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Chris Holcombe
Posts: 116
Location: Zone 8b Portland
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I moved into a place outside of Portland Oregon about 3 years ago. I've had a hell of a time improving the soil. I think the former owners ruined it. I've been mulching when I mow. I chop and drop where possible. In the garden area I've started applying purchased compost because the organic matter in the soil seems extremely low. My wife did a mason jar test and it seems to mostly silt, a tiny amount of clay and almost no organic matter. In the summer the soil dries into concrete. I can stand or jump on a shovel and it won't budge. When the winter rains come it softens up considerably.

I tried last year to plant some winter squash out in the lawn area by turning a bunch of grass/weeds over and planting into some holes with a little compost. The plants were extremely stunted and died early.  Same thing with the tomatoes in the garden. Tiny, stunted and then died early. I planted some potatoes this year into 25 gallon pots by filing them with soil from the garden. I thought I had read the potatoes had low fertility requirements. I just harvested them today and I think I got back less then I planted as seed potato. So my question is short of ordering thousands of dollars of compost what can I do? I bought 5 yards of compost this year and put it around all the fruit trees and some in the garden. I dug out a large area of soil from the garden and filled it back in with compost. The winter squash I planted is growing like crazy. I put some hugel beds into the garden and they seem to be doing well. The kale was yellow the first year but then improved a lot the second year. This year the mice have turned the hugel beds into little homes.

As I look around the yard at the pocket gopher mounds it's easy to see the the soil everywhere is a fine silt without much organic matter to speak of. Each fruit tree I planted in the yard has all its friends. A comfrey, Autumn olive, compost on top, clovers and yarrow. Some logs around them for fungus. I think as these little islands expand they'll be building soil and improving everything. I think I need to get more creative. I've seeded the garden with red clover and I'm regularly cutting them for mulch. Any other ideas? Ideally something that won't cost a fortune to do.
 
Alder Burns
pollinator
Posts: 1379
Location: northern California
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I have gopher issues too, and pretty much any root crops have to be grown in raised beds with metal mesh underneath, and any important plants elsewhere set out in chickenwire baskets sunk into the ground.  The raised beds become a set of rotating on-site composts/hugelkulturs.  One at least is dug clear to the bottom mesh each year and then all the accumulated humanure/dog manure/soldier fly residue gets put in the bottom alternated with layers of cardboard and some of the soil put back, then all the prunings that the sheep or chickens didn't eat, plus more cardboard and paper, and wood chips if they are around (talk to the power company and other tree trimmers....sometimes they will dump chips on your place for free).  If you can work around fire danger, making biochar of some of this stuff would be even better since it doesn't break down as fast.  Basically, no organic matter (and that includes your own manure, that of your animals, urine, and any paper products coming on site) or nutrients must be allowed to escape your site.  Use them all on your soil, and gather more whenever and wherever you get the chance.  If you have the ability to haul stuff and can justify the expense, look at Craigslist and other similar resources for free and cheap mulches and manures around. 
 
Marco Banks
Posts: 577
Location: Los Angeles, CA
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1.  Start small.  If your goal is to transform the entire space in just a year or two, you will not have enough organic material to do so.

2.  Focus your composting to a small area, and then plan to garden that area next year.  Perhaps build a single raised bed and begin to enhance the soil in that bed only for the first year.  Every grass clipping, carrot top, egg shell, coffee ground, banana peel and apple core goes on the compost pile that sits atop that raised bed.  If you build one raised bed a year, it will not be overwhelming.  Yes, I know, you want to enjoy a bunch of fruits and veggies immediately, but that's how it is when you've got poor soil.  It just takes time.

3.  Buying compost might give a sense of immediate gratification, but it's expensive and generally gasses-off before it does any long-term alterations to your soil.  Year over year, very little of the organic matter remains.  Compost is important for it's microbial life, not so much as a source of organic material to transform your soil.  Instead . . .

4.  Wood chips.  Get a couple of truck loads and lay them down in volume across your land.  Chips are the most accessible bulk biomass available to urban gardeners.  Usually, its free.  Once you've mulched with wood chips for a couple of years, you'll see tremendous changes in soil composition and biota (worms in particular).  THEN you'll do well to add compost.  What goes does it do you to spend a lot of money bringing in microbial rich compost if all those wonderful microbes just die because the soil is so rotten? 

5.  Get a soil test.  I'm familiar with the soil in and around Portland, and I'd be surprised if you didn't have some clay.  Perhaps even a lot of clay.  It's easy to confuse clay and silt in a simple jar test.

6.  Once the summer heat is over, try to plant a nitrogen fixing cover crop mix.   It will grow for some time before frost/cold kills it. 

Best of luck.  Soil transformation will happen, but it'll take time.  I can't emphasize enough how great wood chips are for hard and crappy soil.  Wood chips transformed my garden. 
 
Linda Secker
Posts: 87
Location: Lancaster, UK
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Chris it sounds like you've already made a good start!

As your trees grow, they will dump leaves right where they are needed. In the meantime, I echo the above advice for woodchips and making use of every scrap of organic matter that comes into your home. Also though - ask people for more! Neighbours, your workplace for instance - I used to get great buckets of tea bags, fruit peels and coffee grounds from the office I worked in - autumn leaves, rabbit hutch cleanings... there will be loads more than you think and who cares if people think it is an odd request, if it all adds to the fertility of your garden

 
James Freyr
Posts: 360
Location: Middle Tennessee
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Hi Chris! Have you sent a sample to a lab for analysis? If not, this is the place to start and it's cheap. As you've noticed, compost can be added and not make the improvements desired. A soil analysis will provide you with factual data to aid you in bringing your soil to life with the appropriate mineral amendments. Knowing which minerals are in deficit is critical to know so the right ones are added. Bringing the minerals to their appropriate levels will in turn aid microbial life, which is the catalyst to make those minerals available to the plants you choose to grow and will also help turn some of your compost into humus which is much more stable than general organic matter. Balance the minerals and the plants will thrive.
 
chip sanft
pollinator
Posts: 425
Location: 18 acres & heart in zone 4 (central MN). Current abode: Knoxville (zone 6 /7)
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Our yard was in not good shape when we moved in -- mostly hard clay and, I think, fill that had been used for leveling. Based on my experience, I'll offer some thoughts.
I think the things you're doing are steps in the right direction. I'd add a couple more:

1. I think "manure", which is usually actually a mix of stable bedding and the actual doo, is a cheap and effective way to get nitrogen and lots of organic matter at once. People who keep horses are often giving it away (check Craigslist), though that may entail a lot of shoveling on your part, or you can pay a bit for it.

The thing I like about stable scrapings is that, beside the obvious rich goodness of the solid wastes, the bedding is soaked in nitrogen-rich urine. That helps it break down quickly and works to mitigate the temporary nitrogen tie-up while wood breaks down. I am getting old and too lazy to find shoveling shit fun anymore so I found a guy who will bring a 6 cubic yard trailer full and dump it at my place for $55. After aging the stuff over the winter, I plant directly in it without problems. Planting a few beans or something will help ensure you don't get a persistent herbicide problem in your inputs -- that hasn't happened to me, but I always do a planting test. Woodchips are great, but they're a longer-term solution.

2. I agree with the suggestion to focus in on particular areas rather than try to do the whole thing. I myself prefer a bigger plot, though, because productivity can be lower at the start, and getting something to eat is an important motivator. But marking it off will help you concentrate your energies.

3. Have you thought about just fencing off part of the troublesome area and letting it go to "weeds" for a while? Those plants produce organic material just like any other, and because they find their own way in, they tend to do well. As long as you aren't dealing with really nasty individuals (e.g., bindweed, giant hogweed, and so on), this can be a way to get started.

4. In places with soil compaction problems, many people report good results from a broadfork (for example: <http://www.redpigtools.com/Broadfork-Grelinette_p_1207.html> ). That might be something to throw into the mix.
 
Bryant RedHawk
garden master
Posts: 2844
Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
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hau Chris, Others have given some good ways to improve your soil by a top down approach, those will work very well over time.

Since you have mentioned how poor the soil is I'll add some methods, you have a fairly good list of the materials from the others.

I love wood chips, but I dig them in then I also put them on as a mulch layer. One of the awesome things about wood chips, besides usually costing nothing if you can find a tree trimmer company in need of free disposal, is that they can be planted directly with crop plants once they have weathered a year.

We use straw bales for planting tomatoes, they work very well, holding enough water so as to only need watering once a week if it doesn't rain. Straw bales are full of microorganisms and only need to be tempered with water and a little nitrogen (pee or spent coffee grounds work well) to get to rotting.
As your tomatoes grow the soil beneath starts getting all the leach through, by the end of the growing season the bales are mostly compost and that soil below them will have some organic material in it, which will increase as long as you keep up the bale planting.
we have one area that is on the third set of bales and the soil is full of organic material, worms, fungi, bacteria and all the rest of the microbiome of good soil.

If you can, find a stable and see if you can get the muck from the stalls, that is super stuff for gardens once it has aged a while.

Don't forget that you can dig in that dirt and by making additions like stable muck, straw, wood chips, as you dig those in, the microbes will get to work and the soil will become softer, faster with just a little disruption.
Follow the disruption with new plants and mulches and you can have great soil started within a year that will reach down twice as far as the depth of the disruption.
Do not forget to do some mineral additions as you can, those will do quite a lot for the microbiome you want to live in you land, they are what make soil.

Redhawk
 
Chris Holcombe
Posts: 116
Location: Zone 8b Portland
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food preservation forest garden fungi
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Wow thanks everyone!  These responses have been really excellent. It sounds like: 1. I need to be more patient. 2. Wood chip mulch will really help 3. I should really get a soil test. 4. Any kind of manure I can get my hands on will help.  I like the idea about getting a nitrogen fixing cover crop going as soon as the heat breaks for the summer.  I'll keep working on rounding up more organic matter. The other comment about starting small and creating a beach head is interesting. I think part of my frustration has been around trying to improve everything at once. After reading books like the one straw revolution and watching greening the desert it doesn't seem that hard. After you start practicing permaculture though you realize that what Lawton and Fukuoka did/do was truly incredible.  One thing I noticed this year was when we moved in the previous owners put down a bunch of straw in an area. I don't know what they where planning on doing but I turned it into a blueberry hedge. The soil there 3 years later is quite a lot better than everywhere else. I think everyone is spot on with the heavily mulch idea and be patient. I'll post some pictures tomorrow
 
Jim Fry
Posts: 139
Location: Stone Garden Farm Richfield Twp., Ohio
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"4. Any kind of manure I can get my hands on will help."

....Not necessarily. If you use the wrong manure in the wrong way, you can kill your garden. Horses have a fairly poor digestive system. They tend to pass weed and grass seed through their systems without digesting all of it. Fresh horse manure is also quite high in nitrogen. If you put fresh on your gardens, you can "infect" your ground with seeds you don't want, plus end up with too much nitrogen. It's much better to, at a minimum, let horse manure compost for a year, and 3 or 4 years is much better. I use a lot of older horse manure compost, and it works well for me. But any cow, sheep, goat, rabbit, llama and chicken manure I can get is better. And any manure that has composted a bit is even better. You might also want to consider the bedding that may come along with the manure you are using. If the source of where the manure came from used walnut chips/sawdust for bedding, that's not good. If they were using hay, you'll get unwanted weeds. If they were using any bedding or feed that was sprayed for weed control while it was still growing, it could very adversely effect your plants and soil. If you put (especially fresh manure) on your plants too close to when you pick the plants or produce, you could potentially get a variety of diseases. Manure is only as good as its composition, what it was made from, how it was treated, how old it is, what it was mixed with, and sometimes even what medications the animal might have been taking. Not all fertilizer is good or equal. Investigate and make the right choice, instead of making the convenient or easy choice. P.S. I don't know this from personal experience, but I was told that,.. if the circus comes to town, elephant manure is the best of all.
 
Jese Anderson
Posts: 11
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I fight really heavy clay soils here in Middle TN.  I have a traditional 3500 sq ft garden and at least an additional 500 sq ft of raised beds. 

I've been covering the traditional garden area with 2-3 inch of wood chips after I get it planted.  My soil is improving. Even though clay retains a lot of moisture the wood chips help keep it from drying out and cracking.  Before I used wood chips it was nothing to see  1/2" wide 2' deep crevices appear in various areas of my garden. 

One thing I do for most of my vegetable plants is to literally dig up the planting area for each seedling at roughly the size of a 5 gallon bucket. I put that heavy clay soil in a wheelbarrow and mix in compost (rabbit manure/chicken manure/wood chip compost) until I like the consistency of it and then I fill the hole back in with the new mix and plant the seedling in it.  I'm striving to get to a "no till" garden but it will be another 2-3 years before I get enough organic material added and to an acceptable debt (2-2.5 ft).  My vegetables always do great by this method I use, plus I am adding a lot of organic matter.  I try to offset the plantings to a new "hole" the next year so I am not planting in the same area I improved the past year.

I also maintain pretty strict rules of staying in traffic lanes in my garden and only have to get around the area of my vegetable plants while doing maintenance or harvesting....I'm big on avoiding compaction close to my plants.  Also wood chips will help you get into your garden when it soaking wet.  In the past there was no way to enter my garden when wet as you'd sink 4" into the sticky nasty clay.  I laid down slabs from a neighbors mill for 2 years to walk on, then shifted over the burying my garden in wood chips and have never looked back. 

Right now I have at least 40 yards of wood chips in 4 piles around my place.  These were delivered about a month ago and dropped off in various areas on my property.  At least 20 yards of those will lay around and get turned every once in awhile and go on my garden next year.  I free range about 20 chickens and when I let them out each morning I always throw a cup of scratch on top of a 15 yard or so pile for them to pilfer through.   I use wood chips in my coop and in my run, when these get cleaned out they go into my compost bin.  I also add a layer of wood chips under my rabbit hutch that houses 6 rabbits. Once this layer gets covered I'll add another 2-3 inch layer.  After about 3 months I just scoop it all up and toss in my compost bin.  Once it's done composting I'll add about 1 yard of my clay soil to the compost (about a yard), mix it all up and use it in my raised beds. 



Good luck, I'm still a few years away from turning this red clay into "perfect soil" and have seen lots of improvement after 2 years of adding wood chips as mulch in my garden. It's a lot of work (I use a snow-shovel) and walk each shovel full into the garden and spread) but it keeps me active and in great shape.  Takes 2 full days for me to properly mulch in my 3500 sq ft garden.

Oh, if you find a tree trimming service that will drop off chips, those guys know the deal. Tell them when there are loads that will be good for the garden to dump them right at the end of it.  So-so loads gets dropped off in areas where I have exposed rocky land and I will just spread them out over it to help with erosion.  I'd say I get at least 100 yards of wood chips delivered to my place every year...and a whole bunch of logs that I can either have my neighbor run through his mill and use for lumber or cut up for firewood

 
Chris Holcombe
Posts: 116
Location: Zone 8b Portland
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Wow 100 yards a year is intense. So far this year I've spread 5 yards of compost and about 2 yards of wood chips. I signed up for 2 online services that connect me with arborists to get chips delivered. I put down that I'll take anything except walnut chips. I have pawpaws which I think can handle walnut but I'm not certain.
 
Jese Anderson
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Chris Holcombe wrote:Wow 100 yards a year is intense.


I use at least 30-40 yards just in my gardening endeavors.  The other 60-70 sit in piles and compost down for about 3-4 months are then spread with a tractor around my place.  Some go in a small orchard, some on areas where erosion is occurring, and some simply get spread on trails/walking paths around the place.  They really come in handy around the house in the wetter months.  I spread them to go between garage and shed also, it's a muddy mess without them.  When you have this nasty red clay to deal with and are outside working most of the time you tend to use those chips for a little sticky clay relief.

I'd take another 100 yards a year if they would bring them.  They have several places they drop wood chips, if they are doing work in my area, then they drop off here....free.  They actually like dropping off here because I have 2 different driveways and they can pretty much dump no more than 40 yards off any of the driveways.  If it's wet they don't want to get off the road so they dump in one of my dry areas.  If it's dry enough to drive through my side yard to get to the coop and garden and it's good stuff for composting then they always make the effort. 

Here's a pic I snapped from on top of the shed while throwing down stakes into the other part of garden.  You will notice that the lesser composted chips are on edges of garden and traffic areas, around all the plants is chips that had composted an additional 2-3 months.  I guess on this half of the garden there is 12-15 yards of wood chips.  The pic was taken around mid April when we got this half of the garden in.  Most of those wood chips are pretty much gone now.  I'd say that no more than 20% remain. 





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