Soil Building (Part 1)

Suburban Stockade Banner

Suburban stockade introduction

Sometimes, we do things not in the best order. Better gardening books will tell you that soil building is important. But they don’t go into intensive detail about how, and why, and the overriding importance of starting soil improvements the day you move into your new home.

Before you open up your catalogs, draw the first garden layout on graph paper, figure out your solar orientation, and map out the high, dry spots, the low, soggy spots, and the prevailing winds, you should be working on your soil.

The backyard: 2001 (above); 2014 (below.

Building the soil in your yard can turn it from barren to lush.

Naturally, we did not do this. Fortress Peschel is my third house and Bill’s second in which we had enough yardage for an actual garden as opposed to just a few house plants. My soil in Virginia, long ago and far away, was pretty poor. The soil in South Carolina was equally bad, heavy with orangy clay. I grew up watching my mother garden in Delaware with its almost barren sandy dirt. In fact, none of these places had soil. It was dirt. Worn out, tired, beaten down, exhausted, and barely alive dirt. I did not learn from this — why I thought this was kind of normal.

Sadly, dirt is kind of normal, but it is not what you want. What you want is soil. Soil starts with clay, sand, or silt, and you add life to that base with rotting organic matter that feeds a zoo of insects, fungal networks, microbes, worms, arthropods and other multi-legged critters. Much of what makes soil alive can only be seen with a magnifying glass or a microscope. Your zoo of critters turns this rotting organic material into humus. Humus is what feeds your plants, making nutrients available to them and holding water without becoming soggy. The takeaway from this? Soil is alive and the more alive and healthy it is, the healthier your plants will be.

I started learning how to make soil in South Carolina by happenstance. We had a half-acre, planted with an irregular pattern of trees and shrubs. I wanted to minimize lawn mowing, and the easiest way to do this was to rake the leaves into big circles around the randomly placed trees. It was too heavily shaded to grow grass anyway. Over time, as the leaves decayed, built up, and decayed again, insect-eating birds like thrushes came to visit. I looked more closely and saw a thin layer of rich, humusy soil over the red clay. It was full of insects and life.

Bill had tried growing a small vegetable garden but had never worked on soil building. I didn’t learn from what nature was showing me and in nine years, the dirt in our raised beds didn’t improve very much over hard red clay. We had a small compost bin, but it just wasn’t enough.

In the meantime, in an effort to attract more birds, we had put down around the trees a few tractor-trailer loads of leaves that the city gave us for asking. We were letting these areas go a little wild and free leaves made a great mulch. By the time we moved, this soil was getting pretty decent compared to the hard red clay under the struggling grass. I was beginning to recognize what nature was telling me.

We moved up here to Fortress Peschel in central Pennsylvania. The property was a barren rectangle other than a green spruce and Japanese maple in the front yard, the neighbors’ privet hedges (on two sides), and a scraggly forsythia hedge. The dirt (I won’t call it soil) was dead. It was mostly clay and had been packed down into something like concrete. We not only had no worms, we didn’t even have slugs. I would have said the dirt had been Chemlawned to death except the grass was in too poor a condition.

We knew we wanted to grow a few herbs and a few vegetables. I wanted to grow a hedge to shield us from the neighbors and the highway. I also wanted to build a mini wildlife refuge as I like birds and squirrels and other little, furry animals. We had very few leaves available and darn little compost. I had to improve the soil if I wanted to grow anything at all. After a year or so, it dawned on me to find out if the township offered free leaves as they did in South Carolina.

They did not. They offered, instead, great mountains of compost and mulch from all the leaves and yard waste the township collected year round. As much as you could possibly want and all free for the hauling. Over the years, we laid out vegetable and flower beds, hedgerows, and thickets and covered each area with a thick layer of mulch or compost from the township.

Over time, I learned to salvage the leaves the neighbors were throwing out for township pickup. I would send a son with a rake and the lawn-cart to collect the big street piles of leaves and spread them where we needed them most. People rarely asked why a sullen teenager was raking up piles of leaves from the gutter and hauling them away. My sons have been instructed to say that their crazy mother uses them for mulch.

I also began to collect the big brown bags of leaves that people throw out in Elizabethtown. In the fall, whenever I drive by a big brown bag of yard waste, I stop and open it to see if it is leaves. If it is, I stuff the bag into my car and bring home all that soil fertility for my yard. I have a Ford Focus sedan and it is possible to stuff as many as ten bags into the passenger seat, back seat, and trunk. I have never had anyone stop and ask me what I was doing.

I am now in the happy position of having pick-up truck loads of leaves delivered to my driveway. I made an arrangement with a neighbor who has a small lawn-care business. It saves him time and gas money to drop off his seasonal mountain of raked leaves into my yard as opposed to hauling it to the recycling center. My sons spread out the leaves as they arrive, wherever they are needed. These are wonderful leaves, chopped and mixed with grass clippings, rich with fertility.

Getting leaves has greatly accelerated my soil-building program but I still collect every brown bag of leaves I drive by. I still send out my sons to collect the street leaves before the township gets them. We still get compost and mulch from the township. We compost all our food scraps, yard trimmings and shredded paper.

Why don’t we slow down at this? Because it is darn near impossible to add too much organic material to the soil. And, if you stop adding organic material, it gets used up by the critters and plants. If you have a wilderness area, the falling leaves and dying plants will slowly, slowly continue to build up. Nature might build up half an inch of soil every century this way. That may be ok in a meadow or forest, but not in a vegetable garden.

The plants in a vegetable garden are removed and eaten so they don’t rot in place. Vegetables are heavy feeders of soil fertility and will use up every bit of organic matter. Every carrot you pull takes with it the nutrients it absorbed from the soil. Those nutrients do not reappear by magic for the next crop. They have to be replenished, by you. If you don’t use a heavy hand with synthetic fertilizers (which are very damaging in a host of ways) your crop yields will drop and eventually, you won’t get any vegetables at all. So, we keep adding compost and leaves.

Over time, my dirt has changed to soil. It is most evident in the garden beds, hedgerows and the thicket. These are the locations where we have piled up leaves, compost, and mulch year after year. Younger son can layer on a foot of leaves in November and by June of the following year, it has all rotted into the soil. Turn over the soil in these areas and you will see a looser, more friable layer of humus full of worms and insects. The soil can now absorb rain water better, hold it longer and yet not become soggy. Looser soil means better aeration which leads to healthier root structures, that can grow down deeper.

Interestingly, the soil has improved in the grass areas too. We have not put in nearly as much effort into the lawn. We have spread compost over the grass twice in ten years (very thinly) and we now use a mulching lawn mower so the clippings fall back and rot in place. Older son keeps the mower set at the highest setting as taller grass has deeper roots. Younger son went over much of the lawn with the broad fork to punch holes into the soil allowing air and water to flow into it. We do not water or fertilize the grass, ever. What seems to have happened is that the exploding population of worms, ants, and other arthropods living in the beds, hedgerows, and the thicket are slowly colonizing the soil desert under the grass. As they move into this packed clay, their actions make it accept the grass clippings and rain better. Their waste adds fertilizer. Their movements through the dirt open up air channels. These areas are changing although very slowly.

Good soil building is the single best thing you can do to start and keep healthy plants. A wide mix of vigorously growing plants will be able to withstand diseases and pests better. Your produce will be more nutritious. It may even taste a little better. But because fruits and vegetables are removed and eaten, soil building needs to a regular part of your gardening routine. Feed the soil to feed the plants to feed your family.

Next Week: Soil Building (the next layer)