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super compacted soil - wondering if I should break up a layer first?  RSS feed

 
Posts: 151
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I have experiments happening all over the yard. A hugel bed, composting in place, layers of wood chips - I am trying it all. Now I am trying to decide how to proceed in the worst area of the yard. There were several inches of decomposed granite spread over the center of the yard, upon which the previous owners had a batting cage. Prior to that I have learned they used to ride dirt bikes around the yard. Basically when we bought the place last year there were only some trees on the edges of the property. I have been doing some experiments and while kitchen stuff is composting on top, not much is going down. Test plants that usually grow like crazy (Coyote Brush and native asters) are staying alive but the roots aren't going down, mostly sideways under the mulch. So now I wonder before I do another chunk of piling organic matter to build soil, if I should go ahead and break up the top layer an inch or two? Then lay the kitchen waste, etc. I want to be a no-till garden but I think this tough dead zone might need some help at first.

 
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I would do a rudimentary job of breaking up the soil, followed by the application of as much organic matter as can be had.

My favorite amendment is always coffee grounds since worms eat them all and they do the digging. Once you have a population of worms established, it is generally easier to continue feeding the worms than it is to till the soil.
 
Susan Taylor Brown
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Thanks, Dale. That's sorta where my mind was going. Would you say just break up the top layer or go down a few inches or?

I have been saving coffee and tea grounds and need to make a run by the coffee places for more. I was thinking to break up a chunk, lay down grounds and greens, then cardboard, then repeat. I have some old leaves at least under the oaks that I can add too. I just needed a sanity check. So much room (for us, not compared to those folks with acres) that is overwhelming to figure out what to do next. But so exciting at the same time.

It is odd, on one patch of the dead zone I have been putting kitchen waste and it is getting composted by, I think, pill bugs, since I don't see any worms and I can't penetrate the soil. I'll take all the workers I can get.
 
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Hi Susan,

We're in the same neck of the woods --- I can share with you what I did.

I had an area of my yard where the previous owners had parked a boat, so they had driven back and forth over it down through the years. I have heavy clay soil, and they had apparently driven on it a number of times while it was wet because the "road" that they created had some pretty deeply rutted tracks --- 4 to 6 inches deep most of the way. It was hard as concrete.

I tried to rototill one area after wetting it down quite a bit. It was like digging my own grave. I beat myself and that poor tiller half to death for a couple of hours before I gave up. Then I flagged-down a truck with wood chips and convinced the guy to back the truck into that space. He dumped about 20 yards (a LOT of wood chips) and I spent a couple of hours spreading them out.

Two years later, you couldn't tell any difference between that area that I roto-tilled, and the area that I just spread wood chips. Both were much better to work in. After four years, the soil was completely de-compacted, rich, black, crumbly . . . and I had a bunch of fruit trees growing in that space. It's now the center of my food forest, with about 60 fruit trees, and multiple understory plants.

I'd be curious how deep the DG layer is. That stuff compacts and can be pretty impervious to water infiltration, but I would still imagine that if you mulch it heavily and give the worms and fungi time to do their magic, you'll see it soften and become workable. Will it get regular irrigation? I ran my sprinkler system back into that area of compaction, and the combination of the water and the mulch enabled it to come back to life very quickly. The mulch will not break down very quickly in our California weather if there isn't some moisture on the wood chips on a regular basis.

Best of luck.
 
Dale Hodgins
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Dig deeply in one spot and place good soil and coffee grounds there. Add some worms. This will give you a population of worms that will be able to migrate to areas that become suitable for them to live. During periods of drought, they may retreat to the deep compost. Whenever the ground is soft enough for them to travel, they will go out to forage. If flooding is ever an issue, make sure to heap debris well above the flood area, so that the worms have somewhere to retreat to if their hole becomes flooded. Several colonies could be created in the area that you're trying to work.
 
Susan Taylor Brown
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Marco, it sounds like you had a very similar situation. I am up near Santa Cruz and where they didn't have the batting cage and dirt bikes, I have wonderful deep rich soil from years of neglect, meaning they just ignored the leaves and let them fall and compost in place. It is wonderful. So I have hopes.

I have so far had about 50 yards of wood chips delivered. Still don't have them all spread out but it sounds like I am on the path then. I left out the part where we scraped off as much of the decomposed granite as we could and used it for a couple of paths. So the DG that is left isn't very deep. But of course, no top soil left either. I got about 30 yards of chips spread before the last few storms came through and they are about 3 inches deep in places and staying damp. But I didn't put down any greens before the chips so not much to invite the worms. I think I am, as many gardeners are, just impatient.

Dale, good point about the flooding areas. It sounds like what I am doing is right then, burying organic material under the chips and sometimes I transplants some worms and dirt from the rich sides of the slope. I just need to be patient. (SO HARD) And get more greens and more chips. I have tons of carbon but getting the greens is tough. If not for weeds I would have no greens at all.

Thank you both for the encouragement.
 
Dale Hodgins
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For quicker breakdown of wood chips, add plenty of lime. Wood chips make the soil acidic, and lime counteracts that.

I once built a garden on hard pan. A tree company delivered two loads of wood chips, then I added a couple pick up loads of chicken manure. I did very little digging, but within a couple of years the soil was digable.
 
Marco Banks
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Yes, lime will help them break the chips down faster, but it really isn't necessary. There will be bacteria present that will do that work for you. I suppose that you could build a big compost pile, and then once it's finished, spread that on top of your chips, to give them a big bacterial boost. But even that isn't necessary if you'll just be patient for a year.

It always amazes me how the worms find their way into the chips and start to multiply. I've never added them, yet they'll come in by the thousands and multiply like crazy. They'll go crazy in your decomposing wood chips -- just have a bit of patience.

Do you have comfrey? You might want to start a bunch of comfrey plants --- the permaculture favorite. Once your chips have started to break down a bit and the rock-hard soil softens, you can punch a hole in the ground and start planting comfrey. It sends down a deep tap root and thrives in less than ideal soil. You may need to put a couple of scoops of decent soil into your planting hole initially, but the comfrey will pump life down into the root zone and will give the worms additional food.

You can go a lot deeper with your wood chips. 3 inches will disappear pretty quickly. On a new patch of ground, I often put them down a foot deep. Or more. All that carbon will do wonders.
 
Susan Taylor Brown
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Dale, thanks, I might try some lime in spots, just as an experiment. I am loving having the space to have all these different experiments going on. I have a bunch of weeds to pull this week and I will chop them up small and add them in a few spaces too.

Marco, I am both wanting to try comfrey for the sheer biomass and I am afraid of it at the same time. I don't want it to take over, that's for sure, but I sure would like those long roots going to work for me. I do have chips deeper than 3" in some places but there's a lot of dirt to cover (we have a big, active dog so we need chips everywhere we can to keep down the mud) I am on the lists with a few of the local tree companies so every time they can deliver, I say yes. The last load had a bunch of twigs and small branches and I have been slowly gathering them up and making little twig walls to contain my experiments. Gosh I love this stuff. A week ago I piled a bunch of greens from the kitchen under a small pile of chips and today it is more than half gone. It never gets old seeing the way nature works her magic.
 
Marco Banks
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The variety of comfrey you want is Bocking 14. It doesn't spread by seed -- it's only spread through cuttings.

I bought 3 crowns about 4 years ago from someone on e-bay. When the package arrived, there were 5 crowns. Thanks. Basically, they were a big chunk of the root mass. I planted them and they all came up. Within a year, I was sticking a spade through them and dividing them. I've got upwards of 100 comfrey plants now -- all over the place. I chop and drop it about every 2 to 3 months. I produces so much bio mass, but once you cut it, those leaves breakdown very quickly. It's a great compost activator to heat up a pile that's gone cool.

I don't think you have to worry about them going too crazy. I'd love to see what a comfrey plant would do if you punched a small hole into the ground and planted into the DG.

Get a few root cuttings and plant them out of the way somewhere. If you like what they bring to the garden/system, then you can divide them and start putting them around. If you don't like them, then chop them to the ground and put a bucket or a piece of black plastic over the top of it and leave it for a couple months. That will kill the plant. But my hunch is that you'll find it a tremendously useful plant in regenerating poor soils and helping to fix compaction. There is a reason why permaculture people rave about comfrey --- it's something of a miracle plant that brings so much good stuff to the party.

 
Susan Taylor Brown
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Okay Marco, you convinced me. Off to find some comfrey. Thanks. Will report back.
 
Susan Taylor Brown
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Okay, here's the first experiment. I pulled back the wood chips in this spot, at the end of hugelbed that is just sortat here, not doing much of anything. I pulled the chips back to the ground which is some decomposed granite that has been left after we scrapped most of it away, and dead dirt under that. I made a basin of the woodchips. The ground/DG was very wet which was good but no worms. I added about 3 inches of coffee grounds and some eggshells, then some shredded cardboard, some shredded weeds, and some leaves. I watered everything. Then I built my twig wall around the woodchip basin figuring I can just keep adding kitchen waste here. At this spot I did not break up the compacted area at all. I just want to see what happens. As soon as I get some more coffee grounds I will do another one where I break up the soil.

Basically this was just an excuse to build more twig walls. I love building them. I don't have to be strong ('cause I'm not) and I don't have to use tools (because I'm a kluz) and they make me smile when they are done. And hopefully will be good habitat to boot.

Oh and yes, Marco, this lower yard will all get irrigation by either rainwater diverted to swales, etc ( the house is up above so I have a lot of water to divert) or by the greywater system which will be installed in the next month.
2016-05-04-17.45.59.jpg
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composting for the worms
 
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Susan Taylor Brown wrote:Okay, here's the first experiment. I pulled back the wood chips in this spot, at the end of hugelbed that is just sortat here, not doing much of anything. I pulled the chips back to the ground which is some decomposed granite that has been left after we scrapped most of it away, and dead dirt under that. I made a basin of the woodchips. The ground/DG was very wet which was good but no worms. I added about 3 inches of coffee grounds and some eggshells, then some shredded cardboard, some shredded weeds, and some leaves. I watered everything. Then I built my twig wall around the woodchip basin figuring I can just keep adding kitchen waste here. At this spot I did not break up the compacted area at all. I just want to see what happens. As soon as I get some more coffee grounds I will do another one where I break up the soil.

Basically this was just an excuse to build more twig walls. I love building them. I don't have to be strong ('cause I'm not) and I don't have to use tools (because I'm a kluz) and they make me smile when they are done. And hopefully will be good habitat to boot.

Oh and yes, Marco, this lower yard will all get irrigation by either rainwater diverted to swales, etc ( the house is up above so I have a lot of water to divert) or by the greywater system which will be installed in the next month.



Sorry to go OT, but how do you make a twig wall? Yours looks lovely.

Back on topic, it sounds like you'll have enough runoff/greywater to keep the chips moist - great! I like your experiment, too.

I have a hard exposed area where we're pulling up flagstones (that location just doesn't work as a patio), and aside from the fruit trees that are going in, I'm just planting whatever will cover the ground before the nettles do. We divided a rhubarb bed and had no takers for the bazillions of little divisions, so they're there as a placeholder. Also cardoons and squash plants. I'm not hoping for yield as much as for lots of leaves and some soil breakup. This weekend I'll probably throw in a lot of tillage radishes as well. Water isn't a problem here in northern Germany - coming from Seattle's yearly drought I'm amazed at how even the precipitation charts are here. Of course, in the summer it comes as torrential thunderstorms...

I think the water has actually killed one of the comfreys. I have to learn that plants go in about half as deep as I expect and I should pile compost around them in a hill to cover the roots, as the entire property becomes a marsh all winter. If I'm down to one comfrey plant, dare I divide it this second year? When is a good time?

One of the downsides of better waste stream management here is that wood chips go to commercial biomass plants, and I can't just call an arborist for a truckload. I make do with the huge amounts of leaves from a line of trees next door, but it stings to have to pay for wood chips by the bag.
 
Susan Taylor Brown
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Oh yes, the sting of having to pay with what people in other areas can get for free. Ouch! We always bought mulch/chips by the truckload at our old place because I didn't know any better but now I have been fortunate enough to move to an area with a lot of trees and companies who are will to drop off for me. I am starting to ask for logs too, so I can build more beds.

Thanks on the twig walls. I guess they are like mini brush dams. I just started by piling a few small branches around the beds to remind me that I put seeds there and I realized that I could stack things and make an edging. So we have TONS of twigs both from the chip deliveries and the dead branches of trees that fall so I started collecting them and stacking them on top of one another. If the dog runs into them, no big deal, I can just stack more. I am absolutely addicted to making them and am currently planning on where I can do more. We have so much dead soil to rebuild that I figure the twig walls will help me concentrate on building up in areas that I want to plant, like the grey water area for the trees. And it is like a mediation to go out and collect twigs and then stack them. My knees do complain though.
 
Marco Banks
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Keep us posted. Check back into this thread every six months and give us an update -- I'd love to track your progress. I think that you'll be amazed with what those wood chips will start to do to that hard, compacted soil.
 
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What is the DG layer please?
 
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I think that's decomposed granite, John. It threw me first before I reread the thread.

Susan, I am with Dale on this one, and with Marco. Feed the worms. They will do your work for you.

Maybe if you have a broad fork, try some of that as one of your experiments. Don't invert the soil structure, just sink the tines into a compacted area and aerate it. If you did that in your comfrey patch, it would punch down much easier. If you added tillage tubers, like daikon radishes or mangelwurtzel beets, they, too, would punch down. If they weren't pulled, they would simply rot in place, providing tubes of compost down into the formerly compacted soil.

Before adding anything mineral, I would get a soil test, even a rudimentary one. That will help you know which way to amend over time, pH wise. But oftentimes, when people are trying to deal with compacted clay, the answer is a bit of the right rock dust (gypsum and compacted clay often go hand-in-hand), lots of organic matter, and some broad forking. It sounds like you have the organic matter handled. But it is important to amend in the right direction.

-CK
 
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Susan Taylor Brown wrote:I have experiments happening all over the yard. A hugel bed, composting in place, layers of wood chips - I am trying it all. Now I am trying to decide how to proceed in the worst area of the yard. There were several inches of decomposed granite spread over the center of the yard, upon which the previous owners had a batting cage. Prior to that I have learned they used to ride dirt bikes around the yard. Basically when we bought the place last year there were only some trees on the edges of the property. I have been doing some experiments and while kitchen stuff is composting on top, not much is going down. Test plants that usually grow like crazy (Coyote Brush and native asters) are staying alive but the roots aren't going down, mostly sideways under the mulch. So now I wonder before I do another chunk of piling organic matter to build soil, if I should go ahead and break up the top layer an inch or two? Then lay the kitchen waste, etc. I want to be a no-till garden but I think this tough dead zone might need some help at first.



hau Susan, sounds like you are going great guns on your place.

Might I make the suggestion of digging a horizon hole in that area before you decide which method of attacking the problem you choose. The reason for doing this is to confirm true compaction and just how deep it goes, that will tell you just how deep you should take the disturbance.

If a coyote bush will not sink it's roots deep, you have a barrier layer somewhere below the surface, you will need to take your disturbance (tilling or using a broad fork or key line plow) to the level where the compaction stops.
You might even want to remove as much of the granite as you can, granites make acidic soils, but they also contain many good minerals, so there might be a good trade off amount of that granite to dig into the soil as you de-compact it.

I would hold back on adding more organic materials until you have decided on your plan of attack for this space. You might find that adding the organic material while doing the disturbance will get you better results faster, or you might find that adding a layer on top after you have done the disturbance will work best.

Redhawk
 
Susan Taylor Brown
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Thanks to all that commented on my post here. It was the prompt I needed to try and come back and do some updates. We are balancing inside the house renovations with work in the yard. It was a slow plant year as we had more hardscape to get in place but now that is all done. We have added more stacked recycled concrete walls at another slope which is giving me a lot more vertical space in which to plant. When we ran out of concrete we used logs and long tree trunks to do another stacked wall at a smaller slope. I believe the plants at the base of these walls (when they are all installed) will grow well.

My plan for this space is building a demonstration low to no water garden that uses primarily native plants for wildlife. I feel like the foundation is about 75% in place. I am continuing to work in small pockets, planting islands and it is working. I think I just wasn't patient enough as the plants and the worms and the rest of the microherds are doing all the heavy lifting. I am using native bunch grasses, carex, all over the place and it has proven the best at breaking up the soil. And poppies which I sowed for pleasure and then remembered what great roots they have. In one year the carex goes from a slender grass slip to a full bunched grass. Then I can pull it up and divide it and move it around the yard.

We are using greywater to send water to 7 citrus trees. Even though they were planted on a mound they sunk and we had to raise them all up this year. They have more than doubled in size. I think they are getting too much water which is good news because now I can install a switch valve to alternate water from the citrus trees out to where I want a bog.

We have discovered that in various places beneath the soil we hit sandstone. This is good on the places where we have slopes as it explains why the ground is staying mostly in place. I am learning to listen to what the yard is trying to tell me and adjusting my plans with what it says. This is easier, perhaps, for my style of gardening for wildlife rather than trying to farm for primarily food. (We have edibles up in the front where there is more sun.)

So I will keep doing what I have been doing, planting strong native plants, adding wood chips, coffee grounds, and other organic material, and saving the water. The citrus trees are the only plants that get irrigation and that is from greywater. Everything else is surviving on winter rains and water diverted from downspouts. (We did have a good rain year last year.) The ground in most areas is nice and spongey. I am making many, many cuttings of plants so a lot of them are small but the growth in just one year is amazing.

Some pictures.





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water diverted from house
earthbefore.jpg
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Before we started
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progress
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Wow! that is looking wonderful Susan.

Redhawk
 
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Thank you for the pictures - it helps visualising the place and it looks promising.
 
Susan Taylor Brown
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Thank you, Bryant. I have found your posts very helpful as I make this journey. Patience is the hardest thing for me. We lost one of old oak trees last December (2016) because we had so much rain (and the poor thing was growing in the leach field). It took us most of the year to cut up find homes for the wood. In doing so I hurt my shoulder moving logs and cement and that put me on the sidelines for about 9 months. That turned out to be a good thing because I had time to observe.

I will be 60 this year and I can't do a lot of the heavy stuff so I have had to have help for the hardscape. That is tough on me because I know where every plant is and other people just tromp all over them. Now I won't need to have anyone else (I don't think) like that again.

We have had a little over 5 inches of rain in the last 24 hours. I go out in the rain several times to check that the water is going where it can be used best.

Erwin, thank you for the kind words. I keep meaning to start a project page here.
wall.jpg
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Slope was too steep for me to climb to plant and maintain. Now I have easy access.
 
Susan Taylor Brown
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We have a long row of privets on the street side of one fence. We coppiced them in April and they are growing back fast. I will add a few more rows of native plants for wildlife for a privacy hedge.

I plant in islands, surrounding the planting area with branches & logs. This creates habitat, helps with water, and sometimes slows down the dog. Then I plant bunch grassed on the outer edges to break up the soil. In 6 months or so, when the bunch grass is full, I will pull it up, divide it it into lots of little slips, and extend the ring of grass on the outside. To the left of the tall log is an elderberry tree.
logwalls.jpg
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We coppiced the long row of privets and used the logs to make a retaining wall.
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This is how I start a planting island.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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hau Susan, I am glad my threads are of use to you in your build.
I know what you mean about the handtools only and age getting in the way (I'm 66).
Just plug away and don't get discouraged, even though it is easy to do with so much to do and you bust it all day as best you can then stop, exhausted, and see how much you didn't get done that you could have just a year or two ago.
I've adopted the "I'll do what my body will let me get done today" attitude because my old self was not happy with how slow I have been moving the last year and a half.
It made a tough situation better for my mind,  I find it odd that our minds still work like we were far younger but the body is what lets us down, activity wise.

Feel free to pm me if you have any questions that my threads don't address.

Redhawk
 
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