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I have cleared a little over an acre of hardwood forest for a vegetable garden and the soil is basically 2’ deep of leaf mold. It’s very soft and stays wet for days after even a mild rain. What can I do to add structure to the soil. I have chicken litter being delivered as a soil amendment but really need help with soil structure.
 
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Stephen,

An acre is a lot of land for a garden so I am going to give you a suggestion on the prediction that you will have your hands too busy to make full use of that whole acre.  I suggest you start by planting some cover crops.  I am not certain where you live, but the cover crops I have in mind would be to start with a pair of crops and then expand from there.  The pair I suggest is Crimson Clover and Daikon radish.  The reason for this is that I think you will want a legume which will help fix nitrogen and a root crop which will absorb nitrogen and send down a big deep root to break up hard soil and then rot in the ground and give up its nutrients over time.  I call them the nitrogen fixer and the nitrogen sponge.  Your nitrogen fixer does not have to be crimson clover as it won't grow in every single climate out there, but I am sure that you can find some legume to substitute.  Another legume to consider would be hairy vetch which is tops for nitrogen fixation but tends to sprawl out of control and smother everything in its sight.  In any case, make sure you are planting annuals as these will simply die off at the end of the season.  Moreover, you will want to kill them before they go to seed or they will act like a perennial.  If you can't get to your whole acre for say 2 years, then let it go to seed and really fix some nitrogen for you.  The same applies to your nitrogen sponge which could be daikon radish, oats, even corn if planted sparingly (and killed before it goes to seed--corn really likes nitrogen and if it were to go to seed and die off, you would likely lose a lot of that nitrogen).

All of this is assuming that you are not going to use the whole acre.  You could use half an acre (still a huge, enormous garden) and use the other for cover crop.  Or maybe a 1/4 acre garden and 3/4 cover crop.  Ultimately you have to decide.

Please, fill in some blanks for us.  Where are you located?  What did you do with all that hardwood (can you still use any of it)?  What is your climate like?  What are your plans for this garden?

I hope to hear from you soon,

Eric
 
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Stephen, I am making the assumption that this area has been totally cleared of stumps etc. (I am speaking completely about traditional ag practices here as this is where I have the most experience.) If that is the case then a subsoiler followed by a bottom plow would be beneficial in getting your garden started.  Right now the addition of chicken litter would probably make the problem worse.  You need to be able to incorporate your leaf mold and chicken litter in with the mineral soil lying underneath. I also very highly recommend taking a soil sample and getting your soil analyzed so you know where you stand and what your particular soil needs before incorporating anything.   Good luck.
 
Stephen Garrett
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I’m in the Ozark mountains in north centra Arkansas. The soil underneath is heavy clay and shale. I have always had a large garden and now starting a homestead that will eventually have a market garden as one source of income. Most of the trees were cut up as firewood and given to some of the residents in the area, the rest is in a large brush pile that I hope to burn tomorrow. Almost all the stumps have been removed and soil test shows a neutral ph but almost no nutrients at all. It’s fairly typical in my area to have very nutrient defecient soil. I plan to plant 1/2 acre in organic garlic in October and was hoping to use the other half as a vegetable garden this spring. Thanks for the quick responses.
 
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the rest is in a large brush pile that I hope to burn tomorrow



I would consider chipping it rather than burning it. That will make a lot of compost.
 
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...or make biochar out of it to improve your soil

M
 
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Mike Barkley wrote:

the rest is in a large brush pile that I hope to burn tomorrow



I would consider chipping it rather than burning it. That will make a lot of compost.



Or consider making biochar with the open pit method.  Once you start using biochar you'll probably always want more....I guess that's the down side.
 
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Let me offer my whole-hearted support to the above suggestions.

1.  Cover crop.  But I'd go with a cocktail of at least 10 species -- broad leaf, grasses, nitrogen fixing, deep taproot . . . broadcast it and then lightly rake it into that wonderful carbon mulch layer that is out there.

2.  Bio-char that brush pile, a little at a time.  The trench method is simple: you dig a trench a couple of feet deep and then start a fire in it.  Feed the sticks onto the trench so that they gradually bury the burning wood below.  The goal is to build up a deep bed of coals and starve the coals on the bottom of oxygen by continually adding more and more material on top.  I find it relaxing --- cut up a couple of branches and load them on top, watch them burn for a few minutes, go cut a couple more, toss them on top . . . take a sip of your favorite beverage . . . cut up a couple more branches, toss them on top, watch them burn . . .     It's a lovely way to spend an evening, and before you go to bed for the night, quench the fire so that all your hard work doesn't go up in smoke during the night.

THEN! --- and this is where it gets exciting ---- when you're ready to use that land, you pull out the cover crop (or better yet, cut it off at ground level so that all the nitrogen affixed to the roots of your nitrogen-fixing cover crops stays where it's needed) and build a big old compost pile.  Shovel the charcoal out of your trench into a 5-gallon pail, and with a shovel, chop chop chop it into pea-sized chunks.  Mix the charcoal in with your compost pile and in a month you'll have bio-char laden compost.

Inch by inch, life's a synch.  
 
Eric Hanson
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Stephen,

Good to hear your location info and plans for the land.  Add me in with those that say save that wood. It can have so many uses and once it is gone it is gone.  If there is any possibility you could chip it up it would make magnificent mulch.  Alternately, this could be the basis for fantastic hugel beds.  But whatever you do, please just don't burn it up all at once.  It really is just too valuable to let waste in a big blaze.  If you need any help for ideas on what to do with it, I can assure you that there are multitudes of people here that can assist you.

As Marco stated, yes, the more diversity in your cover crop the better.  Crimson Clover would work nicely in your area as a nitrogen fixer, but Marco is definitely right that you can and should plant a vast array of different crops in that initial cover crop.  

You stated that your land is deficient in nutrients.  This is exactly where a cover crop comes into play.  A legume can fix nitrogen.  Daikon radishes will both absorb that nitrogen for later release and send down a deep root to break up that heavy clay (I have similar soil where I live, Southern Illinois).  You almost certainly have phosphorus and potassium in that rock base of yours, you just need to access it.  That is where a deep rooting cover crop can work wonders.  The different species of plants can help to dissolve those nutrients and transport them to the surface.  The wood in that big brush pile can be used as a reservoir of nutrients for later use if you use it properly (meaning please don't burn it).  You have tremendous potential for that land, it is just a matter of tapping that potential.

Please, if you have any questions, please feel free to ask.  Permies has numerous people who can offer extremely valuable insight on how to tap the potential of that land of yours.

Best Wishes,

Eric
 
Stephen Garrett
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I have always used cover crops in crop rotation to aid in soil health and add nutrients naturally to the soil, my problem is i am looking for something I do this time of year to help. If I wait to build up the soil using cover crops I’m a year or two from raising food in a garden. Even if I only use half this year and cover crop the other for a year, I still have half that I need to address for this spring. As far as the wood goes, I have 80 acres of trees so there is no chance of running out of wood anytime soon. This brush pile is right where I’m starting to build a barn and at the edge of the garden. I can buy wood chips cheaper than I can pay to have these run through a chipper.
 
Walt Chase
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Stephan, I'll be the contrarian here and say burn the brush pile.  When plowed in it will add its minerals to the soil. An acres worth of brush pile is a large volume to dispose of otherwise. If you want to use organic inputs the best recommendation I have found comes from Grow abundant gardens. https://growabundant.com/
Look at their organicalc.  It is a paid service but in my opinion is well worth the money.  You input your test results into their form and it spits out recommendations that will help bring up soil fertility and also get you started on the path of balancing your mineral content.  I've used them for several years here and have enjoyed good results and increased yields.  I've gotten to the point that I only use them every other year now as my soil is balanced enough that I know from past experience how much of what to incorporate to have a great garden.   As you know organic inputs aren't the cheapest and using their recommendations, besides balancing your nutrients and minerals, helps keep your costs down as you don't over apply what you don't need.
 
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If you have a serious source of water you could try making biochar via the pile method:

https://youtu.be/ixtxNfU9Rb8
 
pollinator
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1) You have two foot of leafmold/straw and it is too much, and you want to get rid of some of it.
Till it in, add liquid culture mushroom (wine cap + oyster + elm oyster), and other soil life.
Add nitrogen, to speed up the composting process.

2) You have too much branches.
Burn it to make bio-char which makes 70% of it disappear.

3) Your soil is low on bio-available mineral
Add rock dust
Add soil life so that the can extract minerals, die/trade and make it available to your plants.
Add bio-char, like activated charcoal it traps and remove metal/minerals and prevent it from leaching.
 
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Location: Missouri Ozarks
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Stephen Garrett wrote:I’m in the Ozark mountains in north centra Arkansas. The soil underneath is heavy clay and shale. I have always had a large garden and now starting a homestead that will eventually have a market garden as one source of income. Most of the trees were cut up as firewood and given to some of the residents in the area, the rest is in a large brush pile that I hope to burn tomorrow. Almost all the stumps have been removed and soil test shows a neutral ph but almost no nutrients at all. It’s fairly typical in my area to have very nutrient defecient soil. I plan to plant 1/2 acre in organic garlic in October and was hoping to use the other half as a vegetable garden this spring. Thanks for the quick responses.



Does it go straight to clay subsoil below the 2 inches or if you dig down a couple of feet does it change color somewhere? I'm in the Ozarks and yes, even the top soil has a high clay content but there is a different subsoil as evident by a distinct change of color at about 6-16 inches down. It goes from yellowish to definitely red clay and there's a dead pan at 18-24 inches. Hard grey lifeless stuff. In some places, it may just go from orange-red to red-red and that's still top soil - subsoil.

With my garden, I double dug it and made sure to crack that dead pan as much as I could. Not near and acre though. You might think about getting someone in there with a ripper to subsoil it. That would get rid of your wet all the time issue. It would take a pretty big machine to rip through the hard pan and you most likely have one. If there's a grade, have them rip on contour.

If it goes from that 2 inches to actual subsoil, that's not good. Not much will grow aside from grasses and weeds, maybe some lettuce. Raised beds would be best but an acre... that would be a crazy amount of work.
 
Stephen Garrett
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John Paulding wrote:

Stephen Garrett wrote:.



Does it go straight to clay subsoil below the 2 inches or if you dig down a couple of feet does it change color somewhere? I'm in the Ozarks and yes, even the top soil has a high clay content but there is a different subsoil as evident by a distinct change of color at about 6-16 inches down. It goes from yellowish to definitely red clay and there's a dead pan at 18-24 inches. Hard grey lifeless stuff. In some places, it may just go from orange-red to red-red and that's still top soil - subsoil.

With my garden, I double dug it and made sure to crack that dead pan as much as I could. Not near and acre though. You might think about getting someone in there with a ripper to subsoil it. That would get rid of your wet all the time issue. It would take a pretty big machine to rip through the hard pan and you most likely have one. If there's a grade, have them rip on contour.

If it goes from that 2 inches to actual subsoil, that's not good. Not much will grow aside from grasses and weeds, maybe some lettuce. Raised beds would be best but an acre... that would be a crazy amount of work.

its not 2 inches but 2 feet of leaf mold. Below that it’s yellow/red as deep as I can dig. I’m goi g to send a soil sample off this next week to get a detailed analysis of what I’m dealing with. Thanks again for all the replies, it’s been very helpful.
 
John Paulding
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Stephen Garrett wrote:its not 2 inches but 2 feet of leaf mold. Below that it’s yellow/red as deep as I can dig. I’m goi g to send a soil sample off this next week to get a detailed analysis of what I’m dealing with. Thanks again for all the replies, it’s been very helpful.



Ah, I misread the ' as "

That's a lot. Maybe take some of it off and till the rest in? Then use what you removed as mulch. You'd probably want to till in some nitrogen, manure etc. Yeah you might want to get it tested for clay/silt/sand percentages as well as your standard test for nutrients and minerals.

Have you been here yet? https://websoilsurvey.nrcs.usda.gov/app/WebSoilSurvey.aspx

That will give you a general idea of what you've got. It's not real accurate for small properties but it helps. On my property there's two types of soil and the soil report seems correct for soil types but their lines are off compared to what I see here. Aside from my yellow clayey silt, I have some white silt that is dead and drains really fast. I can go out a hour after a rain, dig down a few inches and it's dry already. The solid report described the colors and said that lighter color is "somewhat excessively drained".  My yellow stuff is listed as "all areas are prime farmland" which I was happy to hear.

Did you put all that leaf mold there or did it build up naturally over time? If it built up naturally and is always wet, it sounds like it's a low spot and might always be wet no matter what's there. I've got a spot like that and plan to make a pond out of it. In the Ozarks, water can seep out of a hillside or even slight slope for weeks after a rain. When I dug holes for some poles, they filled up with water from underneath or the sides and water stayed in those holes for two weeks with no rain and it's a 5% grade there, not flat or a low spot. It was Spring and clay just seems to hold on to water when it's cold and releases it in Spring. Can't really call it a Spring thaw as the ground hardly ever freezes here and when it does, it's only a few inches and thaws within a week or three. Being mini mountains, sometimes the water can't go down due to something restrictive like rock or a hard pan so it goes sideways until it finds a place to ooze out. We had a heavy rain a few years back and I had a 2 inch hole form in my garden bed with water bubbling up out of it and that area is real close to being flat but does have some grade, maybe 2%. I basically had a temporary spring. I've got an area down at the bottom end that's always wet and there's a constant dribble of water. I don't know if it would be considered a true spring but I'm thinking about developing it like one would do with a spring - make a spring box for the goats to drink from.  

If it were me, I'd pull all but 6 inches of leaf litter off and til the rest in with some nitrogen like your chicken litter. If it's got a slight grade, you might want to poke around on the high end and see if it's wetter. You might have water seeping up somewhere. This terrain and the water flows here in the Ozarks can be a trip. Also, check myyopo.com and see if there's lots of springs in your area. You might already know about some. This area is loaded with them. Mytopo will show you springs you didn't know about.
 
Stephen Garrett
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John Paulding wrote:

Stephen Garrett wrote:its not 2 inches but 2 feet of leaf mold. Below that it’s yellow/red as deep as I can dig. I’m goi g to send a soil sample off this next week to get a detailed analysis of what I’m dealing with. Thanks again for all the replies, it’s been very helpful.



Ah, I misread the ' as "

That's a lot. Maybe take some of it off and till the rest in? Then use what you removed as mulch. You'd probably want to till in some nitrogen, manure etc. Yeah you might want to get it tested for clay/silt/sand percentages as well as your standard test for nutrients and minerals.

Have you been here yet? https://websoilsurvey.nrcs.usda.gov/app/WebSoilSurvey.aspx

That will give you a general idea of what you've got. It's not real accurate for small properties but it helps. On my property there's two types of soil and the soil report seems correct for soil types but their lines are off compared to what I see here. Aside from my yellow clayey silt, I have some white silt that is dead and drains really fast. I can go out a hour after a rain, dig down a few inches and it's dry already. The solid report described the colors and said that lighter color is "somewhat excessively drained".  My yellow stuff is listed as "all areas are prime farmland" which I was happy to hear.

Did you put all that leaf mold there or did it build up naturally over time? If it built up naturally and is always wet, it sounds like it's a low spot and might always be wet no matter what's there. I've got a spot like that and plan to make a pond out of it. In the Ozarks, water can seep out of a hillside or even slight slope for weeks after a rain. When I dug holes for some poles, they filled up with water from underneath or the sides and water stayed in those holes for two weeks with no rain and it's a 5% grade there, not flat or a low spot. It was Spring and clay just seems to hold on to water when it's cold and releases it in Spring. Can't really call it a Spring thaw as the ground hardly ever freezes here and when it does, it's only a few inches and thaws within a week or three. Being mini mountains, sometimes the water can't go down due to something restrictive like rock or a hard pan so it goes sideways until it finds a place to ooze out. We had a heavy rain a few years back and I had a 2 inch hole form in my garden bed with water bubbling up out of it and that area is real close to being flat but does have some grade, maybe 2%. I basically had a temporary spring. I've got an area down at the bottom end that's always wet and there's a constant dribble of water. I don't know if it would be considered a true spring but I'm thinking about developing it like one would do with a spring - make a spring box for the goats to drink from.  

If it were me, I'd pull all but 6 inches of leaf litter off and til the rest in with some nitrogen like your chicken litter. If it's got a slight grade, you might want to poke around on the high end and see if it's wetter. You might have water seeping up somewhere. This terrain and the water flows here in the Ozarks can be a trip. Also, check myyopo.com and see if there's lots of springs in your area. You might already know about some. This area is loaded with them. Mytopo will show you springs you didn't know about.

it has a little slope to it but it’s not low. It’s just so rich with leaf mold it holds onto all the water. I think if I till in the manure, the nitrogen will help break it down. It’s probably 150 year old woodland and the leaves have just built up over time. Even in summer when it’s dry the ground is very soft.
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Stephen Garrett
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I finally got my soil analysis back. Now just looking for recommendations for amendments. The county extension gave recommended non-organic methods in the report so that isn’t going to help me. I’m all ears so let’s hear it.  
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Walt Chase
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If your extension agent is like ours you can give him, or her, a call and let them know you want organic input recommendations.  It is fairly simple to sit down and come up with an organic blend that will approximate a 1:1:1 NPK.  I would use some type seed meal or feather meal, bone meal and kelp to get the big three.  I still will recommend Oganicalc from Grow abundant Gardens as one of the best ways to get recommendations and balance your soil.
 
Stephen Garrett
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Walt Chase wrote:If your extension agent is like ours you can give him, or her, a call and let them know you want organic input recommendations.  It is fairly simple to sit down and come up with an organic blend that will approximate a 1:1:1 NPK.  I would use some type seed meal or feather meal, bone meal and kelp to get the big three.  I still will recommend Oganicalc from Grow abundant Gardens as one of the best ways to get recommendations and balance your soil.

I called the extension agent that sent me the report today and he said to just use manure. I will sit down tonight and try to come up with the proper mix. I have kelp meal and blood meal on hand. I will just need to figure out the proper ratios and get to work.
 
Eric Hanson
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Stephen,

Actually it looks like you should be able to remedy your nutrient deficiency pretty quickly.  You are actually not that bad off, but I can recommend a couple of amendments.

for adding phosphorus, I would add in rock phosphate, which is very slow release, long acting form of phosphorus that comes from deposits that were once the bottom of the ocean and bone meal, which is a faster acting form of phosphorus, but should still last a season or two.

For adding in potassium, I would consider adding in Greensand (which is also a generally great soil conditioner) Granite dust and possibly wood ash.  I would be careful about adding too much wood ash though as it will raise your Ph which is already a touch high as generally plants like soil in the high 6's range.

Additionally, I would add Manure, worm castings and Kelp for general soil conditioning and trace nutrients.  

I am not certain what you are planning on using for nitrogen, but one option is to grow a cover crop of nitrogen fixers to juice up your ground.  If you can't wait for a cover crop to add its nutrients to the mix, then fish emulsion and blood meal are great organic short-term solutions for N deficiency.

As a rule, I like to get my nutrients from different sources as each has its own breakdown period and will release the nutrients over time.  For instance, I like to have both rock phosphate and bone meal as both are phosphorus sources, but by having a combination of the two, the rock phosphate will begin to release more P as the bone meal gives out.  For the same reason, I like to have my nitrogen come from two places, with blood meal being the relatively fast source, with green manure making up the slower release.  With cover crops, I am trying to wean myself off of the bloodmeal.

I find manure to just be the perfect gardening material, but the same could be said about worm castings (which is like a form of super manure) and kelp meal is just loaded with goodness.

When I had a garden that was situated on top of an old pile of coal mining tailings with just a bit of clay covering them, I was deficient in almost everything.  I loaded up with equal parts of manure and bagged topsoil (I was desperate) and then added in both bone and blood meal and eventually some worm castings to boot.  I could not keep this up forever, but I did need to buy in some initial fertility to get the nutrient party going.  I still buy in some manure for my existing gardens now and then, but I am hoping to wean myself off of that as well as I have home-made mushroom compost and I am working in a new round of cover crops.

This is just a start, and if you can find a better route, then by all means do it.

Eric

 
Stephen Garrett
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Eric, what you and others have suggested is the way I’m going to approach this. I have bone meal on order, kelp and blood meal on hand and can pick up chicken litter in a couple of days. Regular manure is kind of sketchy in this area due to the fact that so many farmers in this area use Grazon herbicide and that passes right through the animal with little deterioration. I’ve seen manure put on a healthy garden and almost kill everything in it and found out later the hay had been sprayed with Grazon prior to cutting. What doesn’t get planted in garden this year will get a heavy nitrogen fixing cover crop . Thanks again for the fast and detailed responses.
 
Stephen Garrett
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Im having a issue with the soil that I havent experienced before. When wet the soil is just mush which is to be expected since its all leaf mulch but as soon as it dries out it becomes hard as a rock. I am having compost delivered to raise up the rows to aid it drainage but the pathways are a mess. I was thinking about planting a type of short leaf fescue that doesnt spread to add some soil structure to the pathways. everything that isnt planted in vegetables is getting cover crop to help condition the rest  for next year.  Does anyone see any issues with the fescue between the rows or have a suggestion of something that would work better?
 
Yeah. What he said. Totally. Wait. What? Sorry, I was looking at this tiny ad:
dry stack retaining wall
https://permies.com/t/85178/dry-stack-retaining-wall
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