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

 
Susan Taylor Brown
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Location: Scotts Valley, California Zone 9B
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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.

 
Dale Hodgins
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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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Location: Scotts Valley, California Zone 9B
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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.
 
Marco Banks
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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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Location: Scotts Valley, California Zone 9B
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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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Location: Scotts Valley, California Zone 9B
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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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Location: Scotts Valley, California Zone 9B
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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.
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composting for the worms
 
Morfydd St. Clair
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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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Location: Scotts Valley, California Zone 9B
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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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