Robert Eiffert

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since Jun 28, 2011
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Recent posts by Robert Eiffert

Bryan Jasons wrote:Do we know that gypsum when added will do nothing useful in sandy soil?

Bryan Jasons wrote:How do we know that anything added will be leached in a sandy soil?

I think the literature (both science and general garden info) has pretty well established that sandy soils don't hold minerals, water, fertilizer well. That's the domain of humus. And the literature is pretty clear that water is the medium which allows the cations to work with the bacteria and roots. ( is a pretty good overview; FAO's The importance of soil organic matter:Key to drought-resistant soil and sustained food production ( is another resource and it goes into more detail. I'm sure others could bring other resources they've found worthy.

Clay particles are much smaller than sand. They significantly increase the available surface area for nutrients to hang onto and create micropores to slow down the flow of water. Both are good things; at least until there is too much..... But that is another topic.

Bryan Jasons wrote:Also, the importance of being holistic and thorough - like Coleman or Soloman are - isn't lost on me. But I never planned on using this area for vegetables; I was thinking cover crops, sweet potatoes, millet or some other easy to grow crop that I have experience with. I already have vegetables gardens with mulch and cover crops being used in other places.

Even a cover crop needs organic material in the soil. An advantage of cover-cropping is it is generating green manure, but it needs some nutrients to grow. And we seem to back to how much fertilizer will be available to the roots. Success by light and frequent amendments of organic material and equally light and possibly more frequent watering to have a crop that can be turned under might work.

In any case, knowing where whatever amendments we put into soil ultimately goes is a good thing. Saves $$$, saves water, saves time and effort, being aware of water and soil / subsoil ecology are important.

At this point, it might be best to ask if a $20 home garden soil kit test has been run? Or an Albrechtian lab soil test? What sort of fertilizer / mineralization / Cation level amendments have been recommended? Is there evidence that Al levels need to be addressed?
6 years ago
What kind of crops are grown in your area? Could you enlist a local farmer to help or do ground prep? Or if used as range land, what animals and what Animal Unit density? The local extension service should have some good basic info and even if the focus is conventional (non-organic, non permie) it would give you a baseline comparison.

How about layered mulch ( paper/cardboard, leaves, imported manure ) and some low hoop beds to start? It sounds like you'll need to work on soil fertility. And concentrating those efforts in beds gets a good start on a garden next spring. Food on the table to fuel all the other work.
6 years ago
Brokeoff Mountain Lutherie ( has a series of posts on the building of a spring pole lathe. He links to Robin Wood ( who earns a fair share of his income turning on a spring pole lathe.

I've done a bit of turning (electric powered, and the only powered benchtool I use now) and got a chance to use a springpole at a craft fair. I'd say the learning curve would be pretty steep to learn the basics of turning on a spring pole. On the other hand, you'd figure out a lot of efficiency tricks ... And failures (AKA it's kindling now ) would be less catastrophic.

A spring pole lathe is on my 'to do list'; pretty far down, unfortunately.

I'm looking forward to seeing your build and results.
6 years ago
I've been rereading Eliot Coleman's Four-Season Harvest and was struck by the following passage (chapter 3)

When I began gardening on my place in Maine, the soil test showed a Ph of 4.3(very acidic) and a note from the soil scientist warned that the ground did not seem suitable for agriculture. Well, every soil can be made suitable

He then goes on to describe adding limestone to raise Ph, clay to counter the sandy soil, greensand and phosphate rock for minerals, and compost to bring fertility.

There is a lot of information on using gypsum in agriculture, and there are examples of its use on sandy soils. But I wonder if those instances ( weathered or depleted agricultural soils, land reclamation, etc) translates well to a virgin tract of pure sand being changed into a working home garden.

Are you looking more at Albrecht's (et al) work on mineraliztion / Ca cation, perhaps? His work may have several aspects that might not match to the needs of 'pure sand' type soil. If you want to pursue that research, you might want to read Steve Solomon's work; he is an active proponent of that practice and has several books and a forum to help with the more extensive soil testing it seems to require.

But it would be pretty easy to set up a small experiment; Divide a patch into 3 or 4 sections, add gypsum to one, compost to another, maybe something like Coleman's approach to a 3rd, and perhaps a Albrechtian approach to a 4th, and a selection of probable crops to each. Note in a journal how seeds germinate, grow, yields, etc. To me, it seems trying 3 or 4 methods in one year and getting good results from one patch would be preferable to putting all the effort into a single one without a solid base of evidence that it will work.

And I'd note that Coleman, who has a fair amount of gardening experience, started out with a soil test. I'd augment that by spending some time reading what the local Uni or county extension service and/or Master Gardeners advices about local conditions.

This might also be of interest:

Likewise, applying gypsum won’t help if the crop doesn’t have enough nitrogen,
added UW-Madison emeritus extension soil scientist Richard Wolkowski.
In research plots at Arlington, WI, his group found that grain yield
didn’t respond to the sulfur in FGD gypsum until adequate nitrogen was
provided. In fact, gypsum actually lowered yields when nitrogen was
applied at sub-optimal rates.

And that article is largely 'pro-gypsum'.

Bryan Jasons wrote:I'm wondering if an area of pure sand next to my field would benefit from gypsum. Most people talk about gypsum for clay soil, sodic soil, mineral deficient soil etc. but what about acidic sand? This soil is very deep, I dug down 3-4 feet and it only changed from brown sand to tan sand. Isn't this an advantage in that the roots can grow deeper than in a typical soil? This is where the gypsum comes in; studies show it can get into subsoils and alleviate Al toxicity, allowing roots to grow deeper and yields to increase. I'm hoping for a fertility boost, as the soil definitely needs one. I've never met or heard from anyone who has tried this though.

Any input?

6 years ago
Green Manuring, using a cover crop would be a good way to build the organic material levels needed.

The Cover Crops page ( from the UF Extension Service lists several plants that work well for green manuring in Florida and sandy soil.

6 years ago
You're wanting to make seed starter soil, right (

The leaves should decompose just fine by composting with either the horse manure (slower, esp if not fresh) or chicken droppings.

IF the chicken droppings are pure, ie, scrapped off the floor of their roost, I'd start with about a shovel full to 4-6 shovels of leaf material. That would need to be kept well aerated, and well watered and would benefit from having a couple of shovels full of good garden soil to keep it from becoming matted down.

OR maybe put the leaves under their roosting area and just add to the pile about weekly (depending on how many chickens / sq. ft.)

IF the droppings are on straw or hay bedding, I'd add about 30 - 40% leaf material to that mix. Again, keep well aerated and watered.

If the horse manure is mostly from stalls with bedding, I THINK you'd want to use less leaf material, but I don't have as much experience composting w horse manure.

Then, once aged and screened, you'd be ready to add the rest of the mix ingredients. Remember that your seeds have food to start the plants, the mix is there for the moisture and support until the true leaves come.
6 years ago
I'm not so sure about the 'changing genetics' and would like to see something in the orchardist / science literature about it.

Perhaps this explains some of that:
"Although all members of the same clone have the same genetic makeup and can be exactly alike, environmental factors can greatly modify the expression of the genetic character so that the appearance and behavior of individual plants can be strikingly different. An orchard of ‘Delicious’ apples that is pruned, irrigated, sprayed and fertilized properly for high quality productivity will appear totally different from an adjacent abandoned orchard of the same cultivar, yet the plants are genetically identical."
6 years ago
There is a self-fertile apple list at the Oregon Home Orchard Society ( that includes a list of information sources.

HOS has a great grafting workshop and has a scion fair ( entry fee and you buy rootstock; scions, hundreds of varieties, are free).
6 years ago
Something else to consider:

"While the origin of the “ideal” or “balanced” soil concept can
be traced back to the late 1800s, it was primarily through work
conducted in the 1940s by Bear and coworkers in New Jersey
that led to the concept of an “ideal” soil being one with 65% Ca,
10% Mg, and 5% K. Based on this work and on his own work
in the 1930s and 1940s, Albrecht promoted the use of the “balanced
soil,” suggesting that optimal growth will only occur in
soils containing the “ideal” composition. It would appear, however,
that the soil’s chemical, physical, and biological fertility can
be maintained across a range of cationic ratios. Indeed, McLean,
who worked with Albrecht in Missouri during
the 1940s, stated that, on the whole,
“there is no ‘ideal’ basic cation saturation
ratio or range” (Eckert and McLean, 1981),
and that “emphasis should be placed on
providing suffi cient, but not excessive levels
of each basic cation rather than attempting
to attain a favorable basic cation saturation
ratio which evidently does not exist”
(McLean et al., 1983). The data do not support
the claims of the BCSR, and continued
promotion of the BCSR will result in the
ineffi cient use of resources in agriculture
and horticulture."

A Review of the Use of the Basic Cation
Saturation Ratio and the “Ideal” Soil
Peter M. Kopittke*
Neal W. Menzies
School of Land and Food Sciences
The Univ. of Queensland

Soil Sci. Soc. Am. J. 71:259–265
6 years ago
Low tech isn't a really accurate description; Underhill is working with pre / early industrial revolution technology. Which was the highest tech of the time. And still state of the art for handtool work.

Generally, muscle rather than electricity;skilled work generally done to well fitting precision. Which probably is a better fit to what many of us ascribe to.

Since his work focuses on work done during the era of agrarian society, much of what he builds fits to permaculture ideation

Often, his books 'bootstrap', build a workbench, then use the workbench to build a toolbox, then your kitchen table......... His books give a good description of the process and what to look for, and incentive to get out there and build.

Books often available at your local public library and they show up quite often at used book stores (brick or online).
6 years ago