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how to heal a heavily compacted pasture into a food forest?  RSS feed

 
Laurent Voulzy
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We moved in a 2 acre land in Camano,WA which was pasture.
details:
nearby is a re forested area (30 year alders dense underbrush no visible mycelium in the umus)
the non forest part of the lot has 3 trees (4 if you count the dying one that was de-barked by the previous owner's cows)
very hard compacted soil where some weed and grass grow, some areas are bare.
30 years of various livestock and likely monoculture (grass)
soil clump ok
soil is sandy, good drainage, loads of pebbles <6" deep killing my spade
Few earthworms after rain, no visible mycelium even in the forest (no white fiber).
except for the compost heavy garden, it looks sad and barren.
traces of pesticides still in the garden's soil possibly everywhere else. use of other chemicals likely.

goal:
We want to bring life back in here - rapidly.
eat from it. low maintenance ideally self improving.
love seeing trees and insects and birds....  beaming with life.

misc:
love paul stamets work but don't understand all ramifications of inoculating.
noticed that Thistle have deep root probably there to improve the soil, not keen on encouraging their growth because I walk barefoot
transplanted some weed from strawberry patch to bald spot and it is taking
want trees and guilds but unsure about best combo

what do you recommend?
 
Marco Banks
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You Tube Gabe Brown and Joel Salatin.  Both of them took over farm operations where the soil was badly degraded and worn out.  Salatin, in particular, had horrible pasture ---- deeply eroded, denuded soil, etc.  Watch their videos and you'll get a first-hand explanation of the steps they took to regenerate life.

I'd suggest a couple of things.

First, you improve land in the order of the most lasting changes and greatest permanence.  This means installing swales and earthworks like hugleculture mounds first.  Before you start working the soil, do everything you can to prevent water from leaving your property by capturing it in earthworks.  The old saw is "slow, spread and sink" -- the 3 S's.  So make a plan regarding how to catch water and integrate it down into your soil profile. 

Second, in order to begin to regenerate dead soil, you need to get a living root growing in the ground for as much of the year as possible.  Plant some sort of multi-species cover crop that will begin to bring life back to the soil.  A mixed cover crop will feed a mixed variety of microbes.   I've lived in the Puget Sound --- you should be able to keep some sort of grass and forage mix growing year-round.  Brown talks about keeping a living root growing in the soil for as much of the year as possible.  The reason for this is that a living plant is constantly pumping exudates (basically sugars and other carbs) down into the soil so that the microbes will be attracted and fed, and in turn, provide nutrition to the plant.  So find an appropriate cover-crop mix and plant it -- preferably, using a no till planter to minimize soil disturbance and compaction.

Third, it may feel counter-intuitive to grass land that is unhealthy because of over-grazing, but once you have a healthy patch of grass and forage growing, you will do well to get cows back onto the land.  But here is the key --- you'll need to let the forage grow tall (a couple of feet) and then densely graze the land for only one day.  They call this mob grazing or mob stocking (I hope I'm not insulting you -- you've probably read about it or watched videos).  The cattle are tightly stocked in a limited space, usually confined by an electric fence --- easily moved.  They eat about a third of the forage and stomp-down about 2/3rds.  They poop on that mulch, pee all over it, and concentrate their poop in a space so that dung beetles can find it more easily -- drilling a hole down into the soil and pushing a ball of poop down into the soil.

Mob-stocking "hits the ecological re-set button" (Joel Salatin).  Graze the cattle (or horses or sheep or pigs) for one day, then move them and don't let them onto that paddock for 6 months.  All that tromped-down biomass becomes the mulch to feed the next crop of grass and forage that will quickly emerge.  If you don't cram them into a limited space, the cows will wonder around and only eat their favorite plants, leaving the less desirable stuff to grow, re-seed, and take over.  But when you mob stock they don't have that luxury --- they have to eat what is right in front of them or go hungry.  They'll learn quickly.  When you move that wire, they'll run into the new paddock and start grazing.  Depending upon the size of your pasture, you'll need to step it off and determine how many sub-paddocks you can create in order to only graze it every 6 months, and then how many cows you would put into such smaller paddocks.  Did that make sense?  For 2 acres, maybe you'll only be able to manage 1 cow, and even then, you may need to feed her with hay for part of the year.

Finally, if you've got access to wood-chips, spreading a 4 inch layer of chips all over will bring a great quantity of carbon back into your system.  Have you watched the Back to Eden movie?  Google it.  It's about a fellow Washingtonian -- he lives over on the peninsula by Sequim.  His method has been copied all over the place -- using tons and tons (literally -- tons) of wood chips to bring carbon levels up.  I've gardened this way for years (long before his movie came out).  When we lived in Tacoma/Lakewood, our soil was straight sand.  Water just flowed through it.  I had about an acre and my own well, but even with free water, it wasn't effective in keeping things growing.  When I discovered wood chips, it changed my life.  I didn't have to water so much, the soil held moisture, and fertility grew significantly from year to year.  Now we live in Los Angeles where water is expensive and limited, and I get about 4 big truck loads of mulch yearly.

Get wood chips.  Spread them around.  If you are looking for low-maintenance, mulch is your best friend.  Wood chip mulch doesn't disappear too quickly, feeds the worms, the microbes and the fungi, and looks great.  I really don't think it's possible to use too many wood chips in a moist environment like Western WA, and I've certainly tried! 

If you take those steps, your soil will be very healthy within 3 years -- you'll notice a difference in 12 months.

Those are just a couple of ideas.  Have fun!

 
Laurent Voulzy
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Thanks Marco, reading this, the time it takes and the work involved I'm already giving up

Re-combining those ideas I wonder if I can compact time and effort:

Tall grass is already happening above the lech field so maybe this can be generalize this by spraying horse manure and carbon heavy stuff like saw dust which we have aplenty for free from the nearby mill. Then see it with super fast growing stuff - any thought?

How about adding coal-manure mix and tiling it in?

I've been poking holes in the earth with the pick axe which is tons of work given the hard soil but then I noticed Thistles thrive in compacted soil and their root is super deep - I could plant radish, those have deep roots and don't sting, then cardboard those once they grow and let the root decompose. Maybe garden giants which P. Stamet observed accelerate decomposition could be combined with the cardboarding to speed this up. Thoughts?

The mycelium situation is weird, I mean without a microscope I could see them back in France, are they thinner in WA? Inoculation could do good no? Weirdest thing is seeing no white fiber in the top soil of the forest section - what gives?
 
Marco Banks
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Don't give up.  Begin working the solution in smaller steps.  Take on one section at a time and improve that, rather than being overwhelmed with the entire piece of land.

The first step in permaculture planning is to do nothing -- just observe.  Is there any shade out there?  If so, buy a teak bench and sit out there under the shade of a tree and observe the way the land rises and falls, how the sun moves across the site throughout the seasons, how water moves across the land in big rain events, and if you are so imaginative, take a sketch book out with you to begin imagine how you'll lay-out your swales, trees and such. 

Nature tends to heal things on its own -- it just takes time.  Permaculture mimics nature and speeds up the timeline by intentionally initiating pioneer species, biological succession, etc.  But you don't have to do the entire lot at once.  Maybe just start with a simple cool-season cover crop.  There are all sorts of seed companies on the interwebs that sell cover crop mixes.  Order 10 lbs of seed, inoculate it with a nitrogen fixing inoculant, scratch it into the ground, and then get out of the way and let nature do its thing.

If you can't mulch it all, thats OK.  Just mulch some of it.  One load of chips at a time.

If you can't plant it all, thats OK.  Just plant a few trees.  Space them out because they'll get big eventually. One tree at a time.

Fungi happens.  The spores are floating around out there and if you create a habitat for them, they'll find your mulch.

Compacted soil will decompact on its own with the freeze/thaw cycle, with worms moving through it, and with plant roots punching through and opening up pathways for water infiltration.  I'm not a big tilling guy.  I bought a rototiller years ago, but I haven't started it since 2004 or so . . . no need to.  As your soil improves you won't have any difficulty planting because everything loosens-up and is easy to scratch a furrow into for planting.

Pioneer species like the thistle you mentioned, or scotch broom (which I'm very familiar with from my in the Puget Sound region) may seem like a pain in the ass, but they are doing good things.  Yes, you'll eventually need to pull them out/chop them down, but one step at a time.  Let those thistles punch through your compacted soil and pump carbon down into the soil profile.  Blackberrys also have a tendency to take over if you turn your back on them, but they are not invincible and if you just clear a small section at a time, lay down a mulch layer, and plant 2 or 3 trees at a time, you can slowly wrestle control of your land back from the invaders and establish your food forest.

I've heard it said that people tend to be discouraged by how little they seem to get done in a year, but are totally blown away by how much is accomplished in 5 years.  Inch by inch, life's a synch.  If you can work the solution an hour a day, it'll be good therapy and you'll find your food forest moving ahead.  Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got 20 yards of wood chip mulch that I want to move, one wheelbarrow at a time.  Inch by inch . . .
 
Bryant RedHawk
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hau Laurent,

You didn't mention the water situation other than that it has good drainage, so first question is are there gully's forming anywhere?
If there are then you will need to address that problem first.

In a recovery agriculture project the first thing to do is water.
Then you can address tree planting along the correct lines.
From there you can begin planting things like winter cereal rye and several different clovers along with some deeper, fatter root plants such as daikon radish, rape, and even things like kale, collards and mustard.
Once the rye has formed seed heads and those have dried it is time to crimp roll or push down those plants, these now become the first layer of mulch. While that stuff is breaking down the clovers will grow tall (yellow, red and crimson do well for this stage) and they will fix nitrogen in their nodules.
Once the clovers have formed seeds, crimp roll those down so the other plants will get the sunlight and they will grow quickly.
Once those have done their thing, you can either crimp roll them flat or you can turn everything under so you are ready for a food crop.

Mycelium will come when the bacteria have enough food to do their thing well. Don't sweat trying to get everything going all at once, mother earth does not work that way, she works in progression and so should we.
If you don't have the water situation all taken care of, any soil building might end up washed away. Trees will grow now so you can go ahead and put those in right after you know how the water is going to flow over the land and sink in.
After you have planted the trees, then you are at the point of being able to build the soil to a nice, carbon rich earth.

As Marco says, Observe first, from there you will know how the water behaves now, then you can fix the water so it doesn't erode the soil away.  If you don't take care of that first, nothing else may stay where you want it be.

Work smarter, not harder, understand the earth mother and use her methods to your advantage. If you don't you may find yourself in a situation similar to Most Farmers, which is fighting earth mother, something that will at best end in a constant struggle.

Redhawk
 
Laurent Voulzy
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I love our mother so working along her way of doing things is my desire but unfortunately the current look of the land is so unpleasant like clear cut forest... so that makes me impatient. Planting trees first is great, I'd replant the forest to the South if I had the budget!
In the meantime I'll plant fruit trees and to break that emptiness with large fast growing trees, I was thinking of planting Leyland and Laurels but now I wonder if local species are preferable? Looking at the adjacent forest I'm noticing that conifers (fir) and leafy trees (alder) grow close together so I'm temped to plant similar trees together in clumps of 3 or 4. Can this work with fruit trees (respecting everyone's sun preference).

So the idea if I understand is plant the trees the trandition way or doing uglekulture mount or other easier techniques (hard soil, shovel not happy), dump inches of wood chips around the trunk and after all the tree planting, start the soil reviving around the planted area so that when the roots reach those area, their work is more pleasant. Is that a good direction? Soil reviving can be done using crimp roll technique outlined by RedHawk or Marco's mob gazing.

@marco you talk about inoculating grass seeds with nitrogen fixer, are you talking of mycorhyzal fungus inoculation? Will this boost the seeds beyond the weed's growth rate or should I remove the top 2-3" soil before planting? I was recommended that but after trying it on a small patch, I don't feel too great about scalping the earth, also I remember this urban permaculture in San Fernando valley who had strawberries, not weed, grow in the cracks of his walkway.

Re: Planting along the "lines", reading about the "lines" I don't understand how I find those out. Are they topographical lines or water lines? How do they show on the land?

I observed the water in medium rain (no heavy rain yet) and I see no puddle, no gully and no runoff. The previous owner installed a system of drains where things were getting boggy, they left one spot at the bottom of the land where it gets very wet in winter. One or two willow trees should handle that.
I am reading a 30 year old map of the drain field which has analysis of the soil. It's 24" of loam and then clay.

I observed the sun falling on the land, full east and south sun everywhere, half of the land shaded from the west. Trees will change this.
 
Marco Banks
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Laurent Voulzy wrote:

@marco you talk about inoculating grass seeds with nitrogen fixer, are you talking of mycorhyzal fungus inoculation? Will this boost the seeds beyond the weed's growth rate or should I remove the top 2-3" soil before planting? I was recommended that but after trying it on a small patch, I don't feel too great about scalping the earth, also I remember this urban permaculture in San Fernando valley who had strawberries, not weed, grow in the cracks of his walkway.


By no means should you scrape away your soil.  Oh please, don't do that.  If the concern is weed seeds, mulch over them and most of them will never see the light of day.  Those that do will easily pull out as the mulch will soften that compacted soil. 

Weeds are not bad.  They are a part of the soil healing process.  Weeds: 1. punch a hole down into the compacted soil.  When nothing else will grow, nature heals itself with fast growing plants (the things we call weeds, nature calls friends).  2.  Weeds push carbon down into the soil profile in the form of a root and also in the form of root exudates (the sugars secreted by the plant roots to attract beneficial microbes and fungi).  3.  Weeds, when chopped, are just more biomass for the land.  Any mulch (or just about any mulch) is good mulch.

In terms of seed inoculation, I was referring to bacterial inoculation for nitrogen fixing legumes.

You seem to be very interested in building fungal dominated soil.  That's great, but the concern shouldn't be getting the fungi and inoculating everything with it.  It's like getting a bunch of chickens but not having a coop to put them in.  They won't last long in that scenario before they die of various causes.  Worry about creating an environment for the fungi to live in, and the fungi will come.  Carbon, carbon, carbon.  You need mulch on the ground, and biomass of some sort growing above and below the ground.  If you built it, fungi will come.  But bare soil or minimal biomass on the soil is a starvation diet for the poor fungi. 

If you wish to inoculate the roots of your future trees with a fungal inoculation, by all means, go ahead.  In my experience, however, if you've got a healthy layer of mulch on top of the soil, the fungi are there and they will form that symbiotic relationship with the tree roots, with or without your help.  Whenever it rains, I've got mushrooms popping up all over the place, so I know there is a robust fungal network below the soil.  I've never spent a penny on commercial fungal applications.  And the variety of mushrooms is amazing -- at least 10 different kinds pop up all over --- all established by nature, not myself.

Take your time to figure out hydrology and the flow of energy:  sunlight -- think of it as your whole system is solar powered -- how do you capture every bit of that sunlight, so none of it is wasted by falling on bare soil.  Once you've got water and light figured out, THEN start planting trees.  My biggest regrets in my system are the trees that were misplanted.  I've got a persimmon that is too close to my apriums.  It'll eventually be overshadowed by them.  I've got a Meyer Lemon that is in dumb spot -- I don't know what I was thinking.  My cherry trees are too close.  I wish I wouldn't have planted all my apple trees in the same area.  I wanted cross pollination, but I should have broken up the flow a bit with the Asian Pear trees I planted elsewhere.  Why give the bugs such an easy way to jump from tree to tree?  Anyhow . . . you get the picture . . . take your time and plan it out thoughtfully before you start planting everything.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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hau Laurent, you are in an envious place right now since you are getting to start fresh, please take advantage of that in a huge way.

Marco is spot on with advice.  As for trees, if you want fruit trees, those can go in first since they will take a few years to flourish.
If you want tall, shade type trees along with fruit trees, be sure you know what diseases each species can harbor since things like Juniper and cedar can be detrimental to fruit trees (they can carry fire blight and curly leaf disease which are devastating to fruit trees).
It is important for best success to observe what grows well where you live. If you go planting trees not adapted to your specific climate, then success may not be good.
The other thing to consider is how trees will interact with each other and all the other things you want to plant near them. Plan for success then execute for success and you will experience success.

Right now is a great time to take in a deep breath, sit on the ground and listen to mother earth, she will guide you if you let her.
If you want rapid good looks, plant some cereal grains (nothing looks as grand as a sweeping view of grain head waving in the breeze) that way when you roll them down to the ground (or cut them) you are laying in a mulch that will only bring life to that soil.
Time is the gardeners greatest friend when you plan well and execute slowly. It allows you to make adjustments at each step forward, which can keep you from a later on lament.

Redhawk
 
Laurent Voulzy
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Thanks Marco and Redhawk for the advises.

I 'get' sun and respecting the existing life and I seem guided against playing Frankenstein as the stuff I'm about to put on keeps disappearing (myco) or I get strong sentiment that life could suffer from it (diatomaceous earth) - but I don't quite understand the water and its relationship with planting trees beyond "some trees like waters and others like dry and all trees slow down erosion". Can you give me a few examples that I understand what you mean?

Observations:
When it rains or I leave the hose on and I look at the surface, the water goes in, no surface movement like river.
I see areas which now have tall grass and others are still bald. And yes white mushrooms everywhere
Some areas are plastered with cow pooh and no life grows on it, I expected plants to thrive in such area. Is it too rich for plants?
I transported a beautiful 12' pine and one of its branch broke, thinly held by a piece of bark, can the branch be mended?

I'll spend a part of tomorrow slowing down, listening to all.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Your land sounds like it has good drainage, in that case you really don't need to worry about water management much at all.
Areas with tall grass are good, areas that are bald need some help since that can mean very compacted soil.
To speed up the soil loosening you may need to do a "disruption" such as digging and turning that area over which will bring minerals to the surface.
When trees are blown over there is a disruption as the root plate rises, creating a hole and mound situation, minerals are lifted to the surface and the soils are mingled, creating a space for new succession growth to begin.
Nature does this with land slides, straight line winds, elephants and other animals or geological events. We can replicate these for our lands benefit as well as our benefit.

Areas plastered with cow dung with no life indicates that there is something not quite right there. Try digging up the area so the soil is not so compacted and the pooh will get down deeper.
There is no such thing as Soil to Rich for plants.
If no plants grow in an area, there is something wrong such as compaction, nutrient poor, lack of moisture holding, or it might be contamination or pH totally out of whack at one end or the other of the scale.

The pine tree sounds like it might be a white pine, those trees will drop branches to protect themselves, in high, straight line wind events, white pines will loose many branches, ensuring that they won't be blown down.
In heavy snowfall, they will loose branches so the tree's trunk won't suffer damage from splitting. Once a pine branch is broken and barely hanging on, it is time to take it off, it will not heal, regardless of your efforts to mend it.

Life is all about balance, everything should be in balance. Soil microorganisms (bacteria and fungi), soil humus quantity and quality, mineral availability, the supposed N P K ratios and on and on.
When everything is close to being in balance, plants grow their best.  In any area where we are not constantly exercising disruption, plant succession takes place so bare land starts with lichens and other small stuff, progresses to grasses then bushes then trees.
When humans decide they want to grow an all annual crop garden, they disrupt the soil every year, so progression is always at zero, this is not what nature intends and so is decimation of nature.

Redhawk
 
Casie Becker
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I love bryant's suggestion about growing grain if you need immediate impact. When I pull grasses out of my garden beds I always vigorously bash the roots against a rock to release the soil in the roots. It's always the darkest, spongiest and altogether most healthy soil in the bed. It's very obvious that grass is very good at building healthy soils. I believe, if you raid the health food bulk aisle, it is also one of the least expensive cover crops out there.

Actually, this might be the right time to point out how many seeds are less expensive if you purchase them as food instead of as seed packets. In addition to grains there are beans, chia, sesame, amaranth, flax, poppies, just off the top of my head. The spice aisle, fresh produce and the bulk sections of the grocery store are great resources. An online search will quickly give you the growing instructions that would usually be found on the seed packet.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Great points Casie.  Another great source of seeds are items like squashes, cucumbers, peppers and other seed bearing produce items you buy. Coriander seeds from the spice isle will grow cilantro since coriander is the seed pod of cilantro.
You can sometimes find whole barley seed, along with alfalfa seed at health food stores and it will sprout nicely.


Redhawk
 
Laurent Voulzy
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Raiding the food store ail for seeds - brilliant! I've started tilling the bald patches, mix compost and spread Daikon radish seeds.

The rest of the land is growing weed very nicely. I'd like to accelerate the soil mending process that those weed have started but I think that if I saw seeds around they won't get a chance to reach the soil, I was advised to till all those weeds but would rather supplement them rather than kill them all with tilling. What do you all recommend?
 
Laurent Voulzy
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Update:
-I tilled the bald areas, mixed with manure + daikon seeds. They're already sprouting! I ate one to check what they were and she had this radish flavor already.
-The rest of the land is much easier to open with shovel thanks to the rain. Loads of earthworms in the earth and I am now seeing mycorhizal fibers around certain weed roots but not all of them. I think the earth is VERY rich in nutrients thanks to years of cow horses and chicken and that's why the myco weren't very present - they weren't needed by the green plants to thrive. NOTE: I did add earthworms but I didn't add myco.
-The earth is clumping nicely, I'll just let it be in most areas.
-I keep sowing daikon seeds everywhere, I can't throw the seeds around because the birds love them, so I push them in the soil past the weed by hand. Good for grounding.
-A few days back I planted Neem saplings all around the land. They are not too happy: leaves are now dropping and have lost much of their firmness, maybe the drop in temperature from Florida is the cause. They originate from a land of prayer and meditation so I'll meditate over it and maybe the answer will come to me.
-I harvested the rice pantyhose which I planted in the forest and they have a lot of white fiber, some of them stink. I just planted them in the land, I don't know if it'll help...
-The corns are starting to sag and go brown so I cut a few but then I saw how green and juicy the stalk is so I stopped cutting them. Maybe it's better to let them do their thing, maybe they'll go perenial?
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Laurent, where in California are you located?

Neem is a tree that needs to be grown in Zone 9 at the minimum. (I had plans to grow these and found out that the only two places in the USA that have the correct weather are Brownsville Texas and Lower Florida)

Redhawk
 
Laurent Voulzy
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Bryant, I'm in Washington state, Camano island.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Laurent, Neem trees are from a tropical area of the planet (India). If you really want to grow them in Washington state, you will most likely need to build a conservatory to keep them alive and able to grow.

I live in zone 7b/8a and I can not grow them because of the winter temperatures getting well below 65 f., The usual winter time lows for their natural growing area. 

Good luck

Redhawk
 
Laurent Voulzy
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And I just learned that Neem trees drip neem oil which prevents any other plants from growing and is also a fungicid... not the best for soil it seems.
 
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