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how to improve very shallow, rocky dirt  RSS feed

 
Ellanor Ellwood
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Location: BC, Northern Gulf Islands
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I have 2.42 acres of land draped along a moderately sloping ridge on the south west cost of BC Canada. The dirt is mostly 2 feet or less deep with patches of bare lime stone poking thro. Whats the best way to increase the amount of dirt ? There is some brush and tree limbs on the property for hugelkultur beds, on the biggest patches of bare rock I am planing to put raised beds but I don't have alot of money to buy lumber and piles of dirt. Also buying and bringing in dirt from off site is not very sustainable
 
r ranson
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Location: Left Coast Canada
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Welcome to the forum.

There are lots of different 'best' ways to build soil.  It's a matter of finding which one works best at your location and for your style of farming/living. 

What's worked best for me (also on the West Coast) is sheep.  A good fence and a flock of sheep is one of the fastest ways to build the soil with very little effort.  For stony ground like that, I recommend some of the older breeds like Icelandic, Shetland or Black Welsh Mountain.  Or, better still, some of the gulf islands have landrace sheep that are already well adapted to our conditions. 

There are other ways that work.  My friend has had a lot of luck with a swale and Hugelkultur combination.  It absorbs moisture in the winter and keeps it for much of the summer.  It's only now starting to show signs of drought. 
 
Ellanor Ellwood
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Location: BC, Northern Gulf Islands
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I am worried most about if there is enough dirt for trees and tree sized bushes. I have no experience with livestock yet so i wanted to start small, would chickens with meat rabbits over worm bin (also some outings in a rabbit tractor) work instead of sheep for bettering the soil? I was thinking where ever there is dirt but no garden/orchard or conifer forest I was thinking of planting fodder and green manure/dynamic accumulators grasses, small bushes and such for rabbit feed, garden mulch, feed - deep bedding - compost run for the chickens
 
Hans J Brammer
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Use soay sheep - they wont need you
 
Nicole Alderman
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My ground isn't rocky or shallow, but it sure doesn't like to grow food. I ended up making raised beds almost entirely of my poultry's deep litter (pine shavings and duck poop) with a little added ash and kelp meal. They're really doing well on this, their first, year. More info here: https://permies.com/t/58238/critters/garden-soil-poultry-poop-pine ;

In the same thread, Tracy Wandling also talks about her raised beds built almost entirely of mulch. She's also in BC, with rocky soils. Her work really inspired me. There's more info on her garden on her thread http://www.permies.com/t/56720/projects/garden-fence-finally-finished-rainbows
 
r ranson
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All animals help improve soil in their own way.  If you can make a fence good enough, you might be able to host someone else's sheep.  That's what we did the first two years.  In return for free land, they gave me lessons in how to keep the sheep healthy. 

It might be useful to try small experiments to see what works for you.  I think of my farm as an experimental one - our goal is to grow year 'round food with zero irrigation and minimal human inputs.  We tried all sorts of things so far.  We found that terracing works great for us, but mulch hates it here.  I'm still stubbornly trying to get no-till to work.  But I can now grow squash, sunflowers, amaranth, and pulses with zero irrigation and zero rainfall (at my place, the rain stops about May 1st, and starts Oct 15th - give or take a week.). 

Anything that captures and holds the winter moisture in the ground helps keep the soil healthy and growing in the summer.  So, if you were making a hugelkultur, maybe gather the stuff together in the dry season then start making it as the rains come.  Plant it in something that overwinters well like rye and fava beans to prevent erosion.  That might help.  Try one of these this year and see if it helps.  If so, make more next winter.

 
Bryant RedHawk
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Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
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Ellanor Ellwood wrote:I am worried most about if there is enough dirt for trees and tree sized bushes. I have no experience with livestock yet so i wanted to start small, would chickens with meat rabbits over worm bin (also some outings in a rabbit tractor) work instead of sheep for bettering the soil? I was thinking where ever there is dirt but no garden/orchard or conifer forest I was thinking of planting fodder and green manure/dynamic accumulators grasses, small bushes and such for rabbit feed, garden mulch, feed - deep bedding - compost run for the chickens


Tree roots actually don't require soil to grow, they will send roots into cracks in rocks and over time pressure from the growing roots will break the rocks down into dirt and microorganisms will occupy that dirt and become soil.

The small live stock animals you mention will do quite well as sources of manures for your gardens and part of the nutrient food for a worm bin.

Raised beds don't have to be made of wood, if you have lots of rocks, those can be used for a perimeter wall for raised beds by dry stacking.

The more plants you grow the better the soil will become and it will build depth overtime.
 
Marco Banks
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Soil is built over time, so patience will be needed, particularly if you are starting with poor soil.

Dig around on this site, do a couple of searches, and you'll find all sorts of wonderful threads about building soil, building fertility in soil, and addressing all sorts of problems.

Let me throw a couple of suggestions into the list of expert advise that has already been given.

First, you may want to narrow your goal and just improve a small section at a time.  Trying to get everything at once will be more than you can handle.  Is there a small space you might want to turn into a garden?  Start there.  In your climate, I'd think raised beds would be a good way to go, as they will extend your growing season a bit longer.  (Where I live, it's the exact opposite --- I sink my plants a bit lower than the soil level, so as to capture as much moisture as possible and extend their growing season --- no frost worries here).  But you mentioned that that would be prohibitively expensive.  It doesn't have to look like Martha Stewart's show farm.  With all the dying trees in BC, could you use logs as the sides of your raised beds?  As those logs rot, they would contribute to the soil. 

Second, get on YouTube and watch some of Gabe Brown's videos about how he builds soil on his farm in Bismark ND.  His principles are universal, regardless of where you live and what your soil type is:  keep a living root growing in the ground as long as you can, keep the soil covered with some sort of mulch or growing plant, minimize disturbance, do not till because that burns up your precious soil carbon, and integrate livestock if possible.

Third, regarding livestock, yes, sheep or some other grazing animal is good --- but you've got to carefully manage them.  You want to get grass to grow, and then have the animals tromp it down and poop it out.  Read up on mob-stocking or mob-grazing.  But if you don't have a lot of grass on your land, then sheep will actually do more harm than good because they'll nibble it right down to the dirt if you don't get them off in time.  So integrating animals is a maybe.  Read up on it a lot more before you turn them loose on your land.

Fourth, you need biomass.  Carbon feeds the soil and ultimately turns into humus.  You can grow it with a cover crop or you can bring it in (wood chips or other carbon plant materials).  Or both (which is what I do), but soil is built by growing lots and lots of plants IN the soil, and dumping lots and lots of plant material ON the soil.  Never let a twig escape from your property.  Pile it up and let it break down.  Never burn anything or haul it away.  Bury it or use it as mulch, but every possible source of carbon needs to remain on site.  Weeds are your friends -- the more biomass, the better.  Start playing around with various cover crops and see what grows best in your area.  Can you get an early spring cover crop in, and then a late summer one as well?  That would be a lot of roots pumping life into your soil, and a lot of biomass above the ground that will ultimately break down and add soil organic matter.

If you've got pockets of good soil that are 2 feet deep, maybe you can grow your biomass there, and then transfer it to other spots around your property.


Fifth, yes -- look into hugelkulture.  There are all sorts of threads on it on this site, and all sorts of videos about it on the interwebs.  There is more than one way to do it.  Experiment with it.  My first hugel was a big tall mound.  Now I lay it flat and pile the soil back on top, keeping the wood all below the grade.  By burying wood and other carbon sources, you create a fungal rich environment that holds water and slowly breaks down into amazing soil.  You are on the right track with this.

Sixth (mentioned above, but worth mentioning again), don't till.  Plant your seeds with a minimum of soil disturbance.  If you mulch heavily, the soil will naturally get softer and easier to work with.  But put away the tiller or plow, and just work carefully with smaller hand tools.


Best of luck.

 
Cheryl Brociek
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Ellanor Ellwood wrote:I have 2.42 acres of land draped along a moderately sloping ridge on the south west cost of BC Canada. The dirt is mostly 2 feet or less deep with patches of bare lime stone poking thro. Whats the best way to increase the amount of dirt ? There is some brush and tree limbs on the property for hugelkultur beds, on the biggest patches of bare rock I am planing to put raised beds but I don't have alot of money to buy lumber and piles of dirt. Also buying and bringing in dirt from off site is not very sustainable


I have found Craigslist to be the best option for free items. I have found free trees, soil, manure, hay and compost.  Another place to get free trees/branches/mulch is to ask a tree trimming company to dump at your place. After a good storm, many trees have fallen, branches broken and people give it away for free. Take as much or as little as you want. Around here, many cities offer free mulch and the lucky ones, free compost! I've got 1/2 acre to cover and I am always on the lookout for free items, I look daily and type in a search for it. Good luck and I hope this helps!!
 
Rarna Vanda
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Location: South Wales UK
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Animals are great, but trees are the best.. at most things really...

Any type of tree you can grow or plant, that will survive in your current soil, will help your future soil. Trees are the absolute best to both break down the underlying rock, and also dump heaps of potential soil on the ground each year, when they drop their leaves in the fall. Those leaves are soil, in potential, once the frost, worms and so on get to them, they will create lovely soil wherever they fall. Certainly do not cut down any trees you currently have, but let them shed, and build up your soil. Trees help with moisture balance in your soil and surrounding area too.

I'm in Wales UK, and we live up on a mountainside, which was ex-industrial. Lots of old mining and quarrying, and some recent industry too, so our soil was as you can imagine.. awful. We did two areas, one which we planted with stuff ourselves, and another area that we just left to nature. The natural area built up soil much more quickly. And I think a lot of lessons can be learned from this.

Nature starts with very hardy plants, like thorny plants, and trees that can grow on rock. Here in Wales that means birch and gorse. Both of these plants grow quite quickly, even in the poorest of soils, and shed a lot of biomass each year. They also have very threadlike roots that quickly become thicker, so they break down the rock, as well as building up the soil layer on the top. Literally in a couple of years the soil was improved, and in 5 years all sorts of plants were flourishing on it. Of course in order to use this land, we now have to clear the trees and bushes, which is not an easy job in itself. But it certainly was an easy way to build up soil..watch and wait and enjoy the sun

If you wanted to speed up this process, then you could plant young trees, whichever ones in your area, naturally grow on rocky or poor soil. If you don't want to buy them, then just go to a wild place where they grow, and dig up a few 'babies'. They will not all survive in their natural spots, as nature always grows more than needed to allow for those that die, or get overcrowded, so think of it like adoption, that will help them have a better life

 
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