Growing soil

Monek Marie
Monek Marie Posts: 3,535 ✭✭✭✭✭
edited January 2021 in Composting & Soil Fertility

Many people will agree having good soil helps you to have a great garden.

After I returned home from city living I took up gardening again. This was my grandfather property before we moved here and I was not used to the soil - rock and clay! Clay soil is full of nutrients once you break it up enough to be able to plant successfully in it. But I had my work cut out to get this soil where I wanted it.

I did not have a plow, rototiller and did not know about no till gardening methods so tehe first year was interesting and a lot of work. I also did not have animals so I had to buy compost. I really do not like buying compost or soil but it was what it was that year.

Since then, I have added animals of all sorts to the property and compost is not an issue. My soil has vastly improved and I have switched to no dig gardening. If I have to dig a bit, it's just enough to loosen soil.

One of the most important things I do now, is grow soil each year. I make a conscious effort to make as much as I can. I use it around the property, use it for new gardens and to replenish any old garden and make a stock pile for unexpected uses and to help my family and friends out.

I will be starting greenhouse gardening where I make my own soil mixes and making new pallet gardens so I will be cranking in to high gear to add to my stash, With new pallet gardens I will be making enough soil to fill about 15 new beds. (I keep my beds shorter in a pallet garden and use an intensive garden method.

An added bonus to all the rocks on the property: I graveled the driveway and made 12 terraced garden beds. I also sold some rock to add to my tree and seed spending stash.

Feb 1st is my first day and soil making for this year.

Who else grows soil?


  • Megan Venturella
    Megan Venturella Posts: 678 ✭✭✭✭

    I do the same. I bought compost this year because it’s my first year, but I spent the morning in the pasture today collecting cow patties and wasted hay to make my biggest compost pile yet!

  • vickeym
    vickeym Posts: 2,017 ✭✭✭✭✭

    Having to buy soil is common here, though before moving to Alaska I had never had to buy dirt. We have a long way to go to grow our soil. There is a thin layer of top soil 1" - 6 ft of hard clay then gravel. Some parts of the property have a soft mossy layer an inch or 2 deep. Of course that is all undisturbed woods and brush. Bought compost once at our old place. Before the summer was over every where you looked was super thick and lush...with lambs quarter. Didn't know anything about that prolific "weed" back then. :)

  • VermontCathy
    VermontCathy Posts: 1,911 ✭✭✭✭✭

    Clay soil can be a huge challenge. My own yard is a hard clay that clumps together, and doesn't drain into the soil at all. When the spring snowmelt comes, I have at least an inch of water sitting in a depression just behind the garden. When I dig the soil anywhere, I find huge chunk that are hard to break down, and if the soil is wet when I dig, those clumps can become hard as a rock. On the bright side, the hard freezes we have here will break down any clumps that are on the surface when winter comes.

    (Winter also has the effect of temporarily sterilizing the top layer of soil, which prevents rapid buildup of insects and diseases. In warmer climates, you may need to rotate between beds every few years and let the old bed revert to grass.)

    The temperature this morning at breakfast was 1F (-17C), and the prediction for tonight is -10F (-23C). That'll break up those clods! :-)

    To make clay soil work well and use all those nutrients, all the books say that you need to add a lot of organic matter. Since it will decompose, you have to keep doing it.

    But I've often wondered if adding a mix of sand and organic matter would help more than just the organic matter. If you could get the sand thoroughly mixed into pulverized dry clay, drainage would improve dramatically, and the clay wouldn't decompose. I haven't tried it because I haven't found a good source of sand. It would have to be cheap or free given how much I would need.

    So far, I grow all my vegetables in raised beds o that I don't have to deal with flooded clay. On the other hand, grass and fruit trees do very well right in the clay.

  • Monek Marie
    Monek Marie Posts: 3,535 ✭✭✭✭✭

    @VermontCathy Do not add sand to clay soil. It will get a cement like quality to the soil that is near impossible to correct. My neighbor did that and I saw the result. It was an ugly experience.

    Adding sand by a stream or creek will help keep water in its banks better and stop water seepage. If you're trying to help a creek or stream bed out a small amount of sand is beneficial.

    My clay is really bad here but working with it I can control it and it is full of nutrients. Bit like you said you do have to keep adding organic material. By adding it all ther time you really build up the soil. I forget how difficult my soil is until I make or move a garden.

  • VermontCathy
    VermontCathy Posts: 1,911 ✭✭✭✭✭

    Thank you for that! Now I know not to try sand.

    What is the magic ingredient in loam that makes it remain so pliable and easily worked? It can't be sand given what you've written, but it also can't be biodegradable organic material, because you don't have to add frequently organic material to loam to keep it workable.

    I'd love to know what to add to clay to make it permanently lose the rock-hard-clod behavior. Of course, you'll still want to add organic material to keep it fertile.

  • Monek Marie
    Monek Marie Posts: 3,535 ✭✭✭✭✭
    edited January 2021

    @VermontCathy I have a lot of organic material on my property all the time. If by chance I would need more my neighbors could help me out. Landscaping businesses often have extra material to dump and we have a lumber company and tree service nearby so sawdust and chips are usually available.

    Leaves or leaf mold is perfect. One year my neighbor had bad straw for animals but it was perfect for adding to a garden. The person who had tilled it for me the year before could not believe how much it had improved in one year.

    I do not use hay - it brings in weed seed. (now if I know I can hot compost it and kill the seeds I might do that) I also like to know where are composting materials are coming from and if they are GMO and chemical free.

  • Monek Marie
    Monek Marie Posts: 3,535 ✭✭✭✭✭
    edited January 2021

    @VermontCathy I do have a water issue by my creek bed where I am actually losing soil 20 foot into my field. It's almost like a sink hole. I plan to add hay (it will be buried) small rock, larger rock then soil and sand. I think this will correct the problem. My one of my march projects.

  • Annie Kate
    Annie Kate Posts: 680 ✭✭✭✭

    Well, @Denise Grant , you are one busy lady!

    I, too, love growing soil, but don't have the strength to do much physical work. So I focus on composting and for anniversary gifts we get each other things like soil and manure. It makes people laugh and it gives us good food.

    We have found out about hay and its seeds, and the seeds are sometimes for perennials making it a terrible mess and a lot of work to deal with. Straw works better; the seeds are all for grains, so they are easy to pull up if they germinate and are a great addition to the compost pile.

  • Monek Marie
    Monek Marie Posts: 3,535 ✭✭✭✭✭

    @Annie Kate I use the compost method as much as i can to be easier on the back and save time.

    My one friend brought in a horrible invasive weed once with hay so I try not to compost it, unless it's buried deep. Weed seeds can even be an issue with compost you buy. I brought in a lot of ragweed with horse manure once.

  • Annie Kate
    Annie Kate Posts: 680 ✭✭✭✭

    That is so frustrating when you buy something to do good to your garden and it causes trouble!

  • Thomas
    Thomas Posts: 81 ✭✭✭

    We compost a tremendous amount. Our only animals at this time are cows and chickens. The cows we actively collect, or add wood chips to the paddock periodically, wait for it to build up, and then collect. The chickens are 'caged' in a very large area (30'x30') which we add various things too to have them build up the area. The plan is for it to be a future garden.

  • Tave
    Tave Posts: 952 ✭✭✭✭✭

    @Annie Kate, Your anniversary gifts to each other made me laugh, too. My sister heard her husband comment to a close friend's husband that they must have the only wives that are happier to get a gardening tool on their anniversary than a diamond ring.

    @VermontCathy, She has an incredible garden in Tennessee clay. Years of adding mulch have made it so rich that the microbial activity turns the mulch into compost very quickly. Could you make a pond in the depression where water accumulates? Cattails and other water-loving plants might grow well there.

  • VermontCathy
    VermontCathy Posts: 1,911 ✭✭✭✭✭

    I have a lot of brown leaves available, which I keep in a big pile in the woods to form lead mold. I'll often pull leaves from that pile to use as a top mulch before winter, and I have also dug down into the pile to get leaf mold to use as compost.

    I'm not sure about a pond. It could work. There is actually a swale that crosses the yard, draining down from the hill above. It probably wouldn't take much more than digging a slight hole in the yard around the swale where it enters the woods to create a shallow pond. Deep is probably not possible with the rock layer not far underground.

    If I were to plow or rototill much of the backyard and mix in the 50 bags or so of raked leaves we accumulate every year, I expect it would gradually improve the soil out there, especially if I did chop-and-drop green composting crops.

    Sadly, my husband insists that the back yard stay as grass. :-(

  • Monek Marie
    Monek Marie Posts: 3,535 ✭✭✭✭✭

    @VermontCathy What about a small bog garden or rain garden? It would catch rain but drain off and the plants would have a nice look in between. Small would leave plenty of grass ;)

  • Sharie
    Sharie Posts: 276 ✭✭✭

    Soil is a challenge. Mine is also mostly clay and rocks. I have a gardener that helps with the heavy work and he also makes compost at his place with a lot of sugar cane waste product. He mixed that with sand about 50-50. After a couple of months it started breaking down and everything started growing better. I do my best to leave as little earth exposed as possible. I have various ground covers, purslane, plantain, etc that I mostly leave to grow and some gets pulled out, left on the ground to decompose. I collect palm leaves for mulch and leave it in big pieces to keep weeds down in some areas, especially squash and things that can get moldy. Even putting cardboard between plants (perfect if you row garden) will help to improve soil quality. I've now got loads of worms which I never had before. It's definitely a process! We just got a little wood chipper for mulching so that should help speed things up. I used to cut our Chileno grass by hand and use it for a very thin layer of mulch which doesn't sound like much but it adds up with time and keeps bugs down in the process.

    I started a good sized hugel and am hoping that will turn into soil before too long. I was told the wood I used (fairly soft and wet) would rot after two years. We'll see. Wish I had animals! It is pretty exciting to just throw everything in a pile and find soil under it later!

  • tomandcara
    tomandcara Posts: 712 ✭✭✭✭

    Last October @AngelaOston posted this link about regenerative agriculture: I think it fits well into this discussion about growing soil.