Author Topic: Let's Talk Soils!  (Read 2246 times)

reed

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Re: Let's Talk Soils!
« Reply #30 on: 2019-11-17, 07:24:59 AM »
From what i'm learning in my classes it seems that the general trend is that adding organic matter of any kind will help improve any kind of soil over the long term.
That's the theory I've always operated under and seems to work although I've never had a soil test.
But, i am also learning that at least in the short term for vegetable gardens not all organic residue is equal in terms of nitrogen availability.... So, in that regard it may be worth watching what inputs you are putting in (wood chips) and whether or not you are aiming for a long term decomposition or a short term decomposition.
I think that is certainly true with wood chips. But it matters whether you work them in the dirt or not. Just on top as mulch seems to be OK but worked in the soil they seem to have detrimental effect. Partly in keeping it muddy in spring and overly dry in summer. Letting them compost in heaps for a few years helps too.

We have these massive colonies of big red ants that make giant hills of loose soil free of rocks. I speculate at least some of it comes from deep down and might also have the decomposed bodies of old ants and whatever else they have discarded. In warm weather they will eat you up if you get close but on a day like today where it is below freezing in the morning and dry it is easy to get a truckload and I'v done that a few times over the years. 

Probably not a common thing that people use but I haven't noticed any detrimental effects, that's for sure. Any speculation on the qualities of ant dirt?

William S.

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Re: Let's Talk Soils!
« Reply #31 on: 2019-11-17, 07:34:01 AM »
Wood is sure not all the same. Small diameter branches habe more N. Eaten by insects it would be frass or insect manure. Composted, or attacked by fungal hyphae partially broken down it isn't such a N sink. Also matters how it is applied. If you till in pure fresh sawdust will definitely tie up soil N. If a distinct later, probably a denitrified zone where contact is, but then normal levels.

Would be labor intensive, but I bet if pure sawdust was mixed into clay subsoil and then topsoil carefully replaced it would improve subsoil structure, and the topsoil would retain most of its normal N.

Have an very old bark chip pile base. Rototilled it, and tried planting corn three years ago. Did not do well. Still taking up nitrogen. Planted favas two years ago and they did great. Then this past year grew a great patch of Cirsium arvense. Though the last was unintentional.

I bet ant hills have a lot of useful properties as the consistency is similar to potting soil. Lots of plant species have seeds with special attachments called elaiosomes that are for ants to eat. The ant takes the seed, eats the attachment, then discards it on its waste pile. Where it germinates on the ant compost heap essentially.
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Andrew Barney

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Re: Let's Talk Soils!
« Reply #32 on: 2019-11-17, 07:49:40 AM »
Yes! I need the 700/1 C:N ratio material. Best bang for the buck, the Vicia faba will add in the rest of the N for free. Free Nitrogen is in the air!

haha william, you are free to choose what material to use, but i would think the 700 Carbon : 1 Nitrogen ratio would be the last one anyone would want to use short term even with a legume planted as i would think the nitrogen would still be overwhelmed with excess carbon for the microbes to still eat it all up and none left for the plants. But for sure if anyone is going to use a source with such a high carbon source and low nitrogen source the best method would be to try and balance it with something that has excess nitrogen or at least a higher nitrogen to carbon ratio. i guess you could add synthetic nitrogen fertilizer if you wanted to. I wonder if adding nitrogen water to inoculated tree logs would speed up mushroom growth. I imagine they need nitrogen just like everybody else.

EDIT: Yeah i guess it depends if it is on top or tilled in. i wonder how much it robs if only on top.

But since we are talking nitrogen it seems that not all legumes are the same for nitrogen fixation either. Some apparently are better than others. I can't find a good chart right now but i know that some things like perennial alfalfas, clovers, and peas all have pretty good nitrogen fixing numbers, and although common beans do fix some nitrogen they have one of the lower numbers in the group. I think fava beans are pretty high on the list. I'll keep looking for a good chart, but if anyone finds one first, please post it. I did find a chart of which legumes like certain pH values, so that might be helpful. I think lupines are also high nitrogen fixers.

I didn't know until recently but i guess specific nitrogen bacteria and specific mycorrhizal species associate with specific plant species. So if you try and inoculate with the wrong species it wont really work.
« Last Edit: 2019-11-17, 07:52:22 AM by Andrew Barney »

William S.

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Re: Let's Talk Soils!
« Reply #33 on: 2019-11-17, 09:36:47 AM »
Yeah, I actually did get the sawdust tilled in and it definitely reduced available nitrogen. However, Favas really do grow in the stuff and they don't seem a bit fased. The nitrogen made by root nodule bacteria really does go to the plant not the soil.

Just to double down conceptually. If you want the most carbon to add to your soil, you need the most concentrated source of carbon. It might not support plant growth in the short term. However, take my situation. I have some thing like 3 acres I can garden easily of my eight. My typical garden is 1/4 acre. So a 12 year fallow rotation is possible for me. I could spread sawdust and easily let it compost for three years. Or I could grow favas in sawdust amended ground till it has composted.
« Last Edit: 2019-11-17, 10:14:38 AM by William S. »
Western Montana garden, glacial lake Missoula sediment lacustrian silty clay mollisoil sometimes with added sand in places. Zone 6A with 100 to 130 frost free days

reed

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Re: Let's Talk Soils!
« Reply #34 on: 2019-11-18, 08:09:53 AM »
All this soils building talk got me motivated to get some of the partially composted wood chips hauled over to the gardens. I went ahead covered next year's corn patch with about a three inch layer of the more composted stuff but it is still probably too woody as is. Layer of old tomato and bean vines and other various stuff is under that. I also hauled over a couple hundred pounds of well composted chicken poo and stored in some big tubs under a tarp. 

Early next spring I'll rake that cover off into the paths to facilitate drying and warming of the soil and then mix in some of the chicken poo and put it all back as mulch between the rows, maybe toss a little of the poo directly on top of the planting area as well.  This corn patch is about 600 sq ft and I'm not sure of proper proportions so I'll go light on the poo at first and add more through the season if necessary.

I have several of these planting areas ranging from 200 sq ft to about a 1000 and have many times prepped them separately for different things. That's one reason I don't do soil tests, I figure any one spot might be drastically different than another. For example next year's tomato patch, currently in turnips and mustard will get some wood ashes this winter and maybe a little poo next spring.

Steph S

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Re: Let's Talk Soils!
« Reply #35 on: 2019-11-18, 02:44:04 PM »
I'm interested in the anthill idea.   I have a big one in my old (disused) vegetable garden.   The grass that grows on the anthill is really tough.  It's hard to get through it with a pick at the best of times.   Underneath has a very anthill look, with tunnels and stuff that looked like eggs or incubators to me.   I felt kind of leery about spreading it.   I should just do it now in the cold - maybe the 'egg looking' stuff will be gone.
That grass on top I call "thatch grass" although I don't really know what it is.  The soil underneath it always seems really dry and deprived.  I don't think it's a good thing to have around, but ants love it because of the great shelter it provides.   These ants are small and black, I don't really know what kind they are.  But I think they killed the apple tree that was growing near their hill.  Not nice.  >:(
I have another kind of ants that occupy my sunny compost piles in the summer.  They're half red and half black and they are quite fierce biters.  But they leave the compost in good shape and it's no trouble to clear it off in cold weather.    They got into the greenhouse one year and I was surprised how respectful they were and never bit me once...  they attack the other kind of ants (picnic ants/aphid ants) even though they're smaller.  I've seen them running along with a black one held over their head. :)
We've had trouble with carpenter ants as well - they did get into a wall in the greenhouse and were eating up the house.  There's a lot of dead wood around - or there has been, it was there near the house for nearly seven years after a hurricane blew a bunch down.  So reducing their habitat near the house is important to do. They do eat up logs like crazy but I've never tried composting their work.  They produce multiple queens (as in Night of the Living Dead Queen Ant Swarm of Terror) and I'd rather not disturb them when they might be provoked to do that, and then have to chase them out the house.  :o

reed

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Re: Let's Talk Soils!
« Reply #36 on: 2019-11-19, 08:27:11 AM »
The ant hills I occasionally mine dirt from are very large. They can be 5 feet across and 3 feet high. The top foot or so is very loose and finely textured. Below that it gets compacted and hard to dig in, I think just because it is older ad has packed down. Lots of tunnel holes are exposed but I've rarely seen an ant when collecting this soil in winter, they must live deeper down. It doesn't seem to bother them as the hill is quickly recovered with new loose material the next year.

Very little grows on the hills themselves, looks like because they just keep piling it higher and bigger, nothing has a chance. All around the base of it whatever weeds and grasses are bigger than those not near a hill.

I mostly have used it to mix with dry and green plant material to make compost and it seems to work very, very well for that. I just speculate there may be trace nutrients or other beneficial properties to it but stuff does grow good when the finished compost is worked in a planting bed.
« Last Edit: 2019-11-19, 08:30:34 AM by reed »

Steph S

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Re: Let's Talk Soils!
« Reply #37 on: 2019-11-19, 12:35:28 PM »
Well maybe I should feed the anthill to my compost ants then.  ;D

William S.

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Re: Let's Talk Soils!
« Reply #38 on: 2019-12-01, 03:51:04 PM »
Just asked a question in a new thread about soil nutrients. What do you think about micronutrients? If we add in particular fertilizers like Kelp meal (organic) or Peters 20-20-20 with micronutrients (conventional) does that do anything for us nutritionally and help us grow nutrient dense foods?
Western Montana garden, glacial lake Missoula sediment lacustrian silty clay mollisoil sometimes with added sand in places. Zone 6A with 100 to 130 frost free days

William S.

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Re: Let's Talk Soils!
« Reply #39 on: 2019-12-14, 09:09:02 AM »
Peat Moss and Coir:

I don't have a copy of Pat Lanza's book on Lasagna gardening. My mom does though and I had the opportunity to leaf through her copy. Pat uses an inordinate amount of peat moss in her sheet mulching. Hmm I said to myself.

Peat moss or alternatives like coir make up a large portion of many potting soils. If you want to make your own peat lite mix, Mel's mix, etc. It is going to take a lot of coir or peatmoss.

Peat moss of course is a decomposed variant of sphagnum moss dug out of sphagnum bogs which is an extremely low nutrient environment. So it is basically partially composted carbon that is basically on the verge of whiffing out of existence and becoming CO2.

Coir is extra stuff from coconuts if I remember correctly.

I guess I see composted ground bark or home composted sawdust as a better alternative to peat moss.

However, as an artificial soil horizon or sheet mulch layer, peat moss certainly seems pretty standard being a major component of both Pat Lanza's Method, Mel Bartholemew's Method, and a major component of many raised bed soil mixes.

I read about a blueberry farm in Southern California once that added enormous amounts of peat moss on a field scale to help adjust the soil. Interesting.

Pat Lanza talked a bit about buying her soil amendments cheap when on sale. We used to do that but many off the old big box chains like Kmart and Shopko are disappearing. Twice recently I've gotten bags of blood meal on sale at Walmart and seed starter on sale when out of season. Walmart is once of the only places left that seems to put soil amendments on sale with the retail apocalypse.  I rarely seem to hit it at the right time, but if you can get bags of peat moss etc. cheaply because a big store wants the shelf space its a good deal as it stores pretty well. Though buying stuff in bags in general is much more expensive than by the dump truck load.
Western Montana garden, glacial lake Missoula sediment lacustrian silty clay mollisoil sometimes with added sand in places. Zone 6A with 100 to 130 frost free days

reed

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Re: Let's Talk Soils!
« Reply #40 on: 2019-12-14, 02:38:02 PM »
I'm lucky to have access to all kinds of organic materials right here on my own place. Don't know what I would do if I didn't as I'm pretty averse to buying anything. I'm also paranoid and distrusting of what the source of something really is and what might be in it. Couple weeks ago I was offered free delivery of truck loads of soil from a nursery going out of business. I turned it down, suspecting it might be full of those little fertilizer balls and residual chemical sprays. I really wouldn't have wanted it anyway cause I think my dirt is doing pretty good as is.

I'm so weird about it that one time when the river receded after a minor flood I got the idea to go get a truck full of silt that was left on boat ramp parking lots. River silt I know is some of the best stuff there is, just shy maybe of decomposed lava and volcanic ash. On the way home with it I got to thinking of the 40 million or so people that shit in the Ohio River before it gets to my neighborhood. And the agricultural run off, the gasoline and what ever seeps out of the defunct Fernald Nuclear processing facility about a 100 miles up stream. I ended up feeding it to the rose bushes and shade trees and they seemed to like it a lot but none went in my vegetable gardens.
« Last Edit: 2019-12-14, 02:40:15 PM by reed »

Gustav H. L.

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Re: Let's Talk Soils!
« Reply #41 on: 2019-12-15, 03:22:12 AM »
re:William I'm personally skeptical of using peat moss in the vegetable garden. It's quite acidic (which would also explain the thing you read about a blueberry farm) and while very rich in carbon it's low in macronutrients. More importantly though it represents a limited external input, which outside of just being something I'd generally rather avoid, is of particular concern here in northern Europe where boglands have an extensive history of being overexploited and destroyed.

Steph S

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Re: Let's Talk Soils!
« Reply #42 on: 2019-12-15, 06:19:20 AM »
I agree, William, that composted bark or sawdust  which you can make on site would be as good or better than peat if it's well rotted.  Leaf mold, any broken down material that has become soil would work just as well for sheet mulching.  Best of all IMO would  be a properly made compost with mixed materials.   
I think the reason for using peat in the historical lasagna and sheet mulch methods was to use the cheapest thing at the time - that was before environmental costs of mining peat were well known.   Also since the nutrients in a lasagna bed are coming from the decomposing layers below, there was no need for a nutrient rich surface layer.     Peat doesn't usually contain any weed seeds either, so it would work well as a top layer where the point of the technique is to suppress the weed community.
A nice rich compost layer instead would likely speed up the process of breaking down the raw materials.   But weed seeds in the compost might be a down side, if eliminating weeds is high on the priority list.   
I guess there's no reason you couldn't make a compost especially for the purpose, that's designed to be free of any seeds.  I wonder if I could do that... I should try.

William S.

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Re: Let's Talk Soils!
« Reply #43 on: 2019-12-15, 10:01:50 AM »
My whole direct seeded tomato project is in many ways a repudiation of the practice of making starts. Starts tend to use peat moss or coir. You can grow starts using composted ground bark or composted sawdust of course instead. Though you still need some kind of pot as it takes peat or coir to have soil blocks hold their shape. One alternative would be wooden flats with homemade potting mix and that is in fact what the How to Grow More Vegetables book recommends and its easy to see why when we think about the problems with peat and coir. Peat of course is carbon mining which contributes greatly to CO2 production. Coir is much better in that regard, but is still shipped a considerable distance.

I keep coming back to three soil amendments. Truckloads of sawdust/bark, lawn clippings, and truckloads of sand. These are specific to my situation. Sand and compost are relatively cheap in bulk dump truck loads and grass clippings are free to harvest save for equipment and fuel. I don't trust animal manure because of persistent herbicides. Leaves tend to bring in unwanted weed seeds particularly Convolvulis arvensis, purchased compost seems to come with lots of small bits of plastic, and anything that isn't in bulk doesn't seem to pencil out very well at all.

I want to buy some miraculous organic fertilizer but I am a bit dubious about the actual value of the available options. Kelp meal and other ocean products might have a few micronutrients I don't already have. Burning down some charcoal might be interesting to experiment with though the time involved is a difficulty so mostly I just take a bit of charcoal from my backyard fire ring. My wife bought me a book for my birthday on gardening with biochar. I've kind of flirted with the idea since I first heard of it in 2007 but really haven't made much progress on that front.

I also like the idea of not buying things for my garden, it makes the garden less of an expenditure and more of an asset. However like many gardeners I think I spend too much money on it. When I do have to purchase something I really like the idea that sand and charcoal have the potential to stay in the garden really long term. Peatmoss by comparison seems to me to be temporary- something that quickly is degraded and becomes CO2.

For grass clippings I need to do quite a bit of mowing anyway, for fire safety, and for property maintenance for my parents. Most of the mowers I use are mulching mowers anymore because that is what my folks went to in recent years as the mulching technology improved and they themselves got older. I keep thinking I'll buy a bagging mower again or a scythe. Though there might be a bagging mower stored somewhere, I may have to look around and see if its operational. 
Western Montana garden, glacial lake Missoula sediment lacustrian silty clay mollisoil sometimes with added sand in places. Zone 6A with 100 to 130 frost free days

Steph S

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Re: Let's Talk Soils!
« Reply #44 on: 2019-12-15, 02:05:43 PM »

I want to buy some miraculous organic fertilizer but I am a bit dubious about the actual value of the available options.

I've used several dried or pelleted chicken manure products, and found them good. They're sold in big sacks at farm supply, or even cheaper by the pallet.   I guess to avoid buying them, keeping chickens would be the alternative.    I use bone meal for tomatoes and peppers too - they certainly like it.  But there's no potassium in that so manure or kelp or some other K source is a good idea.  Molasses is another great K source (plus many micronutrients) and a farm supply place would likely have sacks of dried molasses which is also used in animal feed.

Grass clippings are high in N and a great addition to compost pile, it will heat up and cook things down pretty nicely.

The issue with biochar is charging it and then trusting it to 'slow release' what your plants needed.   So to my mind it is just another extra step that I'd need a liquid fertilizer for.     I buy fish emulsion and it's not a bit cheap.   True I could make my own if force put, but I may not enjoy that much... it comes down to whether the time vs the money will be the bigger expense.  Again the fish has little or no K, so I use blackstrap molasses with that - conveniently also takes away the fishy smell, if using on indoor plants that's a plus.  ;)