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please critique my soil-building technique?  RSS feed

 
christine lawson
Posts: 34
Location: West Quebec
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  I need help from y'all...my eyes are crossing trying to learn about what I've done right and wrong for my new bed. I'm hoping if I describe it all here someone will take pity and walk me through the next steps.

  I'm in West Quebec, cold snowy winters and hot steamy summers. My soil is sandy. Our story begins with manicured lawn, which I lovingly neglected for the 4 years since we moved here, so the lawn became nicely weedy, with dandelions, plantain, red clover, vetch and field daisies. This spring as soon as the frost was out, I marked off an area of about 10'x10'. Over this I spread the contents of my kitchen composter, much of which was still recognizable bits, mixed with a couple shovelsful of wood ash, over the bare ground.Then I spread about 6" of (oat)straw, and let it all sit while the rains came. After a month, I pulled back the straw, plonked seed potatoes down, covered them back up and kept adding straw. The harvest was so-so, one plant gave me over a dozen big taters, the rest were mostly leaf, little tuber. This is due to too much nitrogen, yes? Now that they are out of the ground I've broadcast a mix of leafy greens like collards and chard.
    We have access to all the old hay we can haul away, I was thinking to lay that down over the winter.
   Any and all suggestions would be very helpful! The soil looks and smell wonderful now, but I know it still needs work.









 
duane hennon
gardener
Posts: 750
Location: western pennsylvania zone 5/a
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hi christine
patience, patience, patience
keep doing what your doing
it takes a while
first you heal the land
then you start to build it up
one of the problems of "permie sales" is the sales pitch of the instant conversion from degraded land to the garden of eden

here's what your shooting for, but notice she has been treating her garden this way for 15 years
so maybe in 3-4 years you will be there
http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=Tt-KHUITId8
 
maikeru sumi-e
Posts: 313
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I agree, keep doing what you're doing. Good soil takes time. Check for soil tilth and color.
 
Cate Weaver
Posts: 15
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While agree that sticking with a project and building soil over time is very important, I'd also like to say that my soil, which I have heavily amended naturally over time, can look like two different countries at different times of the year.  In the spring, my soil is fabulous - it looks and feels like a magnificent chocolate cake!  At the end of the summer, however, it's gotten dry and hard, with few signs of worms.  If someone were to assess my soil in May they would find one thing, and in August something quite different; one looks like a total success, the other looks like a total failure.  Same soil.
 
Dale Hodgins
garden master
Posts: 6516
Location: Victoria British Columbia-Canada
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      Sandy soil is almost always lacking in some essential nutrients. One of the quickest ways to get a lot of micronutrients and water holding capacity is to add Clay to your soil. This will not only add certain nutrients but the clay will capture nutrients from your compost which might otherwise be leached away. Excavating companies are always trying to get rid of Clay. See if they will bring you a load and mix it with your soil. Depending on the clay it may take several years to be completely incorporated but you should see immediate benefit. Be sure that the clay is sourced from a clean spot, not from an industrial area. Silt and clay look similar but they are not the same. You need to verify that what you're getting is good clean Clay.
 
christine lawson
Posts: 34
Location: West Quebec
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  Hmmmm, clay, how very interesting. In fact, the land here, a river valley, varies from the sand that I have to "good Pontiac clay", as the farmers call it, with bedrock here and there.
Quite the varied landscape even within each farm.

  Maybe I 'll try this on a small scale. Thanks! And to everyone else, too. I'm finding growing my own soil to be just as satisfying as the food I get from it.
 
Loren Luyendyk
Posts: 12
Location: Santa Barbara. Ca
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I have worked with sandy soil in California and found that wood chips from tree trimmers makes the best soil and is the fastest.  Maybe in the fall put wood chips on top of your compost, mixed with some rotten manure, then cover with the hay.  May work I don't know if the winter would stop things, but you may get heaps of fungal activity this way.
 
Thekla McDaniels
gardener
Posts: 1819
Location: Grand Valley of Colorado's Western Slope
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I loved the ruth stout video.  Thanks to whoever posted it.

About your soil, it just takes time.  Here are a few of my ideas:

I don't know how big a place you have, but maybe you could bring along some areas faster than others.  I have heaps of sunflower stalks that are deep enough to protect the soil and creatures that live in it.  Around the edges I plant things.  They send their roots under the heap and get the nutrients from the decomposition going on in the pile.  I bring home bags of other people's leaves in the fall and add them.  I stack the tumbleweeds, the puncture vine, what ever I pull goes into the piles, EXCEPT perennial things that start from small lengths of root or stem.  Those get burned.

I also have an new idea for next season.  I can rent a post hole digger that will dig a 12 inch diameter hole 3 or 4 feet deep in nothing flat.  It is not the 2 person thing, or an augur on the back of the tractor, just a motor and augur on a thing you can maneuver around like a wheel barrow.  So with this marvelous machine, I am going to drill holes in my growing areas and fill the holes up with organic matter, what ever I have, from chips to horse manure to sunflower stalks. 

My daughter who just came home from the Peace Corp where she lived in a remote village and her project was ag-forestry/ sustainable ag, had already heard of this method, minus the post hole digger.  she said "primitive" farmers enrich the whole field in 5 years by digging pits and filling them with what ever, each year they do 1/5th of their field.  Gosh, I wanted some recognition for my cleverness.

Just use what ever you've got and do what ever you can, right?  Organics, and if you are too sandy, do as suggested, and add clay, though I can't think of an easy way to get it mixed in...

Thekla





 
Ken Peavey
steward
Posts: 2524
Location: FL
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Sandy soil is tough to work with.  There is little material to absorb and hold nutrients or water.  Weathering is slow and there is nothing to release from silica anyway.  The task at hand is to condition the soil-help change it to a form that will support life and retain the Stuff of that life.

You need a nutrient and water trap.

-Compost, and in no small amount
This is the easy one.  Being in Quebec, the cold winters will allow the organic matter to increase each year.  I've got sand for soil here in Florida.  Stuff breaks down in just a few months and washes away.  In your climate, there is not enough warmth in the soil for much of the year to allow decomposition at such a rate that it all washes out.  Keep doing what you are doing, you'll get there in a few seasons, each better than the last.

-Biochar
While this method is controversial, I've read a great deal of positive remarks.

-Gley
Its a slurry of pig manure and hay which forms a sort of underground barrier to trap nutrients and hold water.  I would liken it to a pond liner.

-Hugelkulture
Bury old logs, let them rot away slowly.  Massive amounts of organic matter, lignins, carbon become available in a year or so and continue to be available for many years.  The rotting wood has tremendous water storing capacity, an abundance of microenvironments for microbes, is easily penetrated by plant roots, and makes an ideal substrate for fungi-the nutrient superhighway.

You don't have to employ all of these methods-pick and choose features that work for you and with your growing system.  Make changes as you see fit.  Develop a method that works for you. 

All these methods take time to become effective.  Tthere is no such thing as a quick fix.  Stick with it, you will start to see a difference, oftentimes within a year, with improvements each year. 

 
Thekla McDaniels
gardener
Posts: 1819
Location: Grand Valley of Colorado's Western Slope
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There is a lot being said of biochar currently, but I have my doubts.  First, since things run in cycles, it is an opportunity to bring up an old topic and champion its use.  It will be some time before the theory will be disproven.

What tells me it's not all that good is that people in the South American forests have been burning the forest to raise beef for US consumption, and then every few years they have to move to another locale.  So, what happened to all those benefits of bio char.

Next question:  what is available in the char that is not available in the wood, and over a longer period of time?

So, basically I can't prove anything, but, since biochar DOES rely on burning some portion of the wood, there goes some of that straight into the air instead of the soil.

Personal, but very educated and experience, biochar is pure bunk, but is soneome's great bandwagon.  No offense intended.

Thekla
 
                        
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happycobber wrote:
There is a lot being said of biochar currently, but I have my doubts.  First, since things run in cycles, it is an opportunity to bring up an old topic and champion its use.  It will be some time before the theory will be disproven.

What tells me it's not all that good is that people in the South American forests have been burning the forest to raise beef for US consumption, and then every few years they have to move to another locale.  So, what happened to all those benefits of bio char.

Next question:  what is available in the char that is not available in the wood, and over a longer period of time?

So, basically I can't prove anything, but, since biochar DOES rely on burning some portion of the wood, there goes some of that straight into the air instead of the soil.

Personal, but very educated and experience, biochar is pure bunk, but is soneome's great bandwagon.  No offense intended.

Thekla


I am afraid I must take issue with you.  First; there is a world of difference between "burning the forest" and making biochar.  Piling wood into big heaps and setting fire to it may leave you with some  ash and cinders and possibly some biochar by accident, mostly not. Biochar cannot burn as the material is in an enclosure with no oxygen, the heat drives out the oxygen and the rest of the volatiles which are then burned, leaving only the biochar.

Secondly, If biochar is done correctly, there is virtually no emission into the air; secondary burning takes care of that. If it is done incorrectly it is horrendously polluting. There is no excuse for doing it incorrectly, though, and I wish that whoever put that "official biochar" video on You Tube could be  forced to breathe what he is putting out..it is a cameo of how NOT to make it. What is burned  (the volatiles) include methane, formaldehyde, carbon monoxide and a number of other nasties that aren't normally regarded as having any usefulness in the soil. 

I made several batches of biochar with dry wood scraps or cardboard last winter in my wood space heater. Just once I took the container out before it was finished and nearly choked. You learn fast when you do it in an enclosed area!. The rest of the time I gave it enough time and there were NO emissions, I made sure there was always flame under the openings in the container to burn anything that came out. It's actually a fairly restful process except for the dull roar of the escaping gasses..you can actually watch them streaming out and catching fire. Anyway.

I ran a small experiment this summer with biochar in two raised beds and none in the others. The same amount of water given to all the beds left the ones in the usual beds on the verge of stress all the time whereas the biochar bed plants seemed very comfortable and never showed any sign of wilting from the heat/dryness.  The tomato & lettuce plants in the biochar beds sailed through a hailstorm that decimated  the tomatoes and lettuce in the other beds. (and they were alternating beds so it wasn't some sort of freak wind pattern that missed them).

I have no idea about the food values of the plants one vs the other but I can tell you I am going to make a lot more biochar this winter to put on the beds next summer.  Hauling water is not my fave summertime activity, esp since I found out there are leeches if the river. yuck)

Also, I did (and will) condition the biochar for several days before it was used.  Fresh raw biochar will pull nutrients out of the ground at first, just as straw or any other carbon material will do when placed in soil. Thus you need to let it sit for several months or condition it. 

The strength of biochar isn't that it gives nutrients to the soil as it is almost pure carbon.  What it does do is provide places for the miniscule beasties of the soil, bacteria and so forth, with places to live and shelter, so they don't get washed away with rain etc and can do their part in making your soil healthy and vibrant. Apparently it also helps with holding a degree of moisture in the soil..(for some reason I hadn't expected that!) And, of course,it sequesters carbon indefinitely.

It's always unfortunate when something is touted as the answer to all problems as that is never true.  However,  it certainly doesn't mean that  that same something is "bunk" and useless for anything. Several studies have been done in all sorts of countries and it seems fairly well established that biochar certainly has a positive role to play - with the provisos that it is properly made and conditioned and used appropriately.

There is some question about the usefullness in temperate climates vs the warmer ones  and those studies are ongoing. My small trial convinced me that it has uses in my Zone 3 climate in my garden.  I think it likely that people who use it and ALSO use chemical fertilizers will be disappointed as it doesn't matter how hospitable you make the soil look..if you poison it with chemicals then nothing can live in it anyway.
 
John Polk
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Location: Currently in Lake Stevens, WA. Home in Spokane
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Biochar is an off shoot of "terra preto do indio" (terra preto for short).  It was never created as an intentional product.  It was the waste.  Each village had a communal fire, with multiple functions...it was a place to cook foods, and keep the jungle cats and mosquitoes at bay.  Inedible parts of the plants were thrown into the fire, as were the bones and inedible parts of the animals they hunted.  Broken pottery, and other trash of the tribe was thrown into this waste pit.  It was also the communal latrine.  The village land-fill.

As the pit filled with trash, a new pit was dug alongside the original pit, with the new earth being thrown on top of the old pit.  It was a perpetual trash heap, and due to the tropical environment (with its normally poor soil nutrients) provides a natural area where all but the carbon content was decayed.  Residual nutrients were absorbed into the charcoal.

Biochar is a valuable tool in tropical rain forests (or sandy soils) where nutrients would otherwise quickly leach away.  It is less valuable in heavy clay, or a rich loam soil.
 
                        
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One thing I found interesting was a study that I found and cannot now remember where, that the soil made with a heavy component of biochar can spread beyond the original area which had the biochar.  In other words, the soil life which biochar encourages can apparently multiply to the extent that it goes off into the ajoining soil to enrich that as well.

People being what we are, this was likely used so heavilly that it didnt get too much opportunity to spread far before the nutrients were used by crops planted in them and/or they were washed away by the heavy rains, and the soil was back to where it started. It was only the areas that actually had the heavy concentrations of biochar to hold the nutrients and shelter the soil life which managed to persevere. This would explain why the soils are not more extensive than they are; today apparently the soil is dug up and sold.

I'd agree that it likely has little value in healthy loam soils but I'm not so sure about clay..it would be interesting to find out. I would have thought it would tend to condition the clay so that it could hold more air when the clay was wet and more wet when the clay was dry.  Pure clay is pretty much not usable for much in terms of growing things..I remember having an argument in grade 7 with a teacher about that.

He was maintaining farmers were stupid because they didn't take advantage of areas in Ontario which are basically pure clay. I took this opinion home to my father  (a farmer) who showed me a stock prospectus - with photos! - of some company trying to run a railroad through that very area..under water in the winter and huge dry mini ravines in the dry clay in the summer. I'd think almost anything  would help! (I took the prospectus back to the school teacher and he was not impressed to say the least..and never recanted what he had taught.)
 
Thekla McDaniels
gardener
Posts: 1819
Location: Grand Valley of Colorado's Western Slope
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Can someone please address the difference between using biochar and using uncharred carbon rich biomass?

So far all the things that have been said about biochar are the same benefits of getting organics into the soil.

Too sandy and the water runs through?  Add organics.  Too much clay and it is either to wet or too dry to work?  Add organics.  That's what I learned, and what I've done in every kind of soil, pure clay, pure silt, pure sand.

Thanks

Thekla
 
                        
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The results are likely eventually the same, aside from the fact that much biomass has many components of use to the plant whereas the main component in material used for biochar is carbon. Imo, the advantage to biochar is that it's a way to make the essence of the garbage readilly available when using a bunch of biomass is not feasible. 

I have made my raised beds out of biomass..strawbales, grass clippings etc with a little compost and manure. It takes a long time to compost stuff in my climate. The straw bales I used as a base to raise the beds are three years old now and although have grown peas and tomatoes and such every year they haven't shrunk or changed  a whole lot.

So take cardboard as an example.

If you try to use a pile of cardboard 4 feet deep as biomass everything (in my climate at least) will screech to a stop for some years before it is useful to the plants I want to grow. Indeed cardboard is often suggested as a good way to smother anything you want out of the garden.

I can make small batches of biochar  from cardboard in 40 minutes or so, condition it in a few days and use it that same season. Aside from being useful to the garden, it keeps things out of the landfill, reduces the costs of the municipality for collecting and handling garbage, helps to heat my house when processing it and sequesters carbon indefinitely.

A person with more space could certainly try to make a hugelkulture bed with it and it might be wonderful...but not everyone has room for that, nor the means to acquire/cover with soil.  As I said earlier, biochar is not the final solution to everything but it certainly has a part to play in some situations.
 
gani et se
Posts: 215
Location: Douglas County OR
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Pam, can you specify what you do to "condition" the biochar?
Thanks,
Gani
 
                        
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Not sure if everyone does as I do but  this seems to work for me.

When the biochar is taken out of the container it needs to get put into water immediately or it may burst into flame when the oxygen hits it. Also, when it comes out of the container it will be almost the same size and shape as it was when it went in, but very crisp and crumbly so if you try to break it up when it's dry you will get powder everywhere.Therefore I dump it into a 5 gallon bucket  about half filled with worm casting tea or dilute urine or some such nutrient rich liquid.

Then I take a piece of 2x4 and pound it until it breaks down into small particles. Because it is so crisp this is very easy to do. When it seems to be broken down as small as it is readily going to get  I just let it soak for about a week. You can add more biochar batches until it's getting awkward to pound fine, just add more time for it all to get charged with nutrients. Then I either pour off most of the water for another batch to use and spread the biochar on the garden, or, if  it's really thick or I don't intend to make any more for a while,   then spread the whole lot on the garden, liquid and all.

Sometimes some of it wants to float..I just stir it with the 2x4 and in a bit it will behave itself and sink into the liquid.  It's the same process for wood biochar but I am using cardboard as it is such a huge disposal problem otherwise..it costs this village several thousand dollars to get just cardboard taken away.  Formerly they at least got $20 ton for it from someone who gathered it all up and transported it to the west coast to be shipped to China and that helped defray the cost. Now  with fuel prices blowing through the roof that market is becoming problematic.

The reason I think it better to use it as biochar instead of just normal ash from a normal fire is that the volatiles are burned when making biochar (if it's done properly) and they aren't when it's just burned in an ordinary fire.  If you ever see what comes out of this you get a REALLY good idea of what pollution is. The one time I took it out too early there was a cloud of thick black smoke that nearly choked me..a lot of that stuff hits the air if it isn't burned off. It may not LOOK the same as it's mixed with oxygen instead of being concentrated but it's all there. If done properly there should be virtually no smoke of any kind when making biochar.
 
Peter Ingot
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Loren Luyendyk wrote:
then cover with the hay. 


Who said anything about hay?
 
gani et se
Posts: 215
Location: Douglas County OR
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Pam,
Thank you! That's very informative. May I copy it to an appropriate place on the wiki?
Gani
 
                        
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As is?  If you like and think it would be helpful.
 
Cory Allan
Posts: 61
Location: Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
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I've lived in a place with sandy soil near Lake Ontario.
I think a healthy diet of woodchips and, based on what I've read on this forum, hugelculture and wormpits will help your soil build up its nutrient and moisture retention over time.

Wood chips from the city tree trimmers is the cheapest and fastest route - a spring application will have worms, fungus and black earth forming within 6-8 weeks. There are some caveats, as you don't know the origin of the tree material you are dumping on your soil. You'll also have some surprises (good and bad sprouting up as a result. We ended up with a lovely corkscrew willow from a historical tree around the corner, along with many other strange and unwanted plants and trees saplings.

I think wormpits and hugelculture will provide longer-term returns for the effort, as they build "sponges" in your soil to retain water. All useful and relatively low-input/high-return tools to manage sandy soil.

Use the moisture to support some trees and shade. We had a southwest-facing corner lot that baked in the sun like a desert. The introduction of some tree canopies will add humidity, help retain soil moisture and will provide microclimates to support more biodiversity.
 
Damian Sebastian
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As I understand it, the main difference is the rate at one or the other will decompose. Here in Florida, with this hot, humid climate and sandy soils, adding organic, non-charred biomass could be a never ending endeavor. As many have explained, the organic mater decays at an alarming rate, leaving you with just sand even before the season is over. Biochar can help you to sequester those nutrients than otherwise would be washed away.
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