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Tired of slow soil building, really going to invest this year.

 
pollinator
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I have been content to play the slow soil building game. Planting soil building plants. Mulching. Mulching with shredded paper (to help surpress weeds), leaves, hay, wood chips, etc. It's going poorly. My plants are growing slowly.

I am tired of seeing nothing every single year. So, this year I've ordered compost and I've ordered wood chips and I better see something grow or I swear, I quit.
 
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I think Joseph Lofthouse farms a similar climate, I have no experience with it.  I think hugels might help.  I hope you keep experimenting until you find what works.  And have you considered putting the bees in the greenhouse?  Lack of pollination may be causing issues there.  I read a bit of your blog.  I will probably read some more.  Good luck and hang in there please!
 
gardener
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elle sagenev wrote: this year I've ordered compost and I've ordered wood chips



I have a friend who ordered some nut trees from Oikos five or more years back and then got a load of free wood chips.  He hauled them down in the loader bucket in front of his tractor and dumped them in a pile next to one of the trees, planning to go back later and rake them out into an orchard mulch layer.

It never happened.  He spread a thin layer around both trees but most of the rest stayed in a big pile about three feet from one of the trees and about thirty feet from the other.

Last time I saw those trees, before the pandemic, the one near the pile of chips was twice as big as the one that was thirty feet away.  It was amazing.  We theorize that the chip pile created a reservoir of reliable moisture in the ground beneath the pile and/or leaches nutrients as it decomposes.  

What I'm trying to say, here, is that I think your new inputs will reward you with results.  I know I've enjoyed the few loads of wood chips I've managed to get and the small quantities of aged horse manure from my neighbor that I've been able to haul home in my little garden wagon.  
 
pollinator
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We used to live in Denver which I believe has similar soil as yours - solid clay with no organic matter to speak of. I tried the slow way too then got angry when only the couch grass appreciated my efforts. Every year I would buy straw (this was before straw was contaminated) and put a 6-8 inch layer on the garden beds. By the end of the season, it would be gone and I swear the clay came back. But eventually it worked. I think the ratio was about 90% organic matter for every 10% of clay. Maybe higher. But we ended up with very loose, good soil.

I understand your frustration but it seems to take a rather insane amount of organic matter to break up the clay. But when that happens the clay contributes minerals and the soil is very good.
 
pollinator
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The soil in areas where I have habitually been adding woodchips for year (typically well rotted, not fresh) is great. Dark, crumbly, holds moisture well, grew lovely vegetables last year. Elsewhere it dries out super fast, and needs constant watering to keep things growing in summer. Our soil is incredibly free draining into the chalk beneath.

I think you are on the right track with woodchips etc...

We currently put most of our woodchips through the chicken run first, and then sift it to remove large chunks before using. Not strictly necessary to sift it, but I was finding that the remaining large chunks were interfering with my ability to hoe the area, so were making more work hand weeding, compared to giving a whole bed quick whizz with the hoe in five minutes.
 
pollinator
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What are you trying to grow?  Do others in the area have success with it?  If so, what are they doing differently?

What are you doing for rainwater capture and or irrigation?  Do your plants just need more water?

Do you have livestock for manure?  If not, even a small flock laying hens can produce a useful amount.  Also consider using urine and humanure.
 
pollinator
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The best soil area I have is a place I stored my wood chips for a couple years.  I would take chips off the top as I needed them through the season, but I always had a foot or more at the bottom that just sat there.  After two years, or maybe three, I can't remember for sure, I found a different place to store my chips and took that area down to 8" or so.  Everything I have planted there has exploded with growth.  The soil is amazing.  If I had enough chips to cover my entire growing area two feet deep, I would have more food than I knew what to do with.
 
pollinator
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I use a variety of techniques for different areas. I purchase compost, have trees removed and chipped, have raised beds for annual vegetable garden, and save the slower methods for further out areas. We need to eat this year, as well as next decade. Good luck to you.
 
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If your plants are growing slowly you need immediate help with your soil. You're going to have to dig something organic into the soil. From my experience it doesn't matter what it is. They say peat has low NPK values but I find if I dig it into clay I can grow nice tomatoes or even corn. However I would suggest you cover a strip 18" wide and 2 inches deep with manure.Dig that in. Then keep making the 18" strips. That will keep you out of the manure. When you finish your plot repeat that and add in another inch or so. This time instead of digging in a north south direction go East/West. That will help break up the clods of clay.

Find a barn built on a slope where they dump the manure on the side of the barn. The oldest well composted manure will be at the bottom of the pile. The barn I go to has two horses boarded there and a manure pile about 15 or 20 feet down that steep slope. I've been working it for two years and they haven't added to it. So the manure is 2 to 15 years old at the bottom. Any problems with herbicides or dewormers have had a long time in the sun to hopefully self mitigate itself. Manure that old smells more like good soil, however if you have a problem I'd suggest mushroom compost which has grown a couple crops of mushrooms which so many of us eat.

Do this for two years then you have a good base to which adding mulch or wood chips on top will keep your nice loose soil over many years. But folks have to get good crops the first year or many will quit gardening out of frustration.

Good luck!
 
pollinator
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I suspect your zone, like mine, has a short compost-friendly season. What folks in the PNW say takes five months will take two years here.

There is nothing wrong with taking active measures in a few zones to boost production. You have to see results somewhere in order to keep going. Luck!
 
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Hello, similar experience here. We're "blessed" with a whopping 3-6 inches of what generously could be called "clay heavy topsoil" before you hit solid red clay.

What worked for me, and might work for you, is cheerfully called ba***rd trenching. With a bit of a twist from yours truly for both fast and long-term results, incorporating slightly raised beds.

You mark out your bed and dig up a single spade cube of soil, so about 1' in every direction, set that aside. At the bottom you break up the subsoil with a garden fork, claw, whatever. And then you DUMP in compost, manure and LOT AND LOTS of wood chips. Then you take your next spit of soil and you put it upside down in that first empty spot - putting any topsoil, weeds and roots right down into the hole with all the goodies.

Keep going across the whole bed space until you've dropped your original cube of dirt in the last slot, then build a raised bed on that. Then we start the low-till lasagna garden on top. A layer of newspaper, a layer of compost, a layer of leaf litter, a layer of compost, a layer of topsoil, etc, as high as your materials will allow. Top it off with a wood chip mulch or a cover crop.
Build on this every year only tilling once at the beginning of the season to prep the beds for spring planting and mix in new compost. Rake off the majority of the wood chips, lay down your compost, till any weeds under and break up the soil about 4-6" deep, then lay the wood chips back on top. (Or just till in your cover crop if you have one and plant a new one.)

What this does is it puts a LOT of slow-release nutrients in the deep subsoil. You really wanna load the wood chips in there too. You can go lighter on the compost/manure, but add a little (it can even be a bit green) to really kickstart the process. Throwing any weeds/grass/etc and the topsoil down there really kickstarts it too.

Then it leaves crummy but mineral rich subsoil on top, usually a few inches out of the ground, but you can't plant in that so you build your "raised bed" right on top with good compost, leaf humus, topsoil, etc. This kickstarts the bed for immediate planting.

Over time (a few years) the deep nutrient layer and the topsoil layers are mixed by bugs, plant roots and more going back and forth between the two. The result is a THICK layer of topsoil in which plants thrive. It's almost a mini hugel bed in a way if you put enough wood chips in the bottom. The soil will drain a little better but retain water, it will be low maintenance, and all sorts of food plants do great in it.

The downside to this - this is a LOT of manual labor. But in my experience it's worth it, and when you want to plant fast it will get you a crop the first year and they will just get better every subsequent year thereafter. Just make sure you have a source of compost and wood chip mulch or cover crop to replace the nutrients you take out each year.
 
pollinator
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Here is the thing with trees. Yes they require Nitrogen, but in the form of Nitrate it is useless to them. Trees require nitrogen in the form of Ammonia, and soil fungi will synthesize it for the plants in exchange for the exudates the tree roots put out.

If you want to build soil fast you need to get as much fungi into the soil as possible, and enough suitable food for them. Cellulose and Lignin.

This is where insects and other soil organisms come in. They will mechanically break down woody material and haul it under the soil surface where the fungi can work on it.

So if your soil building is going slowly, the chances are that you do not have a high enough population of aerobic soil life.

1.  Check your soil for compaction, water logging, or other conditions that result in an anaerobic soil environment. You may need to decompact the soil a little with a fork or break up a hard pan.
2.  Make sure there is plenty of woody mulch on the surface and inoculate it with topsoil from a nearby forest that has an established fungal biosystem.
3.  Make a compost tea that includes fungal beneficial food in it like crushed oats and kelp, and apply it to the mulch.
4.  Plant as many trees and woody plants in the space as you can. Look around and find what pioneer fast growing trees are naturalized in your area and transplant a bunch of seedlings. You want as many living roots in that soil as you can possibly stuff in there. You can always chop them down later as your primary plants need space.
 
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I feel you, Elle.

My plants don't grow very well either, but I'm sure it's due to lack of water. I'm still very early in the learning process so I don't want to despair just now.
What I'm trying to do is to create good soil in very small areas by focusing my resources. That should give me some successes. And it is showing. Nobody in our garden thought it possible to have a modest yield with no water, but it's happening. Too modest for my tastes, though.
There's so much to do, I have so few resources, time and water especially, and also money and seed availability, that I need these very small scale successes. Learning to eat some wild edibles has been a revelation after my farmed potatos dried off. I want to enjoy my garden, not to struggle because of it. So if you think you have to spent money in order to enjoy your garden, go forth!
 
Douglas Alpenstock
pollinator
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C Mouse wrote:What worked for me, and might work for you, is cheerfully called ba***rd trenching. With a bit of a twist from yours truly for both fast and long-term results, incorporating slightly raised beds.

You mark out your bed and dig up a single spade cube of soil, so about 1' in every direction, set that aside. At the bottom you break up the subsoil with a garden fork, claw, whatever. And then you DUMP in compost, manure and LOT AND LOTS of wood chips. Then you take your next spit of soil and you put it upside down in that first empty spot - putting any topsoil, weeds and roots right down into the hole with all the goodies.

The downside to this - this is a LOT of manual labor. But in my experience it's worth it, and when you want to plant fast it will get you a crop the first year and they will just get better every subsequent year thereafter.


Agreed. I learned the hard way that marginal soil will soak up unbelievable volumes of organic matter without so much as a wave. I think a "double dig" method is a great way to jumpstart things.
 
pollinator
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I particularly like the idea of covering the entire 2acre of watered growing space with a series of swales that is 8ft wide and 2ft deep. I would then backfill it with woodchips/straw/manure/hay/agricultural waste/etc. Maybe I shouldn't even call them swales but just sunken row-cropping.

I think you mentioned that a property nearby is a farm, do they by any chance have any agricultural waste (straw/manure/etc)? Is there a particular reason why you wouldn't get some from the farms nearby?

 
pollinator
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Elle, I know you've talked about trying lots of different things so perhaps you've gone this route before, but if  I'm look king at investing money into a garden I'm looking at investing in high quality innoculants. That might mean investing in commercial products from reputable companies or it might mean investing in the equipment and inputs to make your own high quality biologicals. The combo of organic matter and robust soil biology seems to be the way forward with heavy clay soils. I've seen annual gains of 1/8 to 1/4 of an inch into solid red clay at the border of engineered soil holes that were juiced regularly with compost teas. The hard red clay would turn into a light brown, very crumbly texture.
 
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Another approach - a walk in the woods.

Get away from the garden or farm and visit the forest.  Have a look and ask yourself, how is soil built here?

Where I was a kid, the apex forest was deciduous.  The leaves fell in massive piles at the end of the summer, got damp, froze for several months.  Then suddenly, it got warm and the leaves are lovely and damp and warm and they make soil quickly - in a matter of weeks, it transforms from dead leaves to healthy soil.

This is what we replicate when we mulch our garden.  We need the right amount of moisture and warmth for the bacteria, fungi, yeast, and invisible beasties to make the leaves into soil.


Where I live now, soil is built VERY DIFFERENTLY.  The apex forest is Douglas Fir which is not good at building soil.  It creates an acid forest floor of needles that don't rot for decades.  In the new forest, the deciduous trees have lots of leaves, which fall during the end of the summer drought.  They mummify which reduce their ability to rot.  Then it rains.  And rains.  And rains.  So that we can get 4 or 5 months of standing water on the forest floor.  Too much water means the leaves cannot rot.  When it finally gets warm, the rains have stopped.  The ground quickly dries out.  There isn't enough moisture to grow bacteria, fungi, yeast, and invisible beasties to make the leaves into soil.  Instead, the leaves powder or get eaten and transformed into poo which then builds the soil.

Mulching the garden here does not build soil.  It either drowns the soil or it prevents the dew from getting to the roots of the plant.  

The same technique that is awesome in one climate is terrible in another.  

I've found there is no universal method for building healthy soil.  It depends so much on your climate which method will work best and fastest for you.  



 
elle sagenev
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Ok so I posted this and never came back. I suppose I have several things I should have said.


I have swales and Kraters. Everything there but a very hardy plum tree died. It's pests that are the biggest predator there.

What I'm looking to do is a kitchen garden/orchard. It's a smaller area, fully fenced, close to the house and water source. I have been attempting to grow a garden here for years and the plants just don't get very big and certainly don't fruit. The trees and bushes that survive pest pressure just don't get very big either.

I just want that smallish garden area to thrive. I want to see some results. I've been mulching for ages in the area. I think part of the problem might be grass. I have a lot of grass in that area. So I'm hoping super thick mulch around the trees would be good and compost where I want plants. I don't know, I'm going to try it.
 
r ranson
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If you are just doing a small kitchen garden, I find trenching compost is one of the fastest ways to build soil.  My soil increases about 6 inches a year.  

It might also help to check the PH of the soil to see if there's something that could be adjusted there.  It's one of the biggest problems I have when plants aren't thriving.  
 
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i live on the east coast of cape breton  canada on what is called a till plain... leftover glacial till (rocks) and clay - all that grows is acidic stuff like balsam firs berries etc.. it IS very more temperate that wyoming would be though..

but the soil, well it isn't... so all raised beds ... period... you could make a quick switch with tire gardening... cut the sidewalls out with a Stanley knife.. instant round beds  - the tires do keep warmth better - you hill potatoes by stacking them

you live in wyoming which, form what i understand == horses... find a neighbor, load up on the old black stuff and fill the tires..

radishes, broccoli, kale, cabbages... and cold weather crops should do okay

amending shitty soil is demoralizing  and energy sucking as others have pointed out.. i am sorry and feel your pain nothing worse than pale tiny radishes bolting after 3 months

best of luck - seriously ... a shitload of horse poop will get you going


 
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elle sagenev wrote:Ok so I posted this and never came back. I suppose I have several things I should have said.


I have swales and Kraters. Everything there but a very hardy plum tree died. It's pests that are the biggest predator there.

What I'm looking to do is a kitchen garden/orchard. It's a smaller area, fully fenced, close to the house and water source. I have been attempting to grow a garden here for years and the plants just don't get very big and certainly don't fruit. The trees and bushes that survive pest pressure just don't get very big either.

I just want that smallish garden area to thrive. I want to see some results. I've been mulching for ages in the area. I think part of the problem might be grass. I have a lot of grass in that area. So I'm hoping super thick mulch around the trees would be good and compost where I want plants. I don't know, I'm going to try it.



hau elle, You might give this a trial; mix spent coffee grounds, mulch and anything else you like to use, add some soured milk (just layer it where you want it then add the milk), let this ferment in place for a week or two then add some mushroom slurry. I think you will find very rapid soil improvements and plant health increase along with pest decrease.

Redhawk
 
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elle sagenev wrote:I have been content to play the slow soil building game. Planting soil building plants. Mulching. Mulching with shredded paper (to help surpress weeds), leaves, hay, wood chips, etc. It's going poorly. My plants are growing slowly.

I am tired of seeing nothing every single year. So, this year I've ordered compost and I've ordered wood chips and I better see something grow or I swear, I quit.

Two words     NO-DIG
 
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I read somewhere that Siberian pea shrubs are allelopathic towards grass. I don't know if this is true, or if it is, to what extent, and maybe it's invasive in your area, but... Maybe it could be something to try (if you haven't already), to kill off or slow down the grass and fix some nitrogen at the same time?
 
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Elle,

Wow, you have been through quite a challenge.  That being said, I think you are on the right track with the wood chips.  There is already a lot of good input here but I will add my own.  

Like you, I have very hard, clay soil.  Also like you I also tried adding in a lot of “light” organic matter.   In my case I worked in numerous 4x8’ trailer loads of shredded leaves.  For several years I would pile shredded leaves 2’ tall (or taller), weighted down by long branches so the leaves would not blow away.  Somehow the clay seemed to eat the leaves and still be dense, hard, brown clay.  This happened year after year.

Finally I tried wood chips.  At first I just piled the wood chips 4’ high on a 6’x12’ section of garden.  I let it sit over winter.  By spring, with no effort on my part the clay underneath already softened and began transitioning to loam.  In spring I knocked the pile to 1’ and spread it out and added mushroom spawn.  The results were amazing and permanently changed my gardening.

There is something magical about wood chips and I think RedHawk has some great advice.  All I could add is to make certain that the chips stay moist.  For me that’s easy as I live in a fairly wet climate but yours might require regular watering.

Good luck and please keep us informed as to how this works out.

Eric
 
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I've been meaning to reply here too, thanks Eric for bumping the thread.
I have clay, it gets very dry here, the clay completely eats through all organic matter so quickly. Many of the suggestions simply don't work when you've got ground like this and your climate situation. But I think limiting it to the kitchen garden, trenching everything that you can, woodchips, etc, you will see some progress.
As for your grass, not sure what kind of grass you have there (whether its seeded or runners) but I know I didn't see any progress in the battle against grass til I put in solid borders (I used old tiles, planks, etc). But heavy mulching, even putting down cardboard works.
Good luck!
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