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Soil building with hay  RSS feed

 
Ian Pringle
Posts: 30
Location: Central VA
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My garden from this spring ended up being a bit failure due to pests (groundhogs, deer, bugs) and weeds. I've still got some area of four of my beds which are producing (tomatoes, peppers, melons) but everything else has either been eaten up by the pests (lettuces, kales, collards, broccoli, squash) or harvested (carrot, radish, corn, summer squash, spinach, arugula).

Of the stuff that is either growing or being harvested I have noticed a common theme, low yields. I attribute this to poor soil (mostly Virginian clay with a few beds sporting some "compost" from a local lawn and garden store, which I've been wholly unimpressed with).

Yesterday I went out and made a sort of log cabin like raised bed by laying limbs and trunks from some brush I cut down until I have about a 6" wall around the one bed that was completely empty of anything but weeds. I then found an ad on craigslist for hay (actual hay, not straw, very dry as it had been in a hay loft for a year+) at a $1 a bale and grabbed 20 of them. I've filled that entire bed (35'x4') with hay. Now that it has rained all night and soaked up the water I plan to go back out and fill in the areas where the hay has settled a bit more than the other places.

I've been debating between letting this bed just sit until next year and seeing how the composting has gone or doing something with it right now. I have about a wheelbarrow of compost that I've made with my chickens left and I thought that I could use that to plant some veggies into and see how they take. I also was wondering if I should be adding nitrogen to the pile to help speed up the composting process.

Another thought I had was that I could collect our urine and then pour that onto the hay, which might help speed up the composting and would probably create better soil for next spring since there would be more nitrogen. I was also thinking about calling up the local coffee shop and asking them to hold a few days worth of grounds for me and adding that into the hay as well.

Figured I'd ask what my best course of action would be before proceeding, since I probably won't get to this for a few days anyways.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Posts: 2839
Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
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Since hay is an acronym for Cut Grasses, I would definitely make the addition of any nitrogen I could use.

You might even consider doing a "dig in" of this first layer of hay since that will immediately put some fresher carbon into the soil for the microbes to work on while it composts in place.
This is just an option, you would be doing a minor disruption but the immediate addition of carbon from the hay will almost totally negate the disruption effect of killing microbes.
Instead the disturbed microbes will go after that newly found carbon bearing organic material.

Redhawk
 
Ben Waimata
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Location: New Zealand
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I plant citrus trees into newly cut contour terraces even when all (limited) topsoil has been lost in the cutting process. All I ever use is hay mulch. It breaks down reasonably quickly as the earthworms find it as soon as it is wet. Never use an additional fertility source.  After a year there is  significant black soil magically appeared. Citrus do fine like this, not rocket growth rates but good survival.

But in your case it reads that you have mulched over an existing bed of weeds? Ok that works well too, but you have the additional issue of preventing the weeds regrowing while simultaneously trying to introduce a new crop.  When I do this I would either clear a bit of the mulch and existing weeds down to the existing soil to plant into, or (better) obtain a small quantity of good topsoil and build a small 'funnel' of soil through the mulch down to the existing soil (no need to kill weeds this way). Most vegies prefer to grown in mineral soil than pure mulch, but you will find the feeder roots along the soil surface soon but the deeper roots in the clay. Works well,.... as long as you can keep the pests out! My pigs had a great time in my hay-mulch corn/pumpkin/bean garden last year!
 
Ian Pringle
Posts: 30
Location: Central VA
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Thanks guys.

As an experiment I dug up some of my russets and put about 12 of them into a six foot section of this new hay bed. I know others have had success growing potatoes in strictly hay.

I actually killed all the weeds with a weedwhacker. Went right down into the dirt and killed as many of the root balls as I could reach. In my experience this technique kills everything that is currently alive and then I only have to worry about new growth.

I will look into adding some more stuff (dirt, mulch, carbon, nitrogen, etc) to this bed and to my others as the summer winds down and I start converting more of the beds to this hay.

Hopefully the pests will be dealt with for next spring. We didn't have the funds to install a fence this year, but it's the first thing on the to-do list for this fall/next spring.
 
beth Cromwell
Posts: 16
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Hi. I am not good at getting around the computer, so I hope you don't mind my question here. I slashed my summer garden ,,, mostly pots and 2 small brick areas attached to the house...I used mushroom compost and grass clippings, banana skins, during the season to mulch, etc. So, I had 2 bags of chicken manure, with hay, that has been sitting for 3 months, I have rolled the bag about once a week or so. I just dumped it into my wheel barrow to mix it with some new dirt, and some more mushroom compost, to use for tomato cuttings, new seed starts, and revive my beds, and my moringa, avocado, and ginger plants,  a lime, 2 barbados cherries proud, from seeds! and a few lemons... anyway, it has been so rainy, the manure is soaked, looks still gross, not really usable?...but it is already in the mix...can I let it sit out a few days and use it? Or is it putrid, and therefore harmful to my soil and plants? I have carried these plants to my new home, babied them, I hate to hurt them now! Thank you so much for answering me, plus, being only 6 pm, I got out of the heat, wow, I forget that August is not fall in Florida...
Oh, I also have saved seed that I wanted to plant with this dirt, maybe I should just use the coco coir I have left? simpler, maybe. Thank you, betty
 
Marco Banks
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Location: Los Angeles, CA
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If you choose to not do anything with those beds for a year, it's still in your best interest to keep a living root in the ground.  You might wish to consider pulling back the hay in a regular pattern and planting a cover crop into the spaces.  That way you'd get the best of both worlds: you keep your hay mulch on top of the soil, and you'd have the benefits of your cover crop growing through it.  This actually wouldn't be such a bad time to start a warm season cover crop.  You could get a nice crop of warm season legumes, forbs, grasses and broad leaf plants growing while it's still hot out.  Then, as the weather cools, you cut cut those plants off at the soil level (leaving the roots underground) and plant a cool season cover crop to go into the winter.

If it's easier, pull the hay off, pile it up, wet it down so that it starts to compost, and while it's breaking down, plant your cover crop.  Then, once your cover crop is coming up, you can put that hay mulch right back onto the beds you removed it from.  Either way (planting through the mulch, or taking the mulch off), the combination of both a cover crop and mulch will make a tremendous difference in that wonderful clay soil.

In this way, you'd be increasing soil organic matter (SOM) in three ways:  1.  Through the breakdown of the hay mulch.  Worms and other soil biota will integrate that carbon down into the soil profile.  2.  Root exudates from the growing cover crops.  The root exudates will feed microbial soil life and pump sugars and starches down to the little guys who feed on it.  3.  Once you cut the crops off, their roots will continue to decompose down in the earth.

As for cover crops, the more diverse, the better.  Each different plant produces a different chemical mix in their exudates, thus feeding a much broader range of bacteria and soil life.   My fall cover crop is usually a mix of about 10 different species, with nitrogen fixing plants being predominant.  Because I don't have the right bacteria in my soil naturally, I have to inoculate the seeds with a bacterial inoculant.  I get my seeds and inoculant from groworganic.com. 

Yes -- urine.  But N needs C to grab onto, or it tends to flush through the soil.  That's why increasing SOM is so important.  Carbon in the soil becomes the reef where microbial life can live, and where nutrients like the N from your pee are held until the plants come over and take it up. 

One more comment: clay is good.  Yes, it gets hard and clumpy and can be so heavy to work with . . .  now.  But once you've been mulching and building soil for a couple of years, clay is one of the most fertile soils that there is.  This is because clay is negatively charged so it grabs onto positively charged nutrients like N, K, and P.  But you've got to have a lot of C.  As the worms and roots integrate carbon down into your soil profile, you'll have amazing soil.  So while that clay is hard to work with now, give it two years (and a truck load of mulch) and you'll be amazed at how quickly it can be transformed into friable, black, healthy soil.

Best of luck.
 
Marco Banks
Posts: 577
Location: Los Angeles, CA
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beth Cromwell wrote:Hi. I am not good at getting around the computer, so I hope you don't mind my question here. I slashed my summer garden ,,, mostly pots and 2 small brick areas attached to the house...I used mushroom compost and grass clippings, banana skins, during the season to mulch, etc. So, I had 2 bags of chicken manure, with hay, that has been sitting for 3 months, I have rolled the bag about once a week or so. I just dumped it into my wheel barrow to mix it with some new dirt, and some more mushroom compost, to use for tomato cuttings, new seed starts, and revive my beds, and my moringa, avocado, and ginger plants,  a lime, 2 barbados cherries proud, from seeds! and a few lemons... anyway, it has been so rainy, the manure is soaked, looks still gross, not really usable?...but it is already in the mix...can I let it sit out a few days and use it? Or is it putrid, and therefore harmful to my soil and plants? I have carried these plants to my new home, babied them, I hate to hurt them now! Thank you so much for answering me, plus, being only 6 pm, I got out of the heat, wow, I forget that August is not fall in Florida...
Oh, I also have saved seed that I wanted to plant with this dirt, maybe I should just use the coco coir I have left? simpler, maybe. Thank you, betty


If its wet and stinky, you need to dry it out and get some oxygen into it.  Do you have a source for browns?  Shredded leaves or shredded paper . . . something like that?  You need a high carbon source to take care of all that wet and potentially stinky greens.  (I'm using the terms browns and greens as you'd use them in building compost.  If you're not familiar with those terms, read up on it.)

I'd just pile it on a bare patch of ground and turn it with a pitchfork every couple of days for about 2 weeks.  Once you've integrated carbon and air and turn it a few times, it will not be so gloppy and gross, as you call it.  Get it out of the wheelbarrow, as that holds the water as it rains.
 
beth Cromwell
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Thank you! Yes, I can add browns, we have lots, thank you!  2 weeks of sun is much better than loosing it all, thank you for your kind reply.
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