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Your experience minimizing/eliminating off-site soil inputs  RSS feed

 
Joel Bercardin
Posts: 252
Location: Western Canadian mtn valley, zone 6b, 750mm (30") precip
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Bryant Redhawk has started an excellent informational thread about what we need to know about living soil, and its distinction from the inert “dirt” relied upon in chemical-farming — and closely related matters.  I'm posting to start a thread where we can discuss the extent to which we’ve been able to do without off-site soil amendments — whether these amendments be formulated (“conventional”) chemical fertilizers, or rock powders, bought organic amendment mixtures, commercial compost, or whatever.

Permaculture aims to create people-sustaining systems that recycle nutrients as much as possible.  Intercropping, perhaps using some plants whose roots sink deep into subsoil, can be an important factor, as can living mulches, cover crops, mulches cut and on one’s land, and other means.  In other words, minimizing or even eliminating off-site inputs (fertilizers, purchased compost or mulch materials) is generally agreed to be a primary aim.

We’re each living with different sites: soils, precipitation, aspect, site history, temperature regime, seasonal characteristics, winds, till/no-till, and more things.  Some of us are keeping little or no livestock, some of us may keep a lot of livestock and possibly diverse too.

I’m placing no judgement on people’s strategies & practices.  I believe that generally each person or household deals with situations as practically and as well as they can.  If you’re doing completely without, partially without, or with some off-site materials, that’s okay to express in this thread.  As far as I’m concerned.

What has been your experience?  Do you feel you're still experimenting quite a bit, or have you designed and made a fairly 'steady state' system?
 
Daron Williams
pollinator
Posts: 221
Location: Olympia, WA - Zone 8a/b
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My site is mostly old pasture land with heavy clay soil. There is very little the way of organic material in the soil and it has been very poorly managed in the past. I'm trying to improve this base condition but I am using a fair bit of offsite inputs.

I used social media sites to reach out to people in my area and I also uses my personal connections. The result is that I have gotten probably around 20 pickup truck loads of woody debris and a free dump truck load of wood chips. This is all since last October.

Some of this I'm using for hugel beds and a lot of the smaller stuff is being used as part of my mulch as if I had just chopped and dropped it. I also had some soil brought in for a couple beds since mine is so poor.

My long-term plan is to replace these inputs with material I grow on site. But it will take a while before I'm growing enough to stop using offsite inputs. For now this strategy gives me a much faster startup than if I limited myself to no offsite inputs. Most of the material I have gotten would have been burned or dumped.
 
wayne fajkus
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I can be self sufficient with the exception of bringing in round bales of hay for horses, and to a lesser extent cows.

I'm on a slope. Any erosion ends up at the bottom. If I need dirt(soil), I go down and get some.

 
Joseph Lofthouse
gardener
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Location: Cache Valley, zone 4b, Irrigated, 9" rain in badlands.
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About 9 growing seasons ago, I stopped importing composts, mulches, and fertilizers to my fields. I make a point of returning unused vegetables and peels to the fields. I grow a tremendous amount of weeds, they get chopped and dropped where they grew, as do the crop residues. I love corn, it seems like the place where the corn grew last year is the most fertile location in my fields. And the weed suppression properties of a patch of corn really please me. During that same time, I have selected for plant varieties that thrive in my soil exactly as it is.

However, the plants I grow in the greenhouse are grown in about 95% imported materials. Coconut coir, peat, perlite, and a bit of home-brew compost for micro-organisms and fertility. My soil has a tremendously healthy store of weed seeds, and the pH is high, and it's very silty,  so it's not very  suited for growing potted plants, especially not for market. I don't want to be exporting my weed seeds to other gardens.  I'd like to resolve these issues one of these years. I go through about 35 five gallon buckets of potting soil in a growing season. It's the largest expense on my farm. I don't trust commercial composts due to previous problems with them. Chances are though that I'm not going to deal with this issue unless coconut coir becomes unavailable.

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Mixing potting soil: Coconut coir, peat, perlite, compost
 
James Freyr
Posts: 362
Location: Middle Tennessee
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I garden in raised beds, and it took a lot of inputs to get them to where they are now. Years ago when I built them, I filled them with a mixed blend of topsoil, wood chips, compost, sand, and earthworm castings that I purchased from a local nursery. I've only every used organic fertilizers and controls. I'm pleased with how they have performed and where they are at soil condition wise. I quit using OMRI listed organic pesticides, and just let nature find a balance as far as undesirable insect loads go. I have less pest pressure now than in the past through soil management and also not inadvertently killing beneficial insects. Inputs I do purchase are mainly microbial, like Effective Microbes, Bt, Serenade and a couple others. I also purchase and use neem oil, liquid fish and liquid kelp & molasses and use them along with some of the microbial's in a foliar spray. That's basically the extent of my inputs now. I do make my own compost, but I don't seem to make enough. I may go fill up the pickup with leaf mold from my brothers house this fall to amend some raised beds. I like leaf mold a lot, too bad it takes practically a barge load of leaves to make a yard of it. I used to amend my raised beds with earthworm castings, and I quit doing that too after I learned about and started doing healthy soil management practices, and now my raised beds are full of earthworms making castings for me for free. Oh, and calcium. I still, every year, have some, but not all tomato plants exhibit blossom end rot, so I do have a quart of an OMRI listed chelated liquid calcium, and I will use it where I see BER. I do compost my eggshells, and maybe after a few years of that and adding my compost to the raised beds, they will have a better calcium balance and one day my plants will no longer exhibit calcium deficiency symptoms. The foliar spray recipe really works wonders for disease pressure, so I do believe I will always be purchasing the microbes and ingredients to make that, especially for my fruit trees.
 
Maureen Atsali
pollinator
Posts: 363
Location: Western Kenya
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I don't have a lot of choice, off site inputs just aren't available, and even if they were, I couldn't afford them.  I have a system which uses only onsite biomass.  Its a lot of work, and improvement has been slow, but its working.  It goes like this: slash down the bushy jungle growth, feed it to the goats.  When the goats are finished to eat it, take the machete and chop it into manageable sized pieces, spread it back as mulch.  Weeds have a similar life cycle.  Uprooted or slashed, fed to animals, recycled and trampled as bedding, then put back as fertilized mulch.  Or, weeds are put right back upside down where they came from.  And all the animal manures eventually end up in the gardens as well.
 
Amit Enventres
Posts: 456
Location: Ohio, USA
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I have lots of off site inputs- trees, fertilizer, tools, seeds, gas, rock, dirt, wood chips, composted wood chips. That's what I get for being in the city on 0.22 acres. I do use everything I can on site. But, if there's no rocks on site, they ain't growing here in my lifetime. The good news is that much of the heavy stuff I can get local and free. The cemetery here has clean fill dirt including rocks. The local park has mulch. I get tree branches by driving down the street. A granite company has broken pieces.

Once set up though, I will have very little off site input because the system will have enough energy on this 0.22 acres to cycle itself. I will probably have to pull in some electricity, gas, logs, some water, grain, meat, and dairy for survival, and the rest will be frivolous. That maybe a few years out still though. Which, makes me nervous because if we want a sustainable world, were going to have to get a lot of people and lots of resources together in the city and lots of time. Some days that task seems impossible.
 
Joel Bercardin
Posts: 252
Location: Western Canadian mtn valley, zone 6b, 750mm (30") precip
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Amit Enventres wrote:Once set up though, I will have very little off site input because the system will have enough energy on this 0.22 acres to cycle itself. I will probably have to pull in some electricity, gas, logs, some water, grain, meat, and dairy for survival, and the rest will be frivolous. That maybe a few years out still though.

Can you offer a few details... Just wondering how your system will be set up for the energy (& nutrients) to keep your .22 acre cycling itself?  Not that I'm disputing it.

Is your basic sub soil pretty good? and balanced for essential minerals?  Anyhow, thanks for your post.
 
Bryant RedHawk
garden master
Posts: 2844
Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
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Good Thread Joel!

I'll put in what we are doing and what we will be doing on Buzzard's Roost.

So far, the only incoming materials have been about a dozen bags of potting soil that are in containers, it's a certified organic from a nearby organic farm.
I also make use of out of date multivitamins, multi-mineral tabs from the medicine cabinet.
we buy DE from our feed store for bug control and animal worming so that is an off site amendment I suppose.

I have brought in one 50 lb. bag of Sea-90 and will probably bring in another one this year.
This is a sea salt that is mineral rich (90 to 97 minerals) and the soil needs some of those minerals that aren't onsite available, this will most likely not be the last year I have to do this.

I have one area that I have designated for Blueberry/ Saskatoon growing and I will be adding some acidifiers to that area this year while I get it ready to accept the bushes next year.
The acidifiers I use are; acetic acid (white vinegar or apple cider vinegar) and perhaps some powdered sulfur but most likely none of that will be needed.
I will need to bring in some sphagnum peat bales for that area as well.
We bring in hay for hog and donkey feed in winter time and straw all year round, since we don't have land enough to grow our own straw.

Everything else is created from on site materials, I acquired a chipper from my cousin this year so now I can make my own woodchips faster than before.
Other than those items, I grow or cut or salvage blow downs trees for the organic materials for composting.

Our goal is to be totally self providing in about 4 more years, where we will have land cleared for growing wheat, barley and cereal rye for our own flour.
At that point it may be that we don't need to import straw or at least part of the straw will be from on site.

Redhawk
 
Todd Parr
pollinator
Posts: 1238
Location: Wisconsin, zone 4
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There was a point in time when this was a concern for me.  It really isn't at this point, and I can tell you why.  The things I bring in now are as follows:  many pounds of coffee grounds from the vending machines where I work, wood chips from the city pile that is less than 100 yards out of my way on my commute to/from work, cut off wood blocks from a local truss company that I use to make biochar, seasonal items from the city dumping area which are things like pumpkins after Halloween, leaves in the fall, etc., more wood cutoffs from friends that have wood shops...In short, most of the things I bring in are going to be thrown away or burned, or are provided for use by the city.  At some point I may not need them, but as of right now, I'm glad I'm keep them from the landfills.
 
Alder Burns
pollinator
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Location: northern California
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There are two tracks here, and I have participated in both. Relatively small urban and suburban sites will find it easy to tap into abundant organic waste streams nearby, as several posters above have described.  The only things I would add to that list are paper products for mulching, building materials of all sorts for infrastructure, and food from dumpsters for people, animals, and composts.
     On rural sites where distance to free resources is a challenge, more careful and frugal design is crucial.  Some off-site resources are still available....such as the occasional pile of woodchips dumped when the power company clears tree branches from the power lines.  We have one such pile now three years old and are still parsing it out carefully to several uses.  Other than that, it is essential to consider the site as a nutrient and resource trap, and assure as much as possible that of everything that enters the site, nothing, except perhaps toxins, is lost.  This includes urine, humanure, livestock and pet wastes, food scraps, prunings and other crop residues, paper products, and wood scraps from building and remodeling projects. And also, of course, water.  Slow, spread, and sink....can be applied to all of those.  Just about any site, especially in the early stages, will be importing a considerable amount of nutrients even if only in the form of human and animal food....and so a serious commitment to retaining and using the body wastes is bound to leverage fertility upward over time.  An important choice is whether or not to involve the use of fire in the re-use of woody stuff.  I heat with wood, in a relatively dry climate on a small landholding, so every stick and even bulky crop residue like sunflower stalks feeds my stove, as well as a good deal of scrounged and imported firewood from off-site.  But the ash, containing many of the minerals and some char, is kept and put on the land.  I also keep ruminants, geese, and chickens which break down garden and kitchen residues and make use of grass...there is almost no need to chip, shred, and intentionally compost these items.....I just go to one pen or another and shovel up a bucket or wheelbarrow full of litter and manure when I need some somewhere.
 
Amit Enventres
Posts: 456
Location: Ohio, USA
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Hi,
I don't think this sort of thing has been done much in my climate zone and acreage, so that's a good question.

We do have clay subsoil which typically holds more micronutrients than sand, but with any equation, we just have to match inputs and outputs. Imagine arrows going in circle from in the house to out. We have big deciduous trees which pull from lower layers of the soil and drop them on top, which helps with nutrients considering we keep that all on site (much to our neighbors confusion). We will also, at some later point, work on composting toilets, but not an a priority being that we still buy a lot of food off site while building things up here and may always need to get all dairy and some protein off site. We do already sometimes use pee as a fertilizer, but we need growth to match inputs and we pee a lot. Some plants also fix nitrogen and all produce organic matter. So we get a natural increase without trying there. We compost all organic matter on site and cycle the protein and carb leftovers through the dog, who uses the yard and things cycle through there too. We burn the sticks and logs that come off the property for heat and cycle the ash through the yard. How I tell if it's all working is by looking at the cycle and plant health.

Right now though, I'm not satisfied with what I see. Part of it is getting used to the system, part of it is getting it all up and running. Including, I think we got some micronutrient deficiencies and soil health issues that can't be fixed by peeing on it. They should self cure with my management style and time. Three years ago or less, it was lawn.
 
Sarah Houlihan
Posts: 89
Location: Central Maine
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This will be my first year really gardening (I hope) my lot.  It was forest when we bought it and now we have a few clearings for my food forest and house.  We have acidic, pine forest soil, clay and rocks.  And it's steep everywhere.
There is rotting wood and leaves everywhere, so I have been slowly building hugel beds.  (My ultimate goal is to build a giant hugel bed all around the property for an awesome living fence).  I don't have and can't afford to import soil, so the beds are currently rotting logs, branches, and leaves.  I have a kitchen scrap pile that I recently turned into a hot compost pile.  I am hoping that this pile will provide enough topsoil so I can finally garden again.
We also use wood ash as an amendment (I live in central Maine and heat completely with a wood stove, we have tons), and are learning more on using humanure (we have only a composting toilet, plenty again).
We do have a pig farm for neighbors and they have more manure than they could ever use, but we can't quite afford a truck yet.  Oh well, back to turning the compost pile!
 
Joel Bercardin
Posts: 252
Location: Western Canadian mtn valley, zone 6b, 750mm (30") precip
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Joseph Lofthouse wrote:About 9 growing seasons ago, I stopped importing composts, mulches, and fertilizers to my fields. I make a point of returning unused vegetables and peels to the fields. I grow a tremendous amount of weeds, they get chopped and dropped where they grew, as do the crop residues. I love corn, it seems like the place where the corn grew last year is the most fertile location in my fields. And the weed suppression properties of a patch of corn really please me. During that same time, I have selected for plant varieties that thrive in my soil exactly as it is.

However, the plants I grow in the greenhouse are grown in about 95% imported materials. Coconut coir, peat, perlite, and a bit of home-brew compost for micro-organisms and fertility. My soil has a tremendously healthy store of weed seeds, and the pH is high, and it's very silty,  so it's not very  suited for growing potted plants, especially not for market. I don't want to be exporting my weed seeds to other gardens.  I'd like to resolve these issues one of these years. I go through about 35 five gallon buckets of potting soil in a growing season. It's the largest expense on my farm. I don't trust commercial composts due to previous problems with them. Chances are though that I'm not going to deal with this issue unless coconut coir becomes unavailable.

For our greenhouse (growing for home use, not commercial) we don't replace the soil in the raised beds from year to year, but use an addition & amendment approach.  In the GH, we’re growing radishes and lettuce & other leafies in spring, then tomatoes, cucumbers, and hot peppers main season. We built the original soil for the beds by mixing local black sedge-peat soil, sand from our place, and rotted manure.  When we pull out old plants' soil-gripping roots — and because worms, invertebrates, bacteria, and fungi digest soil — we lose some proportion of soil mass, so we add stuff.  For example, we’ll use some rotted cattle manure, add a little lime or gypsum for calcium (depending on soil’s pH that spring), some greensand and phosphate-rock powder, maybe some Azomite. We usually mulch using feral-grasses (cut short) from our own place during the main season.

Outdoors we’re using rotted cattle manure, applied every two or three years, in the smaller garden (salad, onions, peas).  In our larger garden area (corn, potatoes, carrots, beets, squash we’re relying more on cover crops (typically fall rye mixed with some legume seed), established, grown for a while, then tilled in.  We also add compost that we make to rows while planting.  A potassium soil amendment helps many plants in this sandy/silty soil.  We sometimes mulch the outdoor gardens, too, using feral-grasses.

Daron Williams and Sarah Houlinan mention hugels, which I find interesting.  I’d like to hear more about this as a key practice of “fertilization”, as the logs, branches, etc can be an on-site means of soil/plant nutrition.

I haven’t yet tried this on our place due to the fact that outdoor raised beds have, in themselves, proven disappointing here.  We have an essentially incoherent soil (sandy, or silty-sandy at best). Even raising a bed 6” tends to fail, let alone (I’d imagine) one of a foot or 18” or more.  Outdoor raised beds here, when not cased-in, tend soon to become very sloped mud pies.

So please, people, how about more accounts of your use of hugels.
 
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