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How to counter crusting soil  RSS feed

 
Christopher Ro
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Hello,

My soil, (which is mostly straight compost) gets hard and crusty after a while. Any suggestion how to counter this? Usually it is covered in mulch but right now for instance I have a bunch of seedling beets coming up making it difficult to mulch. I would prefer to not have to buy anything . Thank you!
 
Ben Johansen
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Hey, Chris. Do you happen to know a basic makeup of your soil? I'd wager a guess that you've got a decent amount of clay in there... Crusting soils can be a result of many things, excessive salt, low organic material, improper tillage, the list goes on. Clay is typically a common denominator. Unfortunately, there is no quick fix to this. Is your compost chunky at all? I've had issues with spreading other peoples' compost on my garden, only to find big lumps of uncomposted manurah in the mix. These unfinished butt-nuggets have a tendency to dry out to an almost brick like consistency , even repelling water at times. This is a result of a stage in the decomposition cycle having too little available h2o to complete the cycle and turn into friable material. If threres too much carbon, and no available water, not only is the nitrogen unavailable, but theres a chance that a lot will gas off and be lost altogether. Does your compost consist of a lot of straw, or maybe winter manure from cows or horses? Winter manurah usually has a lot of dry grains and grasses, as well as low moisture, so that could be a factor. Horse apples are also notorious for not breaking down in compost piles- horses only have one simple stomach, so their terds are rather unprocessed, and the fibrous nature of horse poo lends itself to maintaining its own structure. I'd say, if you're seeing white chalky buildup on top of the crust, its a salt or calcium issue; otherwise, my moneys on your compost soil drying out too quickly, which would suggest to me a need for mulch. Dyou have problems with beet emergence through mulch? I usually add a light layer of straw over mine after planting, and they come through just fine. Lawn clippings would be ideal for this. Hope I didn't geek you out too hard. Baby them beets, man.
 
Casie Becker
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If you have access to fine sand, a thin layer on top shouldn't hurt germination rates. Sand is translucent enough to allow light to penetrate while still separating the soil from the drying and crusting affects of the air.
 
Christopher Ro
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Thank you for the input. The compost is free from the city of Berkeley. It is what they make from the organic materials bins they pick up with the trash and recycling every week. Since it is readily available I use a lot of it. These beets are planted in almost nothing but this. I have had good results with it, but yes I have had it repel water! The other things I add are grass and leaves as well as some kitchen scraps mostly coffee grinds and egg shells.
 
Cristo Balete
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Mulch, mulch, mulch. You've got clay there that will probably always dominate the mix, even if you add compost. Keeping it covered with at least 3", if not 6", of mowed grass, weeds, tree leaves will keep it damp enough for the worms to come up and help it. Crusty-ness means it is drying out too much and the minerals are showing. You want those minerals still in the dampness of the soil so the roots can take them up and get them into your food. Very good nutrition in clay, but it's crucial to never let it be exposed to the sun. Maintain a thick, thick mulch over the top. In the fall when the street trees are dropping their leaves, go around with a broom and some big plastic garbage bags and collect as much as you can.
 
Marco Banks
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Ditto on the mulch. It may be a textural thing—the compost being too fine. A generous layer of chunky wood-chip mulch to top of all that compost would keep it moist and give it some texture in the years to come as it breaks down.
 
Cristo Balete
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Christopher, I would avoid redwood bark chip mulch as it has growth inhibitors in it. All wood chips suck up the nitrogen so it doesn't get down to the roots, so if you are experiencing this in a vegetable garden you'll need your annuals to get all of the nutrients they can, as quickly as they can. If you have a free source of bark chips you can always compost them off to the side, then use the broken down chips, but that could take years for those things to break down.
 
Marco Banks
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If I can respectfully disagree with you a little bit Christo, wood chips do take a bit of nitrogen initially, but only in that very narrow band of space where the chips meet the soil. So yes, a quarter inch or so of the soil profile will be adversely effected . . . . initially. But if you are putting 6 or 8 inches of woodchip mulch down ON TOP of the soil, and not tilling it into the soil, the fungal and microbial growth below the soil, the earthworm castings, as well as all the poop and exudates from all the other biology in the soil will more than make up for that 1/4 inch zone between mulch and soil.

One ways to understand the principle of "use the edge and value the margin" is to see that narrow zone between mulch and soil as an edge, alive with biological activity. Within 6 months of laying that woodchip mulch down, that "edge" will be rich in nutrients and life. It will go from being marginally nitrogen poor, to one of the best places for plant roots within the whole soil profile.
 
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