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Miscellaneous gardening questions so I can chew on the answers for a spell...  RSS feed

 
Emily Smith
Posts: 65
Location: West Central Georgia
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Soil fertility: We have red clay.  No top soil.  Just clay.  How do I improve the soil at all?  Preferably anything that can be done cheaply and by hand.  My current garden is 240 square feet, but I'm willing to use up to a quarter acre of our yard--once I know better what to do and how, and know I'm able to do it with reasonable hope for success.  I've got veggies still struggling in this heat, and was going to plant another round of cucumbers since our frost date is mid-November and my pickle recipe wasn't popular.  But should I just go ahead and plant some kind of soil-building cover crop instead?

Trees: any tips for how to decide where to plant fruit and/or nut trees?  Do I want them close to the house, farther from it, next to the garden, all alone?  We have a yard that is slightly elevated in the middle and slops off to the south on one side, and the northwest on the other.  The northwest "slope" has heavy rain water running in a little river under the gate, to our front yard, and down into the street.  The south slope dumps all the water into our neighbor's yard.  These would be ideal locations to plant, right?

Berry bushes: good under the trees, right?  Does the type of berry matter?  We're looking at blueberry, raspberry, and blackberry. 

Water: how do I keep that water on my property without machinery?  Will some sort of retaining wall work?  If that's a non-starter, is planting along that path a good idea?

I think that's it.  I'm sorry to just dump a bunch of conundrums out there.  My usefulness and knowledge end at digging holes and sticking things in them.    I'd love any advice, or even a heads up on free resources anyone knows of, too, if it's fairly straight-forward and accessible.
 
Tyler Ludens
pollinator
Posts: 9741
Location: Central Texas USA Latitude 30 Zone 8
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I recommend trying to come up with a permaculture design for your yard, so you can fit all the features you want and have them work together.  The first thing to start with is that water -  can you figure a design of basins or swales (dtiches on contour) to get it to move around within the garden before it drains out to the street? Here's a good site for info:  http://www.harvestingrainwater.com/



I've found it helpful to look at other people's designs for ideas on where to put things.  Here are some examples:

http://www.happyearth.com.au/garden-design/





Thread about permaculture design with links to more examples:  https://permies.com/t/55751/permaculture-design/Permaculture-design-basics
 
Alder Burns
pollinator
Posts: 1379
Location: northern California
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I used to live in central GA for years so I'm pretty familiar with soil and climate there.
On a small to moderate scale you can jumpstart soil fertility and structure by importing organic matter from off site, or from otherwise unused portions of your own site, and seeing that no organic matter leaves your site.  This includes paper and cardboard.  If you are near a road with power lines you might be able to talk tree trimming crews into leaving a pile of wood-chips on your place....which would be a huge gift having many uses.  Try to use this organic matter as mulch and avoid tilling, although a single deep ripping or double digging of beds might be a good thing, especially if there is a hardpan layer. 
     You can slow and hold a lot of water simply by the layout of beds, rows, and planted areas so that runoff backs up behind them and soaks in.  Getting out on the property in a good rain will tell you a lot about how and where water is moving, or you can go the thorough route and lay out contours and make swales.  Even little ones a foot or two deep and wide, easy enough with a shovel when the soil is diggable, will do a lot of good.
     About planting trees here is one lesson I've learned more than once the hard way....NEVER dig a big hole and pile all kinds of "good" stuff down there, thinking you're doing the tree a favor....this is a sure way to kill it.  Water will collect in this loose mix and be very slow to percolate into the surrounding compacted clay and the tree will drown, especially after a heavy rain in the growing season.  Always plant directly into the unimproved clay, and the most sensitive species (which include many fruit trees) up on mounds or slightly raised beds.  A very good way to proceed is to simulate succession, and to lay out and improve garden beds where you are eventually planning to put trees.  Then plant the trees, berries, etc. right in there among the vegetables and annuals.  They will benefit from the water, attention, etc. primarily directed at the annual crops.  in succeeding years gradually leave an unplanted space...or plant it with shade-tolerant stuff...under the spreading canopies of the trees and meanwhile start a new garden elsewhere. 
 
Joseph Lofthouse
gardener
Posts: 2581
Location: Cache Valley, zone 4b, Irrigated, 9" rain in badlands.
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I'm of the opinion, that in my climate, annual gardens and trees do not get along well at all. Anyplace there is a tree near my fields, the tree basically out-competes the garden outward about as far as the tree is tall. So if I have a 60 foot tall popular, there is no point planting an annual garden within 60 feet of the tree. If I have a 15 foot tall hawthorn, then there is no point planting anything in the nearby annual garden closer than 15 to 20 feet to the tree.

In my climate, trees next to the house are an invitation to catching the house on fire next time a wild-fire comes through the area. I really don't like cleaning the roof of dropped leaves/branches.

Nut trees drop nuts. Fruit trees drop fruit. It's not nice to have them dropping stuff on vehicles in the driveway.

Water is kept on my property longer by laying things horizontally across the landscape and across the rivulets that develop during storms... Rocks, twigs, straw, whatever. I reorient them from hodge-podge, to on-contour...
 
Alder Burns
pollinator
Posts: 1379
Location: northern California
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I agree about not trying to garden around or under sizeable trees, fruit or otherwise (unless perhaps in a truly tropical or desert climate).  In my previous post I was referring to the planting and establishment of new trees, and that the surrounding area would succeed out of garden as the trees grow, unless in the direction of shade-tolerant perennials.
    Fire danger is a big issue in the arid West especially, moreso than in the South; but there is also the benefit of shade in the summer.  Trees vary from one to another in flammability (conifers and eucalypts being notorious, leafy deciduous trees less so).  The guidelines I've read recommend spaced trees, such that a crown fire can't jump easily from tree to tree.
 
Marco Banks
Posts: 577
Location: Los Angeles, CA
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Emily Smith wrote:Soil fertility: We have red clay.  No top soil.  Just clay.  How do I improve the soil at all?  Preferably anything that can be done cheaply and by hand.  My current garden is 240 square feet, but I'm willing to use up to a quarter acre of our yard--once I know better what to do and how, and know I'm able to do it with reasonable hope for success.  I've got veggies still struggling in this heat, and was going to plant another round of cucumbers since our frost date is mid-November and my pickle recipe wasn't popular.  But should I just go ahead and plant some kind of soil-building cover crop instead?
.


Perhaps before you plant a cover-crop, you may want to massively mulch your garden space and any future spots where you'll be planting trees or other plants. 

Carbon

Carbon, carbon, carbon, carbon, carbon.  If you want to improve clay soil, you've got to put down as much bio-mass as you can and let it begin to decompose.  My go-to for years and years has been wood chips.  I put down about 3 to 5 truck loads of them on my garden and in my integrated food forest EVERY YEAR.  If I had access to spoiled hay, bagged leaves, or any other organic bio-mass, I'd grab every bit of it and put it down.  Every leaf, stick, banana peel, cardboard box and potato peel remains on site, getting integrated into the compost pile or as mulch somewhere in the system. 

If you've got rock-hard clay soil, then put down a 2 foot thick layer of wood chips and let them do their thing (basically, sit and rot down) until next spring.  If you can spread some manure or compost in with them to introduce microbes, all the better, but that isn't necessary.  Nature will bring the bacteria and fungi if you'll give it time.  Worms will find your wood chip paradise and will begin to integrate all that humus into the soil profile.  Do NOT rototill them in or plow them under.  Let them sit on the surface.  The worms will do the heavy lifting for you.  By next spring, you'll be able to pull back the greatly reduced layer of carbon and begin to plant your garden in the newly enhanced soil.

The reason I'd do that first is because you'll be able to get a lot more carbon onto your land by dumping a bunch of wood chips (or spoiled hay) than you'll get with a seasonal cover crop.  In the future, once you've got some carbon into the soil, THEN a cover crop is excellent, as the plants will pump their sugars (root exudates) into the soil and will feed the soil biology.  But getting a heavy carbon layer down first will significantly jump-start the whole process of building a soil food web.

One last thought about mulch and raising the soil carbon: by doing so, it will greatly improve water infiltration, as well as the water carrying capacity of the soil.  It's counter-intuitive, but by putting a bunch of mulch on the surface, the worms and other soil biota will open pathways down into the soil so that water doesn't run off, but will quickly soak in.  But more exciting is that all that humus (the black, jelly-like substance left over after decomposition has reached a stable state) acts as a sponge to hold the water in the soil profile where the plant roots can get to it.  So not only will the mulch help you infiltrate water into the soil, but it'll act as a sponge to hold it.  Can't beat that.

Mulch.

 
Emily Smith
Posts: 65
Location: West Central Georgia
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Awesome start, thanks!  I can do mulch for sure.  I honestly hadn't thought about it, but we have a lot of brush just sitting around behind the fence.

I'll ponder on the other resources and suggestions!  My husband has agreed to dig ditches for me, so that opens up some options.  I'm on my own to figure out the logistics of such ditches, though.  One thing I did last night after checking out the geoff lawton video and Happy Earth link was to start a drawing of our property.  I hadn't done that yet, either. 

I'll take anything else under advisement, too!
 
Alder Burns
pollinator
Posts: 1379
Location: northern California
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When I lived in Georgia I heated, and to some extent cooked, with wood, so even a lot of brush went to this use, and some was piled in windrows around the perimeter of gardens as a makeshift fence to control chickens, geese, and goats.  A chipper is one way to turn brush into mulch, but can be expensive either to own or rent.  I've never experimented with hugelkultur, but there's a lot of information on this forum and elsewhere about it, and that would be one way to turn that brush to account for soil improvement. It's basically a raised bed with any sort of wood buried in the bottom of it.  I have made biochar, which is where you half-burn something to charcoal.  There are several ways to do this, some of them are amenable to side yields like cooking.  You take the resulting charcoal and add it to your soil or compost.  The char process makes it very durable to microbial breakdown which makes the soil-improving qualities of the carbon matter last much longer in the soil than uncharred woody stuff.  This is especially important in the South and the tropics where organic matter breaks down so fast.  Indeed without some method like this you will likely end up locked into outsourcing mulch and soil amendments on a regular basis to keep your garden's soil fertile and fluffy.  Even established pastures and forests in that climate often, upon investigation, prove to have a disappointingly thin layer of topsoil, the original layer having long since eroded away with various forms of land abuse.....
 
Bryant RedHawk
garden master
Posts: 2844
Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
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Emily Smith wrote:Soil fertility: We have red clay.  No top soil.  Just clay.  How do I improve the soil at all?  Preferably anything that can be done cheaply and by hand.  My current garden is 240 square feet, but I'm willing to use up to a quarter acre of our yard--once I know better what to do and how, and know I'm able to do it with reasonable hope for success.  I've got veggies still struggling in this heat, and was going to plant another round of cucumbers since our frost date is mid-November and my pickle recipe wasn't popular.  But should I just go ahead and plant some kind of soil-building cover crop instead?

Red clay (or any clay for that matter) takes a while to remediate. The best method I've found is to work in lots of cotton seed meal first, then work in compost along with decaying wood chips (they need to already be softened by the fungi to the point that they feel like pieces of sponge). At this point you will have a soil that will support good plant growth but it will still need more work. My parents had red clay (any top soil had washed down their hill long before they bought the place), In one bed that was bout the same size you mention (240 sq. ft.) I dug in 300 lbs. of cotton seed meal, followed that with 300 lbs. of compost, then followed that with 100 cu. ft. of peat and another 100 cu. ft. of "punk wood", this was all dug in with a broad fork, I worked each component in until it looked well incorporated before moving to the next component, it was two weeks of work but the next year anything planted grew like crazy, the soil held plenty of water too. This is where I will mention that sand added to clay equals concrete, if you want to add sand, you first have to get all the clay particles clinging to humus, then you could add sand to help open up the newly constructed soil structure.

Trees: any tips for how to decide where to plant fruit and/or nut trees?  Do I want them close to the house, farther from it, next to the garden, all alone?  We have a yard that is slightly elevated in the middle and slops off to the south on one side, and the northwest on the other.  The northwest "slope" has heavy rain water running in a little river under the gate, to our front yard, and down into the street.  The south slope dumps all the water into our neighbor's yard.  These would be ideal locations to plant, right?

Never put trees close to a house, they will end up destroying the foundation and or clogging water and sewer lines. As has been mentioned by others, make a drawing of your total space complete with what is already in place, include sun travel so you can figure where shade will travel. From there you can decide where you want shade loving plants and partial shade lovers (berry bushes (Blueberry, Saskatoon (serviceberry), and other bush type berries generally love partial shade) while cane types (raspberry, blackberry) prefer full sun. A drawing allows you to move things around till it looks right to you, without doing any hole digging or planting that could end up as extra work.

Berry bushes: good under the trees, right?  Does the type of berry matter?  We're looking at blueberry, raspberry, and blackberry.
different types of berries like different types of sun/shade, see my answer on Trees.

Water: how do I keep that water on my property without machinery?  Will some sort of retaining wall work?  If that's a non-starter, is planting along that path a good idea?

Water retention methods generally depend on the slope of the land (if there is any). On slopes, swales work very well, especially when the soil is capable of holding lots of water. Remember this, clay will hold lots of water, but it will not soak in quickly, clay also doesn't like to give up the water it holds easily. To get the most out of your soil's water holding abilities you have to get it to "friable" condition first, this means amending the soil prior to creating water collecting and or holding features. If you have lots of land and a slope, you could have the option of building a pond as well as swales to feed that pond. Or you might decide that swale and berm is the best method (these create a water plume effect down hill from the swale). 

I think that's it.  I'm sorry to just dump a bunch of conundrums out there.  My usefulness and knowledge end at digging holes and sticking things in them.    I'd love any advice, or even a heads up on free resources anyone knows of, too, if it's fairly straight-forward and accessible.

Paul has lots of information available on DVD, There is lots of info on this site as well, just search for what you need to learn. Also there are other sites you can find with a google search. Good luck with your adventure, If you can't find what you need to learn, ask and you will get lots of help here.
 
Emily Smith
Posts: 65
Location: West Central Georgia
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Thanks for the additional posts!  So our campfire remains can go in the garden??  That would be awesome!!

Bryant, thank you for your thoroughness.  I love your siggy, by the way, if I haven't said that before.  I'll definitely take it all under advisement, and work on soil first--that's sort of a relief.  The drawing is a bit of a pickle; I'm apparently garbage at drawing to scale.  I'll keep trying, and if I ever produce a drawing, I'll post it.  We have a pie-shaped property, and the fencing isn't perfectly square, or even at right angles to itself.  It's interesting.

A pond is an interesting idea.  That one will need some deeper consideration.

My plan right now for the garden is to import mulch and compost from the city and letting our chooks spread it for me.  I'll plant an apple tree a distance equal its canopy radius west of the garden; it's afternoon sun, so hopefully the longer shadows will give the garden a break anyway.  The other apple tree is going on our south-facing slope, and I'll probably do a little hand-made berm just for the tree to slow the water's descent.

I'm also wanting an October Glory Maple on the south or west side of our house, so I'll take the advice about tree planting most seriously for that one.


 
Anne Miller
pollinator
Posts: 751
Location: USDA Zone 8a
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An answer to at least two of your questions - soil and water might be: hugelkultur

"Its amazing how the rotting wood becomes like a sponge. I can pull out
pieces that I buried two years ago and squeeze them to yield copious
amounts of water. Now when I look at wood, green or even dry, I think
"Water". "

Paul-Wheaton-hugelkultur-article-thread

Here is a link to that forum:

https://permies.com/forums/f-117/hugelkultur

and the Permaculture Forum

https://permies.com/forums/f-2/permaculture

Both have informative posts.
 
Bryant RedHawk
garden master
Posts: 2844
Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
234
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Emily, if you have internet, go to: google earth and download it, you can print very nice photography of your land that way.
It makes drawing a map very easy by using tracing paper or a light box.
(this is how we did our farm drawings and we do new ones every time they update the imagery data).
 
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