, at the very least, water doesn't accumulate. 

I was trying to think of an earthworm situation that could fix things, but it sounds like they would drown while hibernating.

Cedar:  you can get things to grow, but cedar litter has a natural herbicide in it to make it so it doesn't have to compete with other plants.  I generally just let cedars have their spot. 

Grass variety:  tall fescue!  (not a mix)

Oak and Maple:  the trees and the grass are competing for nutrients and water.  I'm guessing that you have been raking the leaves?  Are roots showing?  Often, the trees (and grass) comsume lots of the goodies from the soil so the soil sort of shrinks.  In nature, the tree litter (leaves and twigs) will replentish the soil.  Same for grasses - although they typically take a trip through an animal first.  If you want to see that spot spring back to life, you'll wanna find a way to get all that litter back to the soil.  When some leaves have fallen, mow with a mulching mower - tiny leaf bits will wind their way between the grasses and feed the soil.  Too much mulched leaves will mat and kill the grass.  They would be better for compost to come back the following year.

The ultimate:  drainage trenches at least two feet deep.  The trenches could then be refilled with earthworm habitat.  The earthworms will hibernate there in the winter and work on making your soil deeper during the spring, summer and fall.



 
                                
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Great info, thanks!
I've been studying the bathouse thing & think I know what to do there.

I do have some roots showing around the maple, but not the oak.

I finally talked my hubby into mulching the leaves, then raking, but we just started that last year.  Previously he would only rake them.  So this should begin to help.

As for drainage, I think you're right about building up some areas to help with drainage.  We've watched neighbors go to the time & expense of installing drain tile only to see water still collecting because it just doesn't have anywhere to go, & honestly, I think my little creek is very pretty.  I think I'll spend this summer hauling dirt & grading then wait til the monsoons to see how I've done.

Tall fescue it is!  (tall fescue to the rescue?) 
 
                      
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Location: Okanagan Valley of BC, CANADA
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Adding to the great info from Paul and patruth58, I would highly recommend Permaculture Gardening on your acre of land.  This would likly give you a crop this year, and it would build up a good healthy soil while being a low maintainance type of gardening... it's a no-dig or no-till type of gardening I have been doing lots of reading about lately and find facinating.  I am doing my yard in this way. 

Currently my favorite book on this subject is one I got from the local library and now would love to buy my own copy  It's called Permaculture in a Nutshell, written by Patrick Whitefield.  One thing he describes that comes to mind for your problem is:  put down a layer of cardboard or newspaper onto the ground, right over top of any weeds or grass that are growing there.  Then you put a layer of manure over this.  If you want to plant something there you make a pocket of soil in the manure, poking a small hole in the cardboard in this spot too.  You plant into the soil.  Your top layer is mulch.  The book said straw, I'm going to use wood chips as that is what I was able to get for free.  Put down a good layer of mulch, leaving it open a bit where you put your plants. 

The cardboard or newspaper stop weeds from coming up from the soil, they also compost down to feed the earth and build new soil.

The manure feeds your plants and the soil, and becomes soil through composting.

The mulch layer holds in moisture so it takes very little watering to keep your plants happy and healthy, as well as do the composting process. 

Hope this helps.  I"m just learning too, but am happy to share some of what I've read about so far and am excited about for my own place.
 
paul wheaton
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Location: missoula, montana (zone 4)
bee chicken hugelkultur trees wofati woodworking
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The layering stuff is often referred to as "lasagna gardening".  While it has a lot of benefits, I have one point that I'm against and one point that I worry about ....

The first is the use of newspaper and cardboard.  These are bits of wood held together by glue.  I'm just not comfortable with the idea of glue in my garden.  So I would replace this part with baled alfalfa.

The second has to do with the horse manure.  If the horse ate grass treated with herbicides, some herbicides can still be viable after passing through the animal.  Less than optimal for a garden!  Another worry along the same lines is that most horses are regularly treated with deworming medicine, which passes through the animal and then harms earthworms and other soil life.
 
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