Sunday, June 24, 2012

Managing My Soil OR Talking Dirty

First an announcement from your friendly neighborhood organic farmer...there will be no photos in this post. Why? you ask. Because it's 99 degrees outside and I'm not going back out there.

It's been 6 years since I bought this little house in this little town. For 5 of those years I've been growing most of what we eat and 4 of those years I've been growing for other families, too.

I've had some time to find out what works here and what doesn't. My soil is a fine, sandy loam which means it doesn't hang on to nutrients very well. So I put the chickens to work. Throughout the off season I rotate the chickens through the beds. I let them scratch and dig, eliminating weeds and larvae. When they've completely destroyed any scrap of vegetation, I pile fall leaves about a foot deep in their temporary runs. They shred these leaves, working them into the soil and putting all those lovely micronutrients back. Oh, and they poop. A lot. They put a lot of nitrogen and phosphorus into the soil. I also save big quantities of egg shells. I grind them in a spare coffee grinder and use them and spent coffee grounds as side dressing during the growing season. Finally, I compost until I can't compost any more. I compost chicken, rabbit and goat poo, plus any leaves that may be left, kitchen scraps, garden debris like corn stalks and anything that will sit still long enough. Since I have little to no clay, this organic matter is the only thing holding on to those lovely little cations that make our plants grow.

Because of all this sand, keeping rain where it falls is a big challenge. I have about 3/4 of the garden converted to modified hugelkultur beds. I dig a trench about 18 to 20 inches deep and about the same width. I fill the trenches with logs and branches and use the excavated soil to raise a berm over it. When it rains the logs soak up the moisture and hold it down in the root zone where the plants can get to it. Then I dig another trench parallel to the previous one until my head hits the fence and I'm out of room. Over these berms I lay weed barrier. What! Over the whole thing? Yes, Virginia. Over the whole thing.

We have Bermuda grass. It is of the devil. You could drop a nuclear bomb on my town and, after the smoke clears, you'd find twinkies, cockroaches, and Bermuda grass all sitting there unscathed. So I cover the whole bed in weed cloth and plant my veggies right through it. This also keeps in moisture and reduces erosion.

Your soil will be different. You can get a good idea of what you're working with from the NRCS or USDA websites. Just google "soil survey" and your town or zip code. There is probably a map already online that shows what you have. There is also a Soils Web app for smart phones that gives you results based on GPS coordinates. It's very fun. 

Don't be afraid to experiment. It's hard to over-compost. The plants will tell you if you've made a mistake and many times they'll recover and still produce for you.


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