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New Permaculture, Poor Soil Structure

 
Andrew Freeman
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I bought my 0.5 acre plot in June last year. I couldn't do much with it then because there was virtually no topsoil (clay is the dominant feature). I broke my collar bone in October, and have only recently been cleared for activity. I dug some swales (fairly certain I did it correctly) along the east side of my house to address erosion issues-I live on fairly steep grade. The slope is south facing. I guess this is where I'll start my food forest; this area gets decent sunlight. I have a basic idea of starting pest repelling herbs and companion plants, and gradually introducing productive trees and shrubs later. I think wood chipping is the best place to start. I just cut down some trees and can chip those, but I cant identify them. The branches snap easily, and the drop helicopter seeds in summer. Can I use this wood?  How else can I improve the quality of the soil (clay) for the latter?
I live in East TN if that helps.
Thank you in advance for any help you can provide.
P.S. I can provide pictures of the space if need be.
 
James Freyr
Posts: 69
Location: Middle Tennessee
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Hi Andrew! Helicopter seeds sound like maple to me. You can absolutely use it to build hugelkulturs and definitely chip up some of those branches making mulch. In orcharding terms they call that ramial mulch. If you plan on planting fruit trees, put that ramial mulch down nice and thick where you plan on planting fruit trees. It will feed the soil food web, provide good habitat for soil creatures, and slowly convert it to a more fungal dominant soil from a bacterial dominant soil (which is what you preferably want for trees). That mulch can be composted also, and if for some reason you have way too much, put it in a pile off somewhere in the corner of the lot and in 5 years or so it will be much smaller and under the exterior sun bleached chips will be some black gold ready for application.

I'm glad you're thinking about ways to improve the soil now for the latter, it takes time. I suggest reading some books like Building Soil by Elizabeth Murphy, and Building Soils for Better Crops by Fred Magdoff & Harold Van Es. There are many more soil management books out there, and I suggest reading them all. If I could only learn about and change one thing to grow crops, it would be the soil. Forget about diseases and pests, for healthy soil makes healthy plants, and the diseases and pests only infect and infest sick plants. The soil is the foundation for life and if you nurture it, you will be rewarded with crop abundance. When I started gardening, I was taught to buy plants already started, and use miracle grow and spray to kill the bugs. Yeah it kinda sort of works, but chemical fertilizers imbalance the soil nutrients and kill the soil microbes, and it gets worse the longer it goes on. As I continued to garden in my early years, I had sicker plants and more problems and smaller, poorer quality veggies, and it was suggested to me to use chemical sprays to combat pests and diseases. And things got worse. It's incredibly frustrating and defeating to spend time and money on a garden full of sick plants and lousy results. Then I learned there are other ways to garden, and garden successfully. I garden organically now, and it gets better each year, and I'm still learning (I started gardening 25 years ago). And I know when I'm in my 80's and gardening, I will still be learning. If I can help someone avoid the mistakes I made starting out, believe me I will. I now garden in raised beds, as I also live in Tennessee and have a dense clay like soil similar to what you may have.

What can you do to improve the soil now, even without a soil test? Add organic matter, like compost and some of the wood chips and inoculate the soil with the microbes that makes healthy soil. I use effective microorganisms (EM) and I purchased mine from Teraganix. There are other companies making EM too. Another way to add more microbes is to start a compost pile, and go into the woods nearby and get a shovel full of the forest floor and add that to your compost pile. Then with a little time and stirring, your compost will be populated with native microbes which you can add to your garden. You will still need the soil test, and amendments based on the analysis results to get the nutrients in the proper ratios. For example, healthy soil has a calcium:magnesium ratio of 10:1 along with other elements that need to be in the correct ratios. Start now, it takes time! I hope this helps! 
 
Rebecca Norman
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Location: Ladakh, Indian Himalayas at 10,500 feet, zone 5
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I agree with everything James said. In addition, don't worry about planting pest-resistant plants so much, as pest resistance has more to do with the healthy ecosystems and diversity mentioned above. Instead, plant things that improve the soil or make you happy or produce food you like. Legumes improve the soil most famously but many others do to, there's nothing wrong with growing some flowers and ornamentals if they motivate you to get out into your garden at different seasons, and if you start getting some useful harvests your motivaation will stay up. But don't push too hard on producing plants at the beginning before the whole soil and ecosystem are healthy, but do try to grow a couple of things you like to eat.
 
Bryant RedHawk
gardener
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Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
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Hau Andrew,
I would encourage you to think tree planting first, these take the longest to become productive so they are the logical thing to put in first.
Also, planting your trees first allows you to know right away where your shade areas will be, this will keep you from multiple changes in your land as you progress along.

Soil building is the easy part of creating any permaculture landscape.
All you have to do is plant, grow, harvest and continue along and your soil will improve quickly.
This works very well, you plant and grow a crop, harvest it and leave the remnants where they lay, these then rot as the next plants grow and this circle continues year long and year after year.
Just the fact that you are putting roots into the soil, letting the remnant vegetation rot in place and repeating, is all soil building activity. This is how Nature builds soil, it has always worked and still does.

Get your trees in place, plant what you like to eat, what you like to look at (pollinator attractors is what flowers are anyway), and have fun at it. Go at your own pace, so you do have fun at it.
Those Big time farmers have little fun, they are always either nervous about weather, trying to beat a time schedule, have to buy fuel and repair machines all just to try and make a profit.
That sort of life is not permaculture, permanent agriculture is not dependent on the things a big time farmer thinks they need to be doing.

Redhawk
 
Andrew Freeman
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OK. After reading everyone's replies I think I have a better idea of what to do from here. Please let me know if I am misinterpreting or if you think the following is a bad idea.

It sounds like people think I should get started on fruit trees this Spring-like ASAP-if possible since trees take some time to get established and produce. I know that planting now is considered late, so I would have to get my butt in gear. My plan was to plant trees into a hugelkulture. Now that I have the wood for that, I could use that?  I also have a gigantic rotting log I could use, too. If I plant into a hugelkulture berm, I don't have to worry as much about soil quality or structure, right?

Meanwhile, I can still get started with the herbs and seeding the property with clover and other soil-improving plants?

 
Tyler Ludens
pollinator
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It's not recommended to plant trees in a hugelkultur, but rather, beside one.  I'm experimenting with buried wood next to tree plantings, to try to get a similar water-storing effect. 

 
Andrew Freeman
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Tyler Ludens wrote:It's not recommended to plant trees in a hugelkultur, but rather, beside one.  I'm experimenting with buried wood next to tree plantings, to try to get a similar water-storing effect. 



What if I buried the wood, and then planted semi-dwarf trees in a clay-compost mix berm? i.e. I'd dig a mock-swale, bury the newly cut logs, cover with rotted log material, then cover with the removed clay-dominant topsoil and compost, and plant in that? Would you recommend against this? If so, how else would you proceed? I'm worried that planting directly into the clay-dominant soil would set my fruit trees up for root rot since clay doesn't drain well. I dug a swale in October the day I broke my collar bone (beforehand, obviously) and when it rains the swale holds the water for a day or two.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
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The issue with planting trees into or on a hugel is that the very nature of hugel mounds is that the wood rots and the soil settles as that wood rots.

Planting trees in or on a hugel mound or even trenched hugel, invites the tree to end up either leaning severely or falling over, neither is good for the tree.

You want to plant trees about a foot away from the base of a hugel, that way the roots will find all that wood stored water but the tree will have a solid foundation.

Just like with swales, where you plant the trees near the back side of the berm, because most trees don't want wet feet (some oaks can tolerate it for a few months every year).

Redhawk
 
Casie Becker
pollinator
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I think your idea of planting in a berm just down from a hugel is perfect.  Here, if you have clay, the only way to have peach trees last is to plant in a raised bed or on a berm.   So long as you use soil and mineral sand as the base (mineral sands likely won't hurt, I'm not saying you have to have them) the soil under the trees should be fairly stable.  And yes, your trees will still benefit from all the good parts of a hugel.  What you want to avoid is organic matter that will shrink and settle after you plant.  Trees like compost and mulch as much as any other plant, but you apply it as a top dressing spread from within a few inches of the trunk to cover as much of the root zone as possible.
 
Marco Banks
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Another idea is to plant your trees as you normally would (just slightly higher than the normal soil level so that there is a bit of slope for drainage) and then pile the wood/bio-mass on the south side or the downhill side of your tree.

This does a couple of good things.

1.  It uses that bio-mass and keeps it in your soil-system/eco-system.  You don't have to bury it in order for it to do all the good things wood does.  Just laying it on the soil will still help retain moisture and boost healthy microbial and fungal life. 

2.  Trees like their heads in the sun and their feet in the shade.  Baby trees don't cast much of a shadow, so the soil around their roots tends to get baked by the sun.  Sunlight irradiates soil life—it kills all the best things you want to flourish in your soil: bacteria, fungi, and little soil biota.  Piling-up bio-mass on the south side of your tree in a little mulch pile captures that sunlight before it can cook your soil.

3.  The soil stays moist and cool under a brush/mulch pile.  It doesn't hold as much water as a hugelculture, but it does hold some.  As it breaks down, however, it'll hold more and more moisture with each passing year.  The worms and beetles will carry rotting vegetation down into the soil.  They'll integrate it into the soil profile.

4.  You don't have to worry about a blow-out like you might have in a hugel-swale.  Water will pass through it and not build up pressure.  Brush piles slow the flow of water and capture a percentage of it before releasing it to flow down further.

5.  Such piles become a haven for lizards and other reptiles (who, in turn, eat bugs/slugs/snails).  Earthworms will grow fat and happy under brush piles.  Brush-piles become a kind of "reef" that attracts other life.  Having all that life right above the root zone of your fruit tree is a very good thing.

6.  Brush piles are an easy way to slowly compost the big brushy stuff.  Things like woody herbaceous plants (mature pepper plants, corn stover, okra plants), tomatoes or other vining crops (pumpkins, cucumbers, watermelon, sweet potatoes, jasmine vines, grape vines, etc.) are a pain in the ass to try to compost.  They become a tangled mess in a normal compost pile or compost bin.  I don't want to take the time to chop them up.  So just roll them up and pile them on the downhill side of your fruit trees (or the south/sunny side).  There they will slowly break down without you having to try to stick a fork into them and turn them.  Pile it up and forget it.

One word of moderate caution: don't pile it directly against the tree.  Leave a bit of space for air-flow.  Soil and mulch should be at the level of first roots that make their way from the base of the tree.  I start my brush piles at the drip-line, or slightly under the canopy as the trees grow older.  I'll pile up BIG chunks of wood and just leave it there—big rounds of firewood from felled-trees.  Within 5 years, they are well on their way to breaking down.  If you flip those logs over, they'll see that they are covered with white fungal mycelium.  That means the fungal network has found the wood and is feeding on it, and more than likely, is transferring those nutrients directly to your tree roots.

Just one more word of encouragement: you don't have to improve all your soil equally at the same time.  Once you get your trees in the ground, concentrate first on just improving those immediate areas around the trees.  Cover crops are good, particularly if you use nitrogen fixing legumes and other beneficial companion plants.  Mulch piles (as I've written about above) and swales all help improve the immediate area around the tree.  As the trees grow and your land produces more and more bio-mass, you'll find the improvement of the soil grows exponentially.  Just because you can't have it all perfect at once doesn't mean you can't start doing little things.  Be patient.  Small trees become big healthy trees, soon enough.  That first year, they'l need a lot of attention.  By the third year, they'll be virtually care free.

Best of luck.
 
Andrew Freeman
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Thank you all who have replied. I have plans now to start on Monday. What I'm planning to do now is a swale and berm higher up, then planting fruit trees downhill (south). I will dig a 12 inch width ditch (6-12 inches deep) around the 24-inch diameter planting zone and fill with a layer of ramial mulch (I learned what that is in this thread), manure, and another layer of remial mulch. The actual soil I will plant into will be a mixture of the native clay-dominant soil and compost. Then I'll seed the inner circle with white clover and one or two guilds.
I hope this is in line with what most people would find acceptable. My issue is over-thinking things to the point of deciding against doing anything; I just need to 'pull the trigger'. If you have anything else to add, or think I'm totally screwing this up, please let me know before 3/20/17.
Thanks again!
 
James Freyr
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Location: Middle Tennessee
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It's a little difficult for me to envision what precisely you're doing, but just make sure the root crown (base of tree) is at the same level as the surrounding grade of land (or even an inch above grade, but it doesn't have to be precise) so you don't have ponding water problems around the trunk. Granted the whole nature of a hole is it acts like a bowl to some extent in regards to water and it is native clay like soil, but I think your plan of attack is good and you will be successful. Something you can also do is plant some deep rooted plants (like comfrey) a little further from the root zone to aide in breaking up the sub-soil and bringing nutrients from deep down up to the surface soil, all with the intention of the future tree roots growing into this zone. "weeds" like dandelion are your friend for this process too, and in this event, it's not a weed anymore because it's improving the soil. I personally like dandelion, and I don't regard it as a weed. Maybe these deep rooted plants (and others), exist natively, all the better! As the years go by, spread ramial mulch farther out from the trees, improving the soil for future roots to grow into.

One more simple technique, is minimize mowing in the orchard around your trees. Do mow, maybe even with a scythe, but do it 3 or 4 times a year. Leave all the residue in place on top of and next to your ramial mulch, thus gradually improving the soil food web.

Edit: I was re-reading my post and I didn't word the first sentence properly and it needs clarifying. I should have stated that when refilling the hole with soil, to make sure the soil level is at the same as the grade of the ground or an inch above to avoid ponding water, with of course the root crown at or above also. Depth of the crown has nothing to do with avoiding ponding water, it's the refilling of the hole with soil that does. cheers!
 
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