Soil-Building (Part 2)

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Part One of Soil-Building Can Be Read Here

Many of my plant die-offs have been related to not improving the soil prior to planting my expensive baby shrubs and perennials. The hedgerow is certainly a case in point. This is the area along the north side of the property. It had a straggly forsythia hedge hiding a steep downslope. We installed the 4-foot chain-link fence almost as soon as we moved in to contain our toddlers and dog. A few years later, Bill and Older Son dug out the forsythia bushes. I wanted to have a mixed-shrub border of assorted natives to block the north wind, screen the yard, and provide plenty of habitat for native songbirds.

To slow down water run-off, I lined the bottom of the chain-link fence with composite decking. The decking is rot- and insect-proof, about six inches tall and should last forever. I threw a few leaves on in the fall and planted my expensive native shrubs in the spring. Six years or so later, almost everything I originally planted has died. The soil was too heavy, too much like a brick, would not accept rainwater and had very little organic matter in it. It was dirt, actually, and not soil. I have been adding piles of leaves for the last few years but this was not soon enough to save the shrubs. The survivors are doing better now as the soil is finally improving, but it has been a struggle.

I should have waited two or three more years after pulling out the forsythias, using each year to lay down thick layers of compost, mulch, and scavenged leaves. I could have let whatever vegetation grow that wanted to grow, and cut it down every fall to rot in place. Several years of this treatment would have vastly improved the soil. My shrubs would have had a much better chance at life and I would have learned how badly I needed a serious wind barrier along the fence. Knowing this, I would have changed the plan and grown a wall of yews (taxus) or cedars (thuja) right along the fence to protect my more delicate native bushes.

soil building in a raised garden bed

Once raised beds are built and in place, it is really hard to double-dig them and spade in loads of leaves and compost.

The raised vegetable beds have had some similar issues. Once raised beds are built and in place, it is really hard to double-dig them and spade in loads of leaves and compost. I would lay on compost whenever we had made some or I could get Bill to go to the township to get some, but again, it was never enough to compensate for what the lettuces and tomatoes took from the soil.

Now, soil building has become a routine part of my annual gardening schedule. Fall comes, I collect every leaf possible. Younger son lays them down thickly on every bed. In the spring, any remaining, broken down leaves are turned under into each bed. More compost (homemade or from the township) is spread over the bed. Only then, do we plant our seeds and seedlings. Younger son and I have started experimenting with green manure and letting beds lay fallow for a season or two.

We have only seriously concentrated on soil building for the last two or three years. My soil is noticeably better, darker, more crumbly and able to hold rain water. My vegetable plants seem to be doing better. In addition to adding all this organic material to my soil, I sometimes use bone meal (for phosphorus) and greensand (for potassium and trace minerals) and crushed eggshells (for calcium). I make iron water (by allowing nails to rust in a bucket of water) and apply it very, very sparingly. We don’t use any other fertilizers. If I had chickens or rabbits, I would compost their manure and add that to the soil as well. Maybe in the future.

Don’t let fertility go to waste

As we move deeper into a more uncertain future, compost and leaves may be the only fertilizer you can get at a price you can afford. Wars were fought over the great deposits of guano in caves (bat poo) and on small ocean islands (seagull poo) waiting to be mined and spread on farmer’s fields. Those deposits have, for the most part, long since been mined out and used up. Most inorganic fertilizers these days are made from natural gas. Don’t expect them to get cheaper. It is cheap enough, now, to buy a bottle of fish emulsion for your house-plants but very few of us can afford to use that on a large vegetable garden.

So stop throwing away your fertility! Every leaf that falls on your property should stay on it as should every blade of grass and every carrot top and potato peeling. When your wasteful, profligate neighbors throw away their fertility, collect it at once. If they ask what you are doing, explain that you garden intensively and need the leaves to feed your soil and mulch your beds. This may inspire them to start gardening themselves which is a good thing, even if it means fewer leaves for you. The more self-sufficient your neighbors are, the more resilient your community becomes.

Leaves are so easy to handle. They are usually dry and rot very nicely in compost bins or spread out as mulch. We pile leaves on every raised bed in the fall to a height of twelve inches or so. By the time it is warm enough to plant, most of the leaves have broken down through weather, time, and insect activity. It is easy to spade under the remaining few inches in the spring. My leaves are pretty mixed up and I rarely have a problem with them matting and clumping. If it looks like they are matting down, I (or Younger Son) fluff them with a rake.

The asparagus and rhubarb beds get their foot of leaves as well, but because these plants are perennials, we don’t spade in the leaves. Any unrotted leaves in the spring are pulled away from the new growth and left in place as a weed barrier. Any compost I can get is spread on the beds prior to layering on the leaves in the fall.

The flower beds, hedgerows (where the berry bushes are), and the thicket get as many leaves as we can salvage after the raised vegetable beds are done. These plants don’t require as much compost as the vegetables do and, unlike the vegetables, they tend to feed themselves in the fall with their own leaf drop. These leaves are never spaded in. They are left to rot in place and act as a weed barrier until the next load in the fall. Normally by late August, all the leaves have vanished into the soil under the bushes and these areas are ready for their next load.

Sometimes my leaves, especially the giant brown bagfuls I collect in Lancaster County are full of pine needles, acorns, sweet gum balls, twigs, and other bits. All of this rots down just fine, if a little slower. If I am not desperate for leaves to cover the vegetable beds, I use the twiggier stuff on the hedgerows and under the berry bushes. Branches and twigs can be turned into mulch by breaking them up into smaller pieces. You can do this with a chipper if you have one, or you can do it by hand just by breaking them all in half repeatedly. This is another reason to have a wilderness area in your yard as it gives you a place to toss branches and old Christmas trees where they can rot down slowly and out of the way.

Let it rot

Grass clippings are more problematic. The best way we found to handle clippings is to use a mulching lawn-mower and let the clippings fall and rot in place. Great piles of grass clippings don’t rot into compost very well unless they are turned over and over completely every few days. They get nasty, ferment, and pack down in a slimy mass with little or no air to keep the composting action going. A sullen teenager with a pitchfork is the best way to handle piles of grass clippings, lifting, turning, and fluffing. We experimented with using a pick-up truck load of clippings from Denny in the spring as mulch. The clippings matted, got slimy, and putrefied. It may have been better to lay on the clippings a few inches deep and spade them in. We will have to see how that works.

If you can collect enough leaves in the fall, and can plan ahead, and can store the leaves in bags, you can layer spring grass clippings with stored leaves with each layer a few inches thick in your compost bins. This will rot down beautifully into compost. We have never planned ahead this well.

When laying out your garden, decide where you want to put vegetable beds, permanent beds for perennials like asparagus and rhubarb, flower borders, hedgerows for berries or fruit trees, hedges, and your wilderness areas. As soon as you know what a stretch of grass will become, put the mower to its lowest setting and mow the area down to grass nubbins. Soak that area with water. Layer on ten to fifteen sheets of old newspapers, completely covering the new bed. Punch holes in the newspaper layer with a spading fork. Water again. Cover the newspaper layer with a foot or more of leaves and water them well. A year later, turn over the layers and be amazed. This is what soil building does. The newspaper layer is to help kill the grass and any perennial weeds.

If you want raised beds, i.e., planting areas encased in a four sided box of composite decking, open to the sky and the soil below, follow almost exactly the above procedure. Mow your grass down to a crew cut, build the raised bed box, water well, lay down newspaper, water and perforate the paper, and lay on the leaves. If you have any soil handy from recycled house plants or other building projects, spread that in too. Wait a year, spade it all over, and be amazed by the change in what you see.

If your soil is really dreadful, and you have a few sturdy teenagers to do the work, you can double-dig your vegetable garden. Don’t do this work for anything else as only annual crops of vegetables really benefit from this exhausting, laborious job. You should only have to do this once per bed. Lay on the newspaper and leaves as listed above. Wait a year while time and soil critters work. Mark off the bed area. Dig out a trench about a foot deep and two feet wide and remove all that soil, leaves, and newspaper shreds to waiting wheelbarrows. With a spading fork, loosen and turn the soil in the trench. Work in more leaves, grass clippings, compost, mulch, whatever organic material you have on hand. Move over to the next strip of bed alongside the trench. Dig out about a foot of soil, leaves, etc, and layer them into the trench you just emptied. Spade over the bottom of the new trench. Repeat this process until you reach the end of the bed. You will end up with an empty trench that has been spaded and turned and loosened. Take the waiting wheelbarrows of soil from the beginning of the project and lay them into the empty trench. If you can, cover the newly double dug bed with another foot of leaves and compost. Wait another year. The soil will be beautiful, healthy, loose and friable and full of life. It will be ready to grow food for you.

In addition to spreading leaves in the fall, and compost whenever you can get it, you can also improve your soil with cover crops. These are the plants you grow in a bed with the express purpose of chopping them up in place and spading them under to die and rot. We’ll cover the use of cover crops next week.

Next Week: Striking Bedrock