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Harvesting Garden Soil from the Forest  RSS feed

 
Cody Crumrine
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TLDR: Had bad soil. Digging some up from the woods. Good idea? Bad idea? Share your thoughts.

Let me start by saying I did not know much about permaculture when we built our home (~2 years ago now). We built in the middle of the woods, which I love, and I took advice from friends / family / contractors who have owned or worked on land in this area on how to to do it. Part of that was clearing and removing absolutely all the topsoil around the house in a pretty large area. I wish I'd known to leave at least an area for my garden untouched, but I hadn't even planned where I'd put the garden at the time (we hadn't planned much : /). So last year when I put our garden in, this is the terrain I had to work with.



Not bad if you're just going to harrow it and plant grass (which we did for quite a bit of it) but rough start for a garden. By that time I was pretty convinced on the "no till" idea, and wanted to embrace it. "But I can't start with this" I thought. So I tilled it, and mounded up some raised rows thinking "I'll add compost every year, and this will be the only time I till". Our garden grew okay, with the exception of root vegetables (carrots, beets, onions... none fared well). But here I am this year, wanting to plant, and this is the state of those rows now.



Not the best picture, but you can see the dry cracked (rocky) ground. It's pretty much clay, and quite solid (I'm sure by my previous year's tilling helped it get this compacted). "I can't plant in this!" I said. And I I didn't want to til it again and compound the problem, so I began to spread everything organic I could find on top. Old hay, compost, grass clippings... But we don't actually produce enough "kitchen scrap" compost in a year to cover all the rows, and mulching is something I should have been doing all last year... it doesn't give me much I can plant in now.

So my next "great idea" was to try harvesting muck from one of the little streams that runs nearby. It's a fairly healthy stream, fed by a little spring on our neighbors farm, and the mud doesn't have any funky smell. I thought "surely this is full of good organic matter." Well.. it may be, but it's so wet that I still have the same structure issue. I added a bucket's worth of it to the end of one row, and here's how it looked the next day.



: / Something tells me that won't be great for planting either.

So there I was, wishing that we hadn't cleared away all the topsoil... when I realized that it was still there. Not where I was trying to build a garden... but right over there in the woods.



I headed into the forest with a rake, shovel, hoe and pitchfork and set to work seeing what I could find. I pulled away the turf with the hoe, and what I found...



Looked a heck of a lot more like garden soil than what was in my garden. So I started a repeating process of:
- strip away turf
- break up what I find with the hoe
- dig it out until I hit too much rock or clay (which happens pretty quickly... making this a slow process)
- take wheelbarrow loads over to my garden



So... this looks better anyway. At least it's something I can put seeds in, and seems like it will both have better drainage & better moisture retention than my clay... And hopefully comes with far more organic matter already incorporated.  I'm hoping this gets me on track with a decent base, and that if I continue to mulch around veggies throughout the year, plant cover crops in the fall, and amend with compost in the spring, I can build up some nice soil over time.

Here's a picture of two rows worth of added "forest soil". (The darker one from just before the picture was taken. The lighter (dryer) from a day earlier.)



My concerns are:
- Am I wrong about the richness of the organic matter in this late-stage succession soil? Is it actually more "used up" than I've assumed?
- Am I going to get unwanted volunteers from this in the garden? (not that I don't anyway)
- This feels unsustainable... Not only is it a ton of work (this is so much later than I like to get most of my garden in...) but it gives the illusion of being "no input" (I just used what was here!) when actually the "input" is just from "over there in the woods", so I'm hoping this can be a "one time kick-start".

I may know more about permaculture than I did 2 years ago, but I still know very little. I'm reading/experimenting all I can, so I post to say "here's what I'm trying!" for your entertainment and would love any advice folks have to share.
 
Bryant RedHawk
gardener
Posts: 2302
Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
183
chicken dog forest garden hugelkultur hunting toxin-ectomy
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hau Cody, first off, why not just garden where you found that "good soil" instead of removing it to another space?
                Don't dispose of the sod, just turn it over in place, that way you aren't repeating the first mistake.

The first photos show an area that will benefit greatly from growing grasses and legumes to chop and drop, thus building soil where you removed it previously.

Grasses are great at gathering carbon as well as putting lots of roots (organic material) into soil, rocks, just about anywhere they can.
Legumes will fix N from the air and hold it in their nodules until you chop them down and let them rot.

The root vegetables you mentioned won't grow in that rocky stuff because they need light, sandy soil to be able to grow, so for those, you will need raised beds filled with the right type of soil.

If you grow the grasses and add some clovers, within two years of chop and drop you will have a great start on rebuilding what was removed.

Redhawk
 
Aaron M Armstrong
Posts: 11
Location: Seattle, WA
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Hi Cody,

So great that you have so much land and so many resources to work with! I am envious of your position.

The first thing I noticed in your pictures was a 95% lack of mulch (a layer to protect the soil). Every time it rains your soil is compacting and being drained of life. This is especially illustrated in your second image of the bare soil net to the dock.

Before I make any recommendations, I want to answer your question: Bad idea. I get your intention of wanting to improve the soil, but disturbing a natural environment to improve a human environment is not a sustainable means of achieving your goal. This is both in terms of this as a general human activity and for you as an individual on your property.

I recommend harvesting, in a sustainable way, a choice few of those many trees that you are blessed to have and then using a wood chipper to cover the soil you would like to improve. You don't need to adulterate the soil in any way before covering. Covering it do a depth of 6 inches is going to give your soil the ability to hold moisture, which will encourage soil communities to activate and improve your soil for you. After spreading this layer of mulch I would wait at least 6-9 months to let the soil communities grow and begin to digest the chip material. You could also order some soluble fungal spore mix to give the process a boost. paul stamets' has a product at fungi.com called MycoGrow Soluble, which I like very much. I know there are others out there and perhaps someone else will chime in with another recommendation.

Once the soil communities have had the opportunity to established you can scatter seed a variety of productive soil builders (legumes, carrots, beets, fenugreek, etc).

Again great space! Your gut is right about it feeling "unsustainable", but I applaud your efforts!

With all the energy and passion of Spring,

Aaron
 
O. Donnelly
Posts: 34
Location: Hudson Valley Zone 5b
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What did the contractor do with the topsoil?  Probably sold it. Really sad that they did that...
 
Cody Crumrine
Posts: 11
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Bryant RedHawk wrote:why not just garden where you found that "good soil" instead of removing it to another space?

Light mostly. That area is heavily wooded. Basically, everywhere we left the sod we also left the trees. : ) And we've already cleared a lot... I'd like to avoid clearing further for the sake of my garden plot. If I can.

Aaron M Armstrong wrote:Your gut is right about it feeling "unsustainable", but I applaud your efforts!

Yeah... I guess my problem is patience. I've been hung up on "how do I plant a garden this year not next year." Which I guess leads me to be a bit short sighted.
^ As I right that I realize it's probably the world's oldest excuse for bad growing practices. Prioritizing "right now" is pretty much the definition of unsustainable isn't it... : )

O. Donnelly wrote:What did the contractor do with the topsoil?  Probably sold it. Really sad that they did that...

Actually my father in law did most of the clearing (he owns some heavy equipment, and we were thankful not to rent it.) Most of it sat in piles for ~ year and then were used for fill or leveling around the house. We did actually try to save the best piles and spread them on the garden. I think the problem is that you hit clay very shallow here, so what I got from those piles was some good topsoil mixed with a lot of clay.
 
Bryant RedHawk
gardener
Posts: 2302
Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
183
chicken dog forest garden hugelkultur hunting toxin-ectomy
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hau Cody,

you can plant this year, just not as much as you probably want in the ground, unless you decide to do some stem exclusion (thinning) of the trees  so that soil gets light.
The other way to get a garden this year would be if you created some raised beds and filled those, however that would most likely involve "purchased soil".

As already mentioned, wood chips can be your new best garden friend. The easiest way to get wood chips rotting is to go hunt mushrooms in your woods and gather them up for making a slurry.
That slurry (mushrooms blended up in non chlorinated water) can be poured over woodchip mulches and that will start the decomposition process.
Once that has started, all sorts of good, soil building critters will come to make their home and build you some awesome soil.

Plants don't actually need soil to grow, many items can grow in gravel, moisture and nutrient providing bacteria are all you need. The bacteria are there, just hanging around dormant until their right conditions come along.

Lots of help is available here on permies so never be afraid to ask, we like to help folks.

Redhawk
 
Tom Digerness
Posts: 11
Location: Northern Utah/Northwest Colorado
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I once used some forest duff in a potting soil mix for an indoor plant... Let's just say 2 years later, I think (knock on wood) my meal worm/darkling beatle round up, that took place every time I watered, has finally played it's course.
 
Aaron M Armstrong
Posts: 11
Location: Seattle, WA
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Cody Crumrine wrote:I realize it's probably the world's oldest excuse for bad growing practices. Prioritizing "right now" is pretty much the definition of unsustainable isn't it... : )


Beautifully stated. Yes, it's always best to not bring in any resources and not build infrastructure, if you don't *have* to. That said, I understand impatience. Why not take Bryant's advice and start a small raised bed using some of that wood pile as the frame? If bringing in a yard of garden soil and a little garden mulch makes it so that you can weather the time until your soil is ready to work, maybe that's the definition of sustainable for you (But definitely get on that chipper soon. The sooner you cover that ground, the sooner you'll have happy, workable soil.)
 
O. Donnelly
Posts: 34
Location: Hudson Valley Zone 5b
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O. Donnelly wrote:What did the contractor do with the topsoil?  Probably sold it. Really sad that they did that...


Actually my father in law did most of the clearing (he owns some heavy equipment, and we were thankful not to rent it.) Most of it sat in piles for ~ year and then were used for fill or leveling around the house. We did actually try to save the best piles and spread them on the garden. I think the problem is that you hit clay very shallow here, so what I got from those piles was some good topsoil mixed with a lot of clay.


Probably would have been better to level the subsoil and then spread the topsoil back over the site in a uniform thickness, or concentrate some portion in raised beds, Rather than using precious topsoil to level and fill. In any case, much better situation than what you originally described "clearing away and removing absolutely all the topsoil"

You should have gained some thickness from the footprint of the house. it sounds like your topsoil is just very thin to begin with.  Based on the pictures, the subsoil looks like saprolite - partially weathered shale bedrock. Dense clay and large chunks of shale. If so It's going to take you a very very long time to build any good soil on that. Probably not in your lifetime.  Which is why the native soil is so thin.  I would build raised beds and buy a couple cubic yards of topsoil (or have your father in law "procure" it) and call it a day.
 
Cody Crumrine
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Update!

Well.. I don't have a wood chipper (will need to line up borrowing one sometime. In fact I know someone who's got one, but not a trailer that can haul it) but I was determined to find a better source of planting medium.

Not sure why this wasn't more obvious to me, but when we cleared to build we cut up a lot of firewood. Yesterday, as I walked by the remains of that wood pile, the lightbulb came on. I was walking past year old piles of bark and sawdust! I'm sure it's not as close to "soil" as it will be in another year or two, but it's something! Here's a photo of a load of that added to a row:



I can plant in that. That will work. The big pieces of bark sit on top and dominate the picture, but it's mostly comprised of much smaller particles.

Thanks all for the tips and encouraging me to find a better source.
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