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Trying to restore my garden soil (Cheap & Lazy!)... wanna critique my strategy?  RSS feed

 
T Melville
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My soil kinda sucks. We used to deal with it by making raised beds filled with Mel's Mix. Mel's Mix ingredients are pricey. So in the newer section of garden, I've tried to mulch and cover crop. No great success yet. Two years in, still very rocky and compact. Pretty poor drainage. I suspect the clay. I found a link here on permies to find out what your weeds tell about your soil. Here's what it said about weeds I recognize from my garden:

bindweed:......................compacted
dandelion:......................low calcium, high potassium
henbit:...........................high nitrogen
lamb's quarter:...............rich, high nitrogen
oxalis (wood sorrel):.......low calcium, high magnesium
plantain (a little):............compact, sour, low fertility, heavy clay

So, here's what I'm doing so far. As I get beds ready for spring, I make sure to bury a little wood. Not too much. I don't chainsaw, so I only have small brush to use for this. My wife's not sold on the giant hugelculture mound idea, plus if I didn't redesign my garden a lot, the shadow of a big mound would shade areas that I'd like to keep full sun. So no "deleting the road", I just bury small scraps. The digging is hard, but I filled in a few trenches about 4" deep. Used the soil I dug out, so it's very slightly mounded. Then seed with a cover crop mix, covered with a thin mulch. First bed got imperial no plow mix and a little straw. Second bed got some wheat and barley, lots of turnips, and I think some buckwheat. Covered thin with shredded leaves. The second bed is barely germinating, I planted late and the cold is slowing it down. I am hoping this produces a lot of biomass, so I can chop 'n drop and plant into it. I also hope that as the wood breaks down, the soil will get easier to dig and I can bury more of it in future years.

I no longer waste my egg shells, I break/grind 'em up and put 'em on those beds. It's probably not enough, but wasting them, then looking for more calcium for the garden would make me feel stupid. I'm having some sheetrock hung this week. That's made with gypsum, which some folks use to amend calcium into soil. Is there bad stuff in it I wouldn't want in the garden?

I'd love to hear anyone's thoughts on this. I know there are about a million different things to try, but resources (and effort I'm willing to expend) are limited. I'd like to build a strategy that will make the most of those resources and effort. Said a different way, does anyone have any advice to help avoid wasted effort or "spinning my wheels"? How much improvement might I hope for by this method?
 
Phil Stevens
Posts: 40
Location: Ashhurst New Zealand
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Sheetrock (gypsum board) is a decent soil amendment. It adds calcium without raising pH, which is a real plus in a lot of places. My experience in the alkaline, caliche-bound soils of Tucson was that anywhere sheetrock scraps got dumped would grow the most killer crop of pumpkins the following year. Here in the lower North Island, on weathered silt that's made at least four round trips to the sea and then been uplifted again, it seems to help with the odd bout of chlorosis in our citrus trees, but I've only used it once or twice for this. If your soil is already neutral or acidic, then you might be better off with lime unless it's around plants that prefer lower pH.

The only thing that sheetrock brings that you might not want is plastic or glass reinforcing joint tape. Everything else breaks down nicely.
 
Travis Johnson
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I have found that using weeds to identify deficiencies in soils really help, but more in the way of a monitoring sense. In your case you need a baseline, and as the saying goes, "it is just a guess, unless you test." You are really guessing here because none of the weeds you indicate even show what your soil has for a PH level, and that is the starting point. Think smooth bedstraw here; a sure sign you have acidic soil which is probably the case if you live east of the Mississippi, and alkaloid if you live west of the Mississippi. In fact applying any kind of fertilizer, whether it be a hugel, organic matter, etc is a useless endeavor because if the ph level is widely off, it prevents the plants from absorbing it.

I am a bit anti-soil testing, but only because the USDA wants me to test my fields every three years, and I have a lot of them and it gets expensive after awhile. I learned from my Grandfather how to use weeds to make informed choices on what to amend the soil with, but I also know the history of that field going back some 40 years. That helps.

You really need a soil test to get a baseline, and at $12 there is no reason not too. One thing a soil test can tell you though that a weed cannot is how much to apply, and as hard as it is to obtain, mix, and overall produce soil amendments, knowing the exact amount to apply is worth it. Spending $12 to save laboring an extra 4 hours is well worth it in my estimation.

 
T Melville
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Travis Johnson wrote:You really need a soil test to get a baseline, and at $12 there is no reason not too.



I bought a cheap "at home" test at walmart. It was actually three tests. (N,P,K) For a few reasons, I don't know how much to trust it. The little capsule for the phosphorous test had leaked powder into the vial. (Was it just from the capsule, or was it extra? How much effect does extra powder have?) The phosphorous tested high. I expected that, as the previous owner had the washer discharge there for years. (It wasn't garden then.) But I don't know if the test is accurate. Finally, there was no number ("You have 'x' amout of phosphorous.") and no recommendation what to do about it.

I've never sent a sample to a lab, because there are so many, and I've no idea how much to pay or which lab is good. So, you know one you like, for ~$12? Who? How do you get started? Do they send a bag and a label and instructions, or do I just mail them a ziploc bag of dirt and a check?
 
James Freyr
pollinator
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Location: Middle Tennessee
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I'd like to comment and help. Phil is right that gypsum board will add calcium without raising the pH, however, some gypsum wall boards may also contain fire retardant chemicals among other things like binders, with the fire retardant chemicals being carcinogenic. I'm not making this up, it is known that those compounds can cause cancer. I would advise if using wallboard, to try and identify the manufacturer and see if they have a MSDS (material safety data sheet) for the product, and it will show what's in it. An alternative is agricultural gypsum already in a spreadable granular form without other ingredients.

The weeds you've identified in your garden do indeed tell a story, but just like Travis mentioned, they might say low calcium, but won't tell you how many pounds to add. I've done quite a bit of reading on building and amending soil, and if you raise the calcium levels to a balanced ratio of 7:1 to 10:1 with the soils magnesium, that heavy clay will almost magically begin to loosen up.

So I use Logan Labs to do my soil testing. There are many other good labs around the country that provide accurate tests, and even your states local ag extension does soil testing. Logan Labs charges $25 for a standard soil analysis. If you choose to send a sample to a lab, it's important to gather an accurate sample representing your garden area as a whole. To do this, take half a dozen or more small samples from the surface to 6 inches deep, mix these all up in a bag, then scoop out about 2 cups worth to mail off with a completed submission form. You can include a check with the sample or they can call you for a credit card number when the sample arrives.

I remember the first soil test I got from a lab and found it a little daunting to interpret and understand what the information was and what to do with it. Soil tests may appear a little confusing, but once one understands what the numbers mean, it's really not that bad. Lab tests are great because they use equipment that will tell you exactly in parts per million what's in your soil. If do choose to get a soil test done by a lab, and find the results confusing, I am more than happy to help you interpret them and guide you in how much of what minerals to add.
 
Travis Johnson
pollinator
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Typically every state has a land grant university for such things, and they provide something called that university's cooperative extension office. In my case, the State of Maine's land grant university is the University of Maine, and thus they have the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. This runs a variety of programs, many being agriculturally centered. They also have testing for farmers including soil sampling. For me I get boxes provided for by them, or I can pick them up free at the local Cooperative Extension office in my county. Most states that I know have this type of system. You cannot just send in baggies of soil.

Alternatively you can just call your local (most likely in your county) Farm Service Agency, or your local Soil and Water Conservation District office, and ask them how soil testing is done in your area. Soil testing is required for farmers so its cheap and easy to do once you find out the protocol.

Myself, I might consider moving my garden and get a soil test in the new location. Plants uptake nutrients, minerals and heavy metals in the soil and I while you did not say if the washer was a dishwasher (not so bad) or a clothes washer (absolutely evil) I would not want to eat vegetables growing there. I say clothes washer's are evil because I know what gets washed in my washer on occasion; fuel spilled on my clothes, detergents that are not always green rated, etc. There is a reason gray water is heavily regulated.
 
T Melville
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I'm attaching the MSDS for the sheetrock. The way I read it, it's safe. I thought I saw a mention of fire retardant, but can't find it now.
Filename: sds01003.pdf
Description: MSDS
File size: 171 Kbytes
 
Skandi Rogers
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Location: Denmark 57N
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[quote=T M
bindweed:......................compacted
dandelion:......................low calcium, high potassium
henbit:...........................high nitrogen
lamb's quarter:...............rich, high nitrogen
oxalis (wood sorrel):.......low calcium, high magnesium
plantain (a little):............compact, sour, low fertility, heavy clay

I'd love to hear anyone's thoughts on this. I know there are about a million different things to try, but resources (and effort I'm willing to expend) are limited. I'd like to build a strategy that will make the most of those resources and effort. Said a different way, does anyone have any advice to help avoid wasted effort or "spinning my wheels"? How much improvement might I hope for by this method?

Right well I can tell you I have PH 8 and a lot of dandelions so no, not low calcium, same for wood sorrel it loves high lime. Bindweed in my garden grows everywhere it's not remotely picky. Lambs quarters is also a prolific weed that will grow anywhere it seems to (in my experience) like disturbed ground but other than that it doesn't care. There are very few plants that can actually tell you much about your soil some like rhododendron or blueberry will not grow on alkaline soil and solomons seal doesn't like acid, but most common plants will grow anywhere. Do not add lime before you have tested what type of soil you have. For a very basic test which will show you acid or alkaline you can use red cabbage water or artichoke water. try this link webpage It won't be acurate as to how strong your acid or alkaline is but it will tell you which way you need to move.
 
Marco Banks
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Location: Los Angeles, CA
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Mulch and cover-crop.  Rinse.  Repeat.

More biomass = better soil and regenerated soil microbial life.  Yes, a few egg shells are nice, but 10,000 living plants in a cover-crop is much better.  Plants pump sugars and starches into the soil profile and feed the soil food web and fungal networks.  Then chop and drop those cover crop plants when they get waist-high and dump 6 inches of wood chips on top.  In one year, you'll have better soil than ever.

One last thought: I wouldn't read too much into the weeds that are growing on your soil.  It may be an indication that other stuff doesn't want to grow there, or it may simply be an indication of what weeds are common to your area and what seeds are most prolific.  It stands to reason that if there is a field next door filled with a couple of weeds, those will most likely be highly represented in your garden.  My soil is very rich and healthy, yet I get bindweed, dandelion, lamb's quarter and plaintain all the time.  It's because those weeds are growing commonly in my neighbor's yard

Soil test.  Get a good one.

 
Bryant RedHawk
garden master
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Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
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T Melville wrote:I'm attaching the MSDS for the sheetrock. The way I read it, it's safe. I thought I saw a mention of fire retardant, but can't find it now.


The MSDS shows that to be a safe for garden use product.
Here's a tip about how to quickly tell if you need to worry about any sheetrock material, fire retardant product will have "fire retardant" printed on the sheet edging and/ or the sheet will be a color other than white.
Usually the retardants will be contained in the "cover" not in the actual "rock", so stripping the paper off will remove almost all of any "undesirable" material.
If you have any doubts, you can place the pieces in a barrel or other container and light a fire under it (do this outdoors and don't stand down wind), this will burn off any contaminates.

Always wear at least a dust mask when breaking up, pieces, or you can wet it down then break it up with little chance of dust going airborne.

Every state has an extension service, if you call you can find the one closest to you and they will perform soil tests for you for around 15 dollars US.  This will be the basic soil test with recommendations (designed for chemical use farming) of what to add and how much to add per acre.

The best home testing kits come from mail order companies (google "Soil Test Kits") to find these and then you can decide what price you are comfortable with. The reliability of soil test kits is proportional to the cost of the kit and the contents of the kit.

If you can make compost, do that and spread it at least 2 inches thick on the garden bed area (rows) if you concentrate this application to exactly where you plan to put plants, you will get the most benefit from what ever quantity you use.
Compost can work to loosen soils adding enrichment over a single winter period if it is laid on at a 4 inch or thicker depth. Less works but it will take a little more time and at lest two applications to get the same effect.

Redhawk
 
T Melville
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So it looks as if I'm doing right things, just not all the right things. I've talked to my wife, it looks like I'll be getting a soil test. I've spent a few hours with google, and found where to go for soil testing by our land grant university. (University of Missouri) Trying to compare their test to Logan Labs' test, it looks like Logan will cost me an extra $10, but give me more information. I'd love to get folks' opinion, but if the extra info from Logan is even potentially useful, I'll probably use them. What do you guys think?
 
Jeanine Gurley Jacildone
pollinator
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Location: Midlands, South Carolina Zone 7b/8a
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Burying wood is a great start in my book.

Also, chop and drop is a big soil builder.

I live in the sandhills of SC.  So far I have learned that it takes me about 8 years to get a real transformation if I don't truck in loads of stuff but just use the waste from my own kitchen and yard.

BTW, where do you live?  Frostline vs. no frostline makes a big difference in how you do everything.

In addition to burying wood here are some of my soil building techniques:

Bag green grass lawn clippings.  Pack them thick (3" or more) around the base of plants and along garden paths.  Suppresses weeds, retains moisture, makes plants happy, and after only a short time dirt underneath becomes very loose and black.  A layer of newspaper underneath the clippings is even better as worms love the paper.

Large (250 gallon) wire pen or other container with the bottom cut out.  All kitchen trash goes in.  I don't bother with grinding anything up.  I keep a rake nearby to rake up a few leaves to throw on top of any unsightly or juicy trash.  I don't turn it but will occasionally water it. I also rinse out any milk/yogurt/cream containers and pour this water on the pile.  I will move this pile once a year or so.  I plant things around the outside of the pen.  Right now  I have ginger and turmeric growing around one of them.

After the pen is moved the area underneath is ready for planting.  I'm going to move my biggest one in a couple weeks and plant carrots/turnips/mustard/lettuce.

Plants to enhance soil Mustard, Comfrey, Mullien, clover, buckwheat, any root crops.

I do not currently have animals at this location so once a year I get pig poo from a friend who raises pigs without chemicals and a 50 pound bag of dried quail poo from a local organic quail operation.

If you do not find any worms in your soil you can go out in the woods and dig around for them.  I put them in my new compost pens and then 'harvest' them from the base as they multiply and move them to new areas in my yard.  A little hole with a bit of paper and kitchen trash and a couple of worms and fill hole back with a bit of loose dirt.
 
T Melville
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Jeanine Gurley Jacildone wrote:BTW, where do you live?  Frostline vs. no frostline makes a big difference in how you do everything.


Southwest Missouri, about half way between Springfield and Joplin. Elevation around 1200 feet, I think.
 
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