I want a food forest. I want to grow in the ground. My soil is heavy, black, anaerobic, wet, clay. Aside from spending thousands to drain my property, what can I do to amend the soil so my seeds dont rot in the ground? The earthworm population is amazing, the soil looks super healthy, but it is always wet!
Your description means that there is a clay horizon that blocks water drainage or there is a high water table under there.
The first thing to do is discover how deep that layer or water table is below the surface.
At that point you will be able to choose the best fit solution, including if the issue is actually a high water table.
High water tables are best dealt with by either draining the water away to a stream or pond/stream that is naturally occurring or by raising the soil level. (usually a very expensive solution which means not usually done)
Another option would be to use trees such as willows to suck up the excess water which will lower the amount of saturated soil.
If it is a clay layer (horizon) then you can use a subsoiler plow or a broad fork to break through that barrier layer. This is the least disruptive method and it should also allow greater improvement of the soil structure since you aren't turning the soil over, just lifting it to crack the barrier layer open.
What depth should I consider it to be a high water table? I do notice a clear line in the dirt about 9 inches down where it goes from heavy black clay to red clay (red clay is typical in my area, I've never seen black dirt before in my life.)
Here are several pictures of the soil, I dug an 18" hole. You can clearly see where the soil changes from dark to red. I also notice that in the area where that change in soil occurs there is some black substance, looks like charred wood? I also found a nail at the same depth. Im thinking that it was graded some time ago and the compacted it? It seems the charred wood would be broken down by now though? I know the land was used for pasture in the '70's. The dark soil is (finally!) dry, but still smells slightly anaerobic. Come next rainfall we will be a foot deep in mud again.
I a in North Georgia, lots of pines, privet, weeping willows, and honeysuckle on the property. There is also a mature pine forest that stays very wet during the rainy months, but not like the cleared part of the property.
Would a soil test give me any insight as to whats going on? The lady at the extension office doesn't seem t think so.
Reading through this thread I'm not sure that you really have an anaerobic soil problem, it looks pretty good to me, and my understanding of earthworms is that they cannot live without aerobic conditions (this is why they come out during rain storms, they will drown in that saturated soil). Also, the root masses visible in your pictures look great, bright white and many branched. I would follow Redhawks advice about broadforking. I would also start to look for plants that don't need dry soil. My garden soil is pretty wet all year long, we are just above a creek in a very wet part of the country, and while I have trouble growing some things (alliums don't do well unless in a raised bed with light soil) many things do great with zero irrigation. I can have greens year round, squash go crazy, peas and beans do well except the bean varieties that really like heat. Comfrey is unstoppable. I am hoping to put in some native berry shrubs this year. Basically I think you are in a much better spot than you suspect.
i agree that soil looks good you might make some raised mounds too for stuff that less water tolerant just so the crown isnt sitting in mud. if you do make swales you can put a pvc swivel pipe to drain them if its to much water.
If it is anaerobic, adding biomass to the soil surface will gradually raise the level of soil up a bit and will encourage worms and other biota to incorporate that carbon down into the soil profile.
Clay is wonderfully fertile, but it clumps together in long chains of tightly bonded particles. Imagine a stack of paper plates. That's how clay tends to stack against itself, leaving little room for water or air. The answer is carbon. As worms incorporate carbon down into the profile, those long chains of clay particles are broken up. The same thing with roots. Planting a cover crop is another way to get carbon down into the soil profile.
Things to avoid: tillage and driving over the soil. Tillage is murder on soil pore space, and driving just compacts it all the more.
If you've got access to wood chips, I'd put a foot of chips down and let them slowly decompose. You'll basically be creating a worm farm and a fungus sanctuary. Let the worms, plant roots and fungi do the heavy lifting for you. Within 2 years you'll see a tremendous transformation.
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hau Sara, Those are good photos, thanks for posting them so I could see the structure.
First off, that is not anaerobic soil, it does show some evidence of being waterlogged part of the time, as your observations tell.
The subsoil appears to be sandstone/clay which can be a barrier layer and it appears to be acting as such from your observations.
This subsoil can be improved fairly easily and without a huge expenditure.
First thing to say about this soil horizon profile is that wood chip mulch will do nothing to improve the subsoil and the top soil looks good from a color point of view, so any wood chip would do the minimum of erosion control and a maximum of increasing microbiology and worm activity in the top soil horizon.
To improve the water infiltration rate of the subsoil, you will need to crack the layer either with a long tine broadfork or a yeoman's plow or sub-soiler, this type of implement will do the job of cracking the clay and lifting it so some of the topsoil can seep into the clay subsoil.
The use of gypsum powder would also help with the cracking of the clay and it would also allow for deep microorganism penetration through the seepage of humus down into the clay horizon.
Note that carbonized wood (charcoal) will last in the soil for well over two hundred years and can last for thousands of years, so should you find that in a soil it means either you are on the site of a house burn or cooking fire area or there was use of "bio char" there.
We've got some parts on our farm that stay wet nearly year-round. We grow tons of taro, ginger, and turmeric there. Would it be possible for you to change the humidity by creating micro-climates through swale building? Alongside our swales (filled with the above-mentioned crops), a ton of other plants grow which benefit from access to a wetter micro-climate without being in completely damp soil (mulberries, blackberries, some grasses, comfrey, mallows, bananas). Perhaps modifying the landscape to encourage water to settle in one area will help it to drain from other spots; or by raising beds and mounds alongside swales you can literally rise above the damp.
Otherwise, just keep amending your soil with dry carbon material. Dry leaves, wood chippings, straw, or anything else you can get your hands on.
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