Hess Blog on Cover CropsBuckwheat [Fagopyrum esculentum
PeatPeat humus is the dead, highly decomposed organic material that accumulates in the lower levels of peat bogs. It is an excellent soil conditioner, but has a lower water-holding capacity than peat moss. It is a relatively expensive soil amendment.
Sphagnum moss is a living moss that grows on top of a sphagnum bog. It is generally used by florists. In the natural processes that occur in the bog environment, layers of the moss become submerged and begin to decay. This decayed sphagnum moss often makes up a large percentage of commercial peats, thus, peat moss. If it dries out, it is hard to rewet.
Sphagnum Moss (Sphagnum cymbilifolium) Photo by drdawg
Peat is harvested from natural peat bogs, processed, and sold by various companies. Peat contains organic material in various stages of decomposition.
If your flower garden will be in a raised bed or in-ground, I would use compost instead of peat humus or peat moss. Compost has more nutrients, a neutral pH, and is easier to rewet if it gets dried out. For a container planting mix, I would use peat moss, as it is lighter than compost. « Return to the gardening planting calendar.
Lasagna MethodLasagna Gardening Lasagna gardening starts your garden with new soil that you make by layering yard and food waste. Where you make your soil is where your garden will be. This takes digging and tilling out of gardening. The layers of yard and food waste will break down, giving nutrientrich and easy to work with soil. This breaking down is also called composting. Lasagna gardening is also known as "sheet composting".
Just like the lasagna you cook, your lasagna garden has to be layered in a general order.
In general, you want your "brown" layers to be about twice as deep as your "green" layers. There is no need to get this exact. Just layer browns and greens, and a lasagna garden will result. What you want at the end of your layering process is a two-foot tall layered bed. The layers will 'cook down' (compost) in only a few weeks.
One of the best things about lasagna gardening is how easy it is. You do not have to remove grass and weeds before placing your layers of yard and food waste. You do not have to double dig. In fact, you do not have to work the soil at all. Lasagna gardening composts lawn and food waste in place to make a new garden. Where you put your layers is where your garden will be.
The yard and food waste you use to make a lasagna garden are broken into two groups called the browns and greens.
Browns are: leaves, shredded newspaper, peat, and pine needles.
Greens are: vegetable scraps, garden trimmings, and grass clippings.
Food waste cannot be any meat product nor have oils in it. For example, leftovers from a stir fry cannot be used because they were cooked in oil.
However, if vegetable scraps were not cooked in oil, like leftover steamed vegetables or raw pieces like apple cores, they can be used. The following materials are all perfect for lasagna gardens:
Planting and caring for a lasagna garden
When it's time to plant, just dig down into the bed as you would with any other garden. If you used newspaper as your bottom layer, the shovel will most likely go right through it to the ground underneath. If you used cardboard, you may have to cut a hole in it at each spot where you want to plant.
A general rule of thumb is to add mulch to the top of the bed. You can use straw, grass clippings, bark mulch, or chopped leaves. Care for your lasagna garden just as you would a regular garden.
When to make a lasagna garden
You can make a lasagna garden any time of year. However, fall is thought to be the best time to make one. You are able to get a lot of browns all at once, for instance fall leaves, and general yard waste from around your yard. Your lasagna garden has all winter to break down. Fall rains and winter snow will keep your lasagna garden moist, which will help the waste break down faster. By spring, it will be ready to plant.
To make a lasagna garden in spring or summer, you may need to add peat or top soil. This is so you can plant your garden right away. If you make the bed in spring, layer as many greens and browns as you can, with layers of peat or topsoil mixed in. Put three or four inches of topsoil on the top layer, and plant. The bed will settle over the season as the layers underneath decompose.
Lasagna Gardening no dig bed prep. also called sheet layering.
Cut veg short. Lay down overlapping newspaper or cardboard. Water down so it doesn't blow away.
Add nitrogen: chicken manure. Or soybean meal, grass clippings, food scraps, coffee grounds, seed-free weeds, comfrey, green trimmings.
Lasagna Gardens & prep
Add carbon materials like pine needles, dried leaves, sawdust, straw, old corn stalks
Add water with each layer.
Alternate nitrogen [green layer] and carbon [brown layer] layers until the bed reaches 18 inches to three feet.
You can add to the bed over time as you get materials. End with a carbon mixture layer so the moisture is kept in and the flies kept out. Water at the very end.
Takes bed 3-6 months, sometimes a year to be ready. It is a slow composting method.
Can also be done in a raised bed.
To plant right away top with 3" of compost on top.
To maintain your bed, keep adding more layers.
Soil TestingNorth American Proficiency Testing Program soil testing accreditation
Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Soil,
Provin, Tony L.
1. Routine Analysis (R) $10 per sample
SFASU Soil Plant & Water Analysis Laboratory
Stephen F. Austin Univ. Soil, Plant & Water Analysis Laboratory $10 for routine, $17 for complete test in Nacogdoches [SE of Dallas, not far from coast]
Elizabeth Murphy. Building Soil: A Down-to-Earth ApproachWhy soil? For me, it’s a love affair.
living earth is immediate gratification that I must be doing something right in my garden,
That mystery of the soil, for me, is part of what makes gardening an art.
In France, it is terroir, which defines the qualities of a wine. The world over, it is earth itself.
mysterious medium in which a seed is planted and new life begins, to bloom, bear fruit, or grow tall.
a few basic principles that can guide almost any gardening decision.
We packed the worm bins with scraps from our kitchen and saw our plots transformed with the gooey black compost the worms provided.
there was a difference in how the farm looked and felt, whether there was bare earth compacted by tractor tires or bountiful hedgerows lining the fields.
why exactly does it have such a profound effect on everything from feeding the world to pollution to climate change?
learning to care for the soil meant that, over time, labor could be reduced
the difference between a living, vibrant, dark black fertile soil and dried-out, nutrition-starved dirt.
soil is much more than a composite of chemicals. It is a living, breathing part of your garden that has the same needs as any other living thing. Treating your soil like a living system actually makes gardening much easier. By providing the things any living organism needs—namely, food, shelter, water, and air—the soil starts to take care of itself. In the process, it takes care of your gardens, lawns, and trees.
how to mimic and rely on natural processes.
we can speed up changes to the soil that may take decades if left to nature into a few short growing seasons.
I needed to find the fastest, easiest, and cheapest way to build my soil. Feeding the soil first meant using what was most easily at hand, from cardboard to compost.
Understanding that your soil is a living system is the first step in becoming a soil-based gardener.
Building soil takes some initial sweat equity, but once the living soil is balanced, the system practically runs itself.
soil-based gardening methods that won’t break your back,
Clovers cover pathways between the beds. The herb garden... calendula,
One teaspoon of this microscopic world contains vastly more individuals than the human populations of New York, London, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Mexico City, Chicago, and Moscow put together. This living system functions at once as the lungs, filter, and food source for the planet. Almost every molecule of earth’s water, air, and nutrients has passed through the soil at some point in its cycle. In doing so, these materials are consumed and transformed by the billions and billions of organisms that inhabit the top 12 inches of gardens, orchards, and lawns.
the teeming life below ground creates the conditions necessary for thriving life above ground. Know this and you will know the secret to successful gardening.
basic premise: grow healthy soil to grow healthy plants.
the four fundamental components of a soil.
almost half, by volume, is composed of minerals. These are the little bits of broken-up rock... that took centuries of wind, flowing water, ice, and rain to be worn down to particles that range from small to really, really small. You can think of this as the nonliving backbone of the soil.
the area between the minerals, collectively termed pore space... filled with a mixture of water and air... mixture of water and air. roughly equal parts of the two. Water clings to the sides of the solid soil, while air fills the spaces in between.
the remaining 5 to 10 percent of the soil that actually makes plant life possible. This fraction, the fourth component of soil, is soil organic matter.
(the living and organic portion of the soil is less than 5 percent by volume), it drives almost all of the soil’s, and thus our garden’s, processes and functions.
Without organic matter, a soil is merely broken-down rock.
less than 0.5 percent of the entire soil is living! The remainder of organic matter in the soil is in some stage of decomposition.
It’s the living engine of the garden that feeds plants by constantly consuming and excreting nutrients.
Like most life on earth, the living soil has four basic requirements: air, water, food, and shelter.
three categories of particle size: sand, silt, and clay. Sand is the largest particle size;
categories of particle size: sand, silt, and clay. Sand is the largest particle size; we can easily see its gritty shape with our naked eye. Silt and clay are too small to see individually. Silt is small, and clay is really, really small.
Silt has a smooth, silky feel when wet. Clay sticks to your fingers and can be molded into shapes.
the amounts of sand, silt, and clay in your garden soil determine almost all of its properties. like our own inherited traits of height or eye color, we are more or less stuck with.
The amount of sand, silt, and clay in a soil is known as soil texture. Soil texture is so important that it is actually used to name soil types.
The USDA online soil survey website (www.websoilsurvey.sc.egov.usda.gov), though not always site specific, can tell you how your soil is mapped.
Why does texture matter so much? For one thing, it is one of the only properties of a soil that we can’t change. If you have a clay soil, you are stuck with a clay soil. Period.
Differences in soil texture also determine a few important decisions.. helps you fine-tune how much and when to water, fertilize, and till your soil.
Soils that have too much sand, silt, or clay create gardening challenges. Silt can easily clog up pore spaces, creating poorly drained, waterlogged soils. Clay sticks to itself and anything else. It holds onto a lot of water and nutrients, but its attraction is so strong that plants might not be able to use them.
The reason that loamy soils are so sought after by gardeners is that they are the perfect combination of sand, silt, and clay.
crumbly soil structure. We can choose many things about how we garden, but we can’t choose the texture of the soil. Because of this, it’s important to get to know a particular patch of ground before making big decisions.
A key part of this process is sometimes matching what we choose to grow to what our soil is best suited for.
plants adapted to harsh flood and drought conditions. daylilies and wild currants,
the simple jar test.
the simple jar test. This test lets you estimate the percentages of sand, silt, and clay in your soil by watching how these particles settle out of water.
the large, heavier sand particles settle out quickly, while the smaller, almost weightless clays stay in suspension for a long time. The jar test uses the same idea to measure soil texture.
you’ll need a clear glass quart jar, a timer, water, a marking pen, and a shovel to take your soil samples. Take a soil sample by scraping recognizable plant material and fluffy organic matter off the soil surface until you reach mineral soil (usually less than 1/2 inch deep). Dig about 8 inches down into the soil and scrape a trowel along the edge of the hole to sample the entire depth.
fill your glass jar about halfway full. Mark a line at the level of your dry soil. Now fill the jar about two-thirds full of water and shake it vigorously for three minutes.
start your timer. At thirty seconds, mark a line on your jar where the soil has settled out. This is a rough estimate of the amount of sand in your sample.
Continue timing the jar, and three minutes after you made the first mark, make a second one. This is the amount of silt in your soil.
the remaining amount not accounted for in the sand and silt portions is clay.
One of the keys to successful gardening is matching your gardening goals with the soil’s potential. Carrots grow deep and sweet in a sandy soil, while brassicas, such as cabbage and broccoli, can handle the cooler and wetter conditions of heavy clay.
Soil structure is the way that the individual sand, silt, and clay particles stick together. These crumbs of soil are known as aggregates and are glued together by sticky clays, organic matter, plant roots, bacterial slime, and fungal threads. Gardeners often talk about a friable soil.
we have a great deal of control over soil structure. By enhancing soil structure, many of the limitations of soil texture are overcome. adding soil organic matter, starts a win-win feedback that keeps improving the soil condition over time.
The importance of good soil aggregation can’t be stressed enough.
Soil aggregates that indicate a living system are round and crumbly. Good soil aggregates are also stable under pressure.
To determine the quality of your soil aggregates, take a shovelful from the top 6 to 12 inches of your soil. Using your fingers, gently break the soil apart and see what sort of pieces you end up with.
does it break into rounded crumbs? These are the soil aggregates. Note what percentage of the shovelful you took breaks apart into these crumb-like structures.
Building your soils should lead to a soil with increasingly more of this friable crumb structure every year.
Soil compaction describes exactly what it sounds like: a dense, hard, compact soil. In the case of our gardens this is not desirable.
pore space is vital for supplying air and water to roots and organisms. It is also extremely important for the passage of water, plant roots, and critters through the soil profile. A compacted soil is one in which the minerals have been pushed together, and the space for air and water is squeezed out. Since the soil is a living ecosystem that depends on water and air, compacting soil is like squeezing out the life.
how well your plants are growing is one of the best indicators of your soil’s health.
look across your garden and lawn and notice the uniformity of growth. Are there areas that look worse or better than others? There may be an underlying soil-quality issue driving these imbalances.
The health and vigor of a plant’s rooting system is a great indicator of the health and vigor of the soil. Healthy soils grow plants, like this goldenrod, with root systems that are deep, large, and branching.
Plants’ roots are great indicators of soil compaction or drainage problems. When roots are not free to grow it is usually because they cannot penetrate compacted layers or waterlogged soils.
They are also hot spots for soil organisms. Shedding dead roots feed the soil with organic matter, while live roots leak yummy sugars and carbohydrates to the surrounding soil.
Are roots branching and complex, with many fine roots? Are new roots healthy and white?
ingesting more than their weight in soil (up to two to thirty times more!) daily.
Earthworms are so efficient at mixing the soil and improving its structure that they take over the work of rototiller, tractor, and fork in no-till gardens. Feeding the soil with organic matter invites earthworms into our garden soils.
soil-quality indicators. soil tilth. Good tilth is a fluffy handful of friable, dark brown earth, breaking apart into round crumbs.
guide to help you learn to listen to your living soil.
A rich, living soil will have ample casts and burrows at the surface and more than three to five worms in a shovelful.
soil that is properly decomposing will have a sweet, earthy smell. This is the smell of bacteria at work.
Organic Matter Amazingly, there’s a single solution that provides food, shelter, water, and air for the living soil. The miracle cure is organic matter. Organic matter is anything living or anything dead that was once living.
I like to think of organic matter as food for the soil.
By weight, organic matter in soils is roughly half carbon.
more carbon in the soil means less carbon in the atmosphere. Less carbon in the atmosphere means reduced greenhouse gases. Storing carbon in soil by increasing organic matter is known as carbon sequestration.
Organic matter is also what homes are made of in the living soil. As critters munch on organic matter, they create the glue that binds soil particles together. These bound particles, which we know as aggregates, are apartment complexes for the many and varied organisms in the soil. Mulching the soil surface with organic matter also shelters surface-dwelling organisms. An organic cover on the soil protects it from the impact of exposure to hard rains, baking
looking at the effects of everything I do in terms of whether the soil gains or loses organic matter. In this way,
revolutionary change to this perspective is realizing that organic matter is also something that we keep, promote, and grow through our practices. Amending with manure increases organic matter, but so does interplanting lettuces, growing a green manure, or reducing how often we till.
letting nature take its course, keeping fallen leaves and plant residues in the garden.
tillage, which promotes rapid organic matter decomposition, is one of the ways we lose soil organic matter.
adding 6 inches of manure, instead of 1 to 2, will overwhelm the living soil’s ability to decompose it. Manures, in particular, can cause problems with salt buildup.
Knowing whether your actions grow, add, keep, or deplete organic matter in the garden is the foundation of soil-based gardening.
Removing residues after harvest.. Removing leaves and grass clippings Building beds parallel with slopes.. Mulching.. cover crops and green manures
Cutting lawns to higher stubble heights (>1 inch)
Diversity complex gardens are actually simpler to manage. Complex gardens let weeds get out of hand sometimes. Complex gardens mix wildflowers with vegetables. Complex gardens may let part of last year’s crop rot on the soil surface, while mixing well-aged compost into a carefully sculpted seed bed.
Soil drainage, the ability of water to percolate through your soil, is also known as infiltration.
orient garden beds perpendicular to slopes to slow and catch water, allowing it to infiltrate and recharge your soil.
soil moisture is the amount of water held by your soil.
The ideal moisture condition feels like a wrung-out sponge.
Because of waterlogged conditions, the soil organisms had not used the organic matter that I had so thoughtfully added. It wasn’t until I drained this section, by digging swales across the contour of my yard, that this part of my garden started functioning.
principles that can guide us in day-to-day decisions.
Use what you have. using what is most readily available.
Prune and chip hedges instead of carting in wood chips.
Work with, rather than against, the garden ecosystem.
growing cover crops and green manures are some of the best ways to amend a soil.
roots below ground add even more organic matter to the soil than the crop aboveground.
Diversity is the foundation of a well-functioning soil ecosystem, which self-regulates and prevents many problems before they start. To reap these benefits, meet the needs of a diverse ecosystem by building a diverse garden.
Keep your soil happy by avoiding extremes. Avoid over-amending, over-fertilizing, or overwatering.
Disturb less. The living soil is healthier and happier if allowed to grow and thrive without disturbance. Tilling your soil, though not without benefits, is essentially akin to razing a whole neighborhood of houses and asking the inhabitants to rebuild anew.
Bare soil can lead to losses of topsoil and soil organic matter. Pesticides, both organic and conventional, can pose the greatest disturbance for the living soil. They essentially annihilate whole populations of soil organisms, turning back the clock on efforts to build a live, healthy soil.
Keep the soil covered. Cover—in the form of mulches, decaying organic matter, or living plants—shelters the living organisms in your soil from harsh conditions
A bare, uncovered soil is also a lost opportunity for adding organic matter to the soil
Soils may be severely damaged from past activities that have disturbed topsoil or depleted nutrients. It may be difficult to find high-quality organic amendments that supply the right mix of nutrients.
reddish-purple leaves with a lack of phosphorus,
There are seventeen essential plant nutrients. Of these, carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen are supplied by air and water. The remaining fourteen essential plant nutrients are supplied by the soil.
primary macronutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, collectively known as NPK from their chemical symbols, these nutrients are most often limited in soils.
the remaining macronutrients (calcium, magnesium, and sulfur) and the eight essential micronutrients are all essential for plant growth and survival.
Plants take up nutrients through their roots. This means that plant food must be dissolved in soil water. Quick-release and chemical fertilizers
feeding the living soil is the gardener’s number-one priority. In this way, the living soil makes nutrients and water available for plants, keeps diseases in check, and improves soil tilth for root growth.
unlike plants, which get their carbon from the atmosphere, soil bugs need to eat carbon that is in organic matter. Since bacteria, fungi, and other soil animals are mostly made up of carbon and nitrogen, these are the nutrients most needed for the living soil to grow in size, number, and activity.
carbon and nitrogen is the stuff of organic matter everywhere:
Nitrogen is often the difference between a booming garden and one that’s gasping for air. It is responsible for rapid plant growth and the green color of leaves and shoots. The bodies of soil organisms are also built of nitrogen, which means that nitrogen is essential for the living soil to function.
With excess nitrogen, plants grow too fast for their own good, falling over on leggy stems. They put extra energy into leaf and shoot production and not enough into fruit and flowers. The quality of vegetables and fruits also suffers. a common culprit in water pollution, nitrogen is on the move. Unlike most of the other nutrients that cycle in and out of our gardens, nitrogen rarely stays in one place or one form.
Soils actually have an electric charge. In most climates, it’s a negative one. Luckily, most soil nutrients have positive charges... except nitrogen.
The quicker your soil drains, the faster you lose nitrogen.
Nitrogen is also lost to the air in a process called volatilization.
Up to 50 percent of nitrogen in these materials can escape to the atmosphere if left on the soil surface for twenty-four hours. Because of this, it is best to mix nitrogen-rich material into the soil as soon as possible. To reduce nitrogen losses, we add nitrogen when plants actually need it, during their fast early-growth period.
nitrogen-fixing plants are legumes (members of the bean family). When these plants shed roots and leaves, or when they are tilled into the soil, they actually enrich the soil in the nitrogen that they took from the air.
including these plants—as part of a crop rotation, a cover crop, an intercrop, a perennial border, or a hedgerow—provides a steady and free source of nitrogen-rich material to feed the soil.
a cover crop can also act like a nitrogen sponge. By taking up the leftover nitrogen in the soil solution, the cover crop holds onto nitrogen and keeps it from leaching away.
In areas of winter rain, fertilize in the spring.
6. Use cover crops to take up extra nitrogen at the end of the season or between crop rotations.
Keep composts and manures covered.
Incorporate manure or other nitrogen-rich material into the soil within twelve hours of spreading.
intercropping these plants, turning them in as green manures, adding them to composts, or collecting leaves and trimmings from perennial trees and shrubs.
A soil test is the first step in finding out what important nutrients your soils are missing.
In the beginning, however, your soil may need a jump-start. A soil-nutrient test also lets us know if we have too much of a nutrient.
Choose a soil lab that is certified by the North American Proficiency Testing Program. You can find a list of certified labs on the NAPT website (www.naptprogram.org). To decide on a lab, call around for prices and what tests the
report to see if it makes sense to you.
Soil home-test kits are available but not very accurate.
For established gardens, lawns, or trees, a soil test is a great check on maintaining and building soil fertility over time. Test vegetable and other annual gardens every two to three years and perennial gardens, trees, and lawns every three to five years. These periodic tests let you correct imbalances from over- or underfertilizing.
soil test can prevent unintended nutrient buildup or deficits in the soil. Soil tests are best taken at the end of the summer or in the fall before the next year’s growing season. This allows us ample time to add amendments and fertilizers while avoiding the spring rush on soil-testing labs.
I may take separate tests for my vegetable garden, my fruit trees, my landscape garden, and my lawn. This also takes advantage of the recommendations soil-testing labs will provide based on what you are growing.
you want to take five to ten subsamples that you will mix together to send off to the soil lab. Taking multiple subsamples gives a better average representation of the soil-testing area.
To take a soil sample, you will need a bucket, a spade or trowel, a ruler, plastic bags, and a black marking pen. Use clean sampling tools and avoid galvanized metal, brass, or bronze metal coatings, as these can affect micronutrient results.
includes soil texture, soil pH, organic matter content, and essential macronutrients. A standard soil test may also include micronutrient analysis, or you may need to specifically request it.
most of soil nutrients become tied up in the organic part of the soil, slowly released as this decomposes. Because of this, the nutrients measured by the test report represent only a fraction of the potential nutrients available in your soil. Lab fertilizer recommendations are generally much higher than necessary.
Useful soil test reports will measure soil texture and provide the actual percentages of sand, silt, and clay. From this information, you can use the USDA textural triangle from Chapter 1 to determine your soil type.
Generally, a soil with greater than 5 percent organic matter is considered very high. A low rating means there is a long way to go
Soluble salts are also reported on the soil test. Highly soluble salts lead to chronically bad soil structure
Arid climates are most at risk for salt accumulation, but salts can build up with excessive fertilizers and manures, even in humid regions.
A soil test, however, measures only the readily available nitrate in soil water. Since most of this soil water drains away, the soil test report for nitrogen is not very useful
Counterintuitively, we want to see a low test result for nitrate-nitrogen, particularly at the end of the growing season. This means you’ve done a good job of capturing and keeping nitrogen in the living soil.
Phosphorus is essential for all the energy-requiring processes in living things. photosynthesis, growing new root and stem tips, and setting flowers and fruit. particularly important for young seedlings and transplants.
phosphorus is weathered from rocks in the soil. phosphorus is not easily lost from the garden. Phosphorus sticks strongly and readily to soil particles. It sticks so strongly that it is sometimes not easily released to plants.
On the soil-test report, phosphorus results have two values: the first is used when the soil’s pH is under 7, and the second is used when the pH is over 7, usually in dry climates. Your soil report should tell you which one to use.
Previously fertilized soils in old gardens or agricultural lands often have high levels of soil phosphorus. avoid phosphorus-rich material, including animal manures.
In prior days, it was called potash,
plants don’t experience toxicity with too much potassium. In fact, if it is available, plants will continue to consume potassium once they are full. important functions, such as regulating gas exchange and nutrient uptake, as well as controlling the juiciness of a tomato, the crispness of an apple, or the sweetness of a carrot.
Potassium also helps plants deal with stresses, such as drought, pests, and excess nitrogen.
Leaves with crisp, burnt-looking edges are symptomatic of potassium deficiency.
draw down potassium levels when they are high by avoiding fertilization.
macronutrients—calcium, magnesium, and sulfur—are usually sufficiently available in most soils.
Blossom-end rot, as shown on this tomato, is a common symptom of calcium deficiency. It can also be caused by improper watering in dry areas.calcium deficiency Gypsum
The yellowing of leaf veins (interveinal chlorosis) is a common sign of iron deficiency. Iron deficiency commonly occurs in high-pH (alkaline) or waterlogged soils.
too much of any of these micronutrients are toxic and even fatal for plants.
seaweed-based materials, that are rich in micronutrients. These can be used to supply low doses of these necessary minerals.
Soil pH Soil pH is a measure of the relative acidity of soil on a scale of 0 to 14. A pH of 0 to 7 is acidic, from slightly so (pH 6.5) to melt-a-metal-container acidic (pH 0), while a pH of 7 to 14 is alkaline, from just a little (pH 7.5) to cause-serious-skin-burns alkaline (pH 14).
Lemon juice is an example of fairly acidic substance, while bleach is an example of an alkaline one.
Soil texture plays a role in soil pH. Sandy soils tend toward acid, while heavy clay soils tend toward alkaline.
is difficult to manage the pH of heavy clay soils. In the case of clays, choosing plants tolerant of existing pH levels can bring greater success.
Proper soil pH is extremely important for plant nutrition. At either end of high or low pH, nutrients, particularly micronutrients, become unavailable to plants. At these extremes, toxins also become more abundant. For this reason, keeping your soil pH in balance is essential to providing good fertility for your living soil.
“soil pH” and “buffer index.” Generally speaking, the “buffer index” is a more true reading of soil pH because it accounts for soil texture effects.
Add lime in the fall before each growing season for annual gardens and during the soil preparation for lawns, trees, and perennial gardens.
For alkaline soils (high pH), lower pH with elemental sulfur
peat moss was traditionally used to acidify soils. As peat bogs are one of the biggest global reservoirs of carbon, mining this material has a huge climate change footprint. Compost, combined with acidic materials such as pine needles or coffee grounds, is a better, more environmentally friendly alternative to naturally acidify soil.
Environmental soil tests check for contamination by toxic chemicals.
It’s a good idea to check for lead in soils surrounding older houses, as lead paint can shed and contaminate soils.
what types of tests to request. Unfortunately, environmental soil tests are contaminant-specific. They are also quite expensive. If you are generally concerned about lead from paint or gasoline, a number of labs test this for a relatively low price.
When we add material to a soil to improve its condition, we call it an amendment.
includes putting organic material grown from the soil back in the soil by turning in residues and planting cover crops.
The most important question that I ask myself, however, is “What can I get most easily, most of the time?” Because building organic matter levels requires consistently adding organic materials, access and availability are my primary concerns.
If you can’t transport truckloads of compost, then growing a green manure in place is an ultra-local option.
choices of amendments coffee grounds, cardboard, straw and hay, If it was once living, and it doesn’t contain any toxins, then you can add it to the soil.
The carbon-to-nitrogen ratio (C:N ratio), otherwise known as the “brown-to-green” ratio, measures this quality.
not all “green” materials are actually green. Fresh manures, kitchen scraps, nitrogen fertilizers, and coffee grounds are also examples of high-nitrogen “green” materials.
When we feed the soil, we want to add materials with a range of qualities. High-quality materials quickly supply plant nutrients. Intermediate- to low-quality material builds organic matter. A very low-quality material can come in handy at the end of the growing season by locking up leftover nitrogen, which keeps it from draining away.
Low-quality materials include straw, bark, and wood chips. They have a high C:N ratio, break down very slowly, and can actually take nitrogen from the soil.
Intermediate-quality materials include compost and rotten leaves. They decompose slowly, release some nutrients, and build organic matter.
High-quality materials include nitrogen-rich fresh manures, young legumes, and fresh grass clippings. With a low C:N ratio, they decompose quickly to release loads of nutrients.
When I buy compost, I touch it and smell it. If it doesn’t look alive, it probably isn’t. While my head is in the compost, I’ll also check out color, odor, texture, and consistency. A good compost has a rich, black color; an earthy (not ammonia) smell; a relatively consistent, fine particle size; and more or less uniform contents from batch to batch.
not importing pests or weed seeds. Symphylans, a nasty soil pest, live in organic amendments in the western United States. To check for these unwanted critters, I spread the compost on a black sheet and make sure no white bugs come crawling.
Buckwheat cover crop.. Cardboard.. Coffee grounds.. Kitchen scraps.. Legume cover crop.. Shrub trimmings.. Tree trimmings.. Worm castings
any practices that return organic materials to the soil, such as intercropping, crop rotations, or no-till gardening, are also ways of amending the soil.
growing cover crops and green manures. it relies on the living system to do the work for us, also eliminates the risk of introducing unwanted pests, weeds, or diseases from these imported sources.
The terms cover crops and green manures are generally used interchangeably, but cover crops specifically refer to the benefits associated with covering bare ground, while green manures refer to the benefits of adding nutrients and organic matter when tilled into the soil.
As a soil cover, cover crops protect bare soil from erosion and suppress weeds. Additionally, they provide diverse habitat for soil organisms, beneficial insects (critters that reduce insect pests), and aboveground pollinators. In this way, they greatly increase the diversity of the above- and belowground garden.
Non-legume cover crops scavenge and recycle excess soil nutrients left at the end of a growing season. The other huge benefit of cover crops comes from their roots. add a massive amount of organic material belowground, through their living roots. These messy roots are like candy to soil organisms. They constantly leak sugars, making them a hot spot for living soil activity.
Finally, cover crops with large roots or root systems can work wonders on breaking up a compacted or clay soil. In this way, they till the soil for you as you watch them grow.
Forage radish can replace your rototiller in breaking up a heavy soil. Let late summer roots penetrate compacted clays and decompose
Forbs, grasses, and legumes—oh my!
These are the broad categories of cover crops available to use in building your soil.
Grasses are annuals or perennials that build organic matter.
Legumes are bean-family members that fix nitrogen.
Forbs are flowering plants that provide a variety of benefits, depending on the species.
warm-season crop that you can plant from early spring through summer (buckwheat, phacelia, soybeans, cowpea). flower-power summer combination of buckwheat and phacelia provides the weed-suppression properties of quick- and dense-growing buckwheat to help the phacelia get established.
Buckwheat, Phacelia, Red clover are shade-tolerant.
Forage radishes, Fava beans,
During the growing season, use summer cover crops, particularly buckwheat, as a living mulch that competes with weeds for light and moisture. To do this, interseed the cover crop a third of the way through the vegetable’s growing season.
Fall-planted cover crops must be seeded at least four weeks before the first hard frost to give them time to establish.
buckwheat. fast-growing forb.
legumes. Inoculants are powders that you can purchase from the seed company. Each inoculant is specific to a particular legume species, so make sure to use the product that is matched for your seeds. Soak the seeds in the inoculant overnight before planting.
For maximum nitrogen, kill crops just as they begin to bud.
Avoid letting a cover crop go to seed, as nutrient quality suffers and they can actually become garden weeds.
Plant favas in the late summer or early fall to give your garden a nitrogen boost.
Mown cover crops remain in the soil to build organic matter as they decompose. For crops that readily spring back, such as some grasses and clovers, pull them up by the roots. Once mown or pulled, leave the cover crop as mulch on the soil surface and plant directly into it.
4. Sheet mulching. Sheet mulching, explained in the next section, is a way to amend the soil. It’s also a great way to kill cover crops
Mow or chop the cover to the ground, layer with wetted cardboard, and add sheet mulch layers. Kill your cover crop with a sheet mulch two to three months before you want to plant into it.
Using raw organic materials, the living soil itself becomes the compost bin.
Nutrient losses are also minimized. Depending on how you apply the materials, this technique can also cover the soil as mulch that suppresses weeds and retains water. Above all, composting in place minimizes disturbance to maximize soil ecosystem function.
ways to add organic material directly to the soil: layering them on the surface,
Sheet Composting Sheet composting, sheet mulching, and lasagna gardening are all names for adding layers of raw organic materials directly to the soil surface. These methods balance the ratio of green to brown material to build compost in place.
Placing this organic food on the surface of the soil attracts worms and other soil organisms from deeper in the soil.Sheet Composting As they move vertically, worms incorporate the new compost by tilling the soil. The end result is a soil enriched in nutrients and organic matter, with a structure that has been loosened and improved by biological activity—all without firing up the rototiller or sharpening the digging fork.
For established garden beds, build sheet layers directly on the soil surface, as if you were building a compost pile. I make each layer 2 to 6 inches thick to build a sheet compost that is between 12 and 18 inches in total. Layers include anything that might normally go into the compost pile,
Because a sheet compost doesn’t heat up like a hot compost pile would, this method will not kill seeds and pathogens. It’s more difficult to keep pests out of a sheet compost, so definitely avoid any meat or dairy products. For the same reason, keep kitchen scraps buried in deeper layers.
A sheet compost builds garden soils from the ground up. Over the season, messy layers of organic materials, including kitchens scraps and garden waste, transform into rich, loose garden beds.
Follow the basic compost-building principle of alternating nitrogen-rich green with carbon-rich brown materials. Finish the topmost layer with bulky mulch material, such as shredded leaves or straw. The surface of this topmost layer will end up drying out, but it is essential to keep the underlying layers moist and actively composting. Over the season, the sheet compost will shrink as it decomposes.
simply places a smothering layer of cardboard over existing vegetation.
The convenience of sheet composting is that you can add layers as they become available. You can, for instance, cover a bed slowly with the scraps from your kitchen, or add heaps of grass clippings at a time as you mow your lawn.
Whenever adding a high-quality green material, you’ll need to cover it with a brown material to avoid nitrogen losses. Particularly cover kitchen scraps well to prevent pests, messiness, and bad smells.
squash or tomatoes, in the early summer. Amending the soil with a sheet mulch is easy. Build up alternating layers of brown and green materials, each 2 to 6 inches thick, for a total sheet-mulch depth of 12 to 18 inches. Build sheet mulches directly on bare soil or smother existing vegetation by using a bottom layer of cardboard.
Instead of building compost in a pile or in sheet layers on the soil surface, raw organic materials are buried directly in the soil. In this way, the soil itself becomes the compost bin.
It is like Meals on Wheels for soil organisms, bringing food to where these critters live—in the soil. It also adds plant nutrients right where plants need them—in the root zone.
Burying organic materials is also one possible solution for a compacted soil, particularly when light organic materials, like tree leaves, are used.
The one disadvantage is that materials take longer to decompose when buried. Depending on the type of material added, you may need to wait months or a year before planting into the trench compost.
Digging a hole and burying kitchen scraps is a simple, scaled-down version of trench composting. The year after you bury kitchen wastes, plant directly into the hole to give new plants a nutrient boost.
After one year, plant directly into the hole. You can do this repeatedly to amend an entire garden bed, or save the spot for a specific tree or shrub.
If you want to speed up the process, put your kitchen scraps through a blender before adding them to the hole. This is like feeding your soil a vitamin smoothie. If materials are blended before buried, you may be able to plant the hole in a period of months.
Dig a path.
If you like the benefits of trench composting but don’t want to take your garden out of production, you can trench garden paths instead. Trench garden paths to 12 inches deep. Fill with composting material and cover with soil. As you walk over the paths, you will naturally compact the trench compost.
The composted pathways can be dug up the following year and placed on top of the existing bed. I like this technique to compost fresh manure. As the manure composts over the season any leached nitrogen will go to feed the neighboring garden bed.
Chop & Drop, or Lop It and Leave It
"Lop it and leave it” is a method of sheet mulching, but I want to give it special mention.
This technique is so deceptively simple that people many times forget that it is one of the easiest ways to amend the soil with organic materials.
To lop it and leave it, simply leave organic material where it falls. this is one of the easiest ways for us to build our soil.
many examples Some common ones Grass-cycling. Take the bag off your lawnmower and let the grass clippings fall where they may. The higher stubble height of a mown lawn promotes root growth, leading to more organic matter production and healthier soils. Shorter stubble heights, on the other hand, starve the roots and stunt growth.
Chop fall residues directly into the garden bed. As they decompose over the winter, they loosen the soil, while enriching nutrients and organic matter. These French breakfast radishes had sported [peaked?] long ago, so chopping them in was a way to avoid wasting them.
2. Trees love leaves. A deciduous forest has some of the richest soils around. Why? Every year, tons of nutrients and organic matter are added to the soil as the trees drop their leaves.
Keep the leaf mulch 2 to 3 inches away from tree trunks to prevent rot.
Weeds are feasts. let them lay where they fall when mown with a weed whacker. Leave them as mulch or dig them lightly into the soil. If you’re using weeds in this way, just make sure to get them before they go to seed.
A messy garden is a productive garden.
Let it compost in place to enrich your soil for the next year. Start by removing particularly woody stems. Then take a sharp-bladed spade, hoe, or other implement of choice and chop away. Use the chop to split garden debris into 3- to 6-inch pieces and partially bury them in the soil surface. If you have other fall amendments to add, do it right on top of the debris and chop or till the whole package in together.
compost has a relatively low nutrient-supplying power. You’ll likely need to supplement with another nutrient-rich source.
Although compost doesn’t add many nutrients, it also won’t tie up nutrients as it decomposes. Because of this, we can plant into compost-amended soils immediately. As a soil-building amendment, compost is unparalleled. It is safer to use than manures, which can concentrate salts or harbor pests. High-temperature composting kills weed seeds and pathogens.
Adding compost to perennial or ornamental gardens has a clean and neat look when used as mulch.
Healthy compost, as a breeding and feeding ground for microorganisms, also provides the important and often overlooked benefit of inoculating the soil when spread around the garden.
Use compost supplemented with fertilizers to add organic matter to soils when preparing new gardens or lawns. For new lawns, spread 1 to 2 inches of compost on the soil surface and incorporate to a 6- to 8-inch depth.
annual gardens, incorporate compost at the rate of 2 to 3 inches to a 6- to 8-inch depth in the fall or spring before planting.
In the fourth year of annual compost applications, reduce the rate to 1 to 2 inches of compost, incorporated to a 6- to 8-inch depth.
rough ratio of one part green to two parts brown material, for an overall C:N ratio of 30:1. This ratio will generally provide the nutrients microbes need, while keeping the pile aerated and well structured.
Some types of materials, such as horse manure mixed with bedding or chipped shrub trimmings, inherently have the right C:N ratio and can be used as-is.
THINGS TO AVOID IN THE HOME COMPOST
Weeds that spread by rhizomes Seedheads Cedars Herbicides Unshredded leaves (shredded leaves are great!) Meat scraps and animal byproducts Human and pet manure
Composting with Worms
vermiculture, the final product is composed of rich, nutrient-dense packages. High in nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, with a C:N ratio of 15:1, worm
Worm castings also work wonders for stimulating the living soil, both by adding food and by inoculating with living organisms.
Make the most of this valuable material by incorporating it into the soil BEFORE planting a perennial tree or shrub, adding it to potting mixtures, or fertilizing vegetable and flower beds. It’s also a great ingredient for compost tea.
Because leaves tend to form mats that won’t let water through, it’s a good idea to shred them before use. Shred leaves by spreading them out and running over them with the lawn mower, placing them in a large garbage bin and using a weed whacker, or purchasing a leaf shredder specifically for this purpose.
Leaf mold is unparalleled as a soil conditioner, particularly for heavy clays.
manure is the real black gold.
at garden centers. These products tend to be higher in salts and lower in nutrients. Sometimes, bagged poultry manure is not completely composted. If it gives off an ammonia smell, let it mellow, either in the soil or a pile, before planting into it.
Prevent pollution, pathogen problems, and nutrient loss by storing manures properly. Keep manures well-covered from rain to prevent leaching. Ideally, store manures on an impervious surface, like a concrete driveway. Just remember that too much of a good thing can be bad. Manures are high in salts and can oversupply certain nutrients, so don’t apply too much in a single season.Read more at location 1850 • Delete this highlight Add a note If you live in an area prone to salt buildup in soils, you’d be wise to avoid manure altogether.Read more at location 1854 • Delete this highlight Add a note Don’t lose nitrogen to the air. Incorporate manures within twelve hours of spreading.Read more at location 1859 • Delete this highlight Add a note use them in the spring before planting. Apply and incorporate fresh manures about a month before starting your spring garden to give the manure time to mellow.Read more at location 1862 • Delete this highlight Add a note fresh manures are best applied in the fall. This gives pathogens time to break down in the soil.Read more at location 1865 • Delete this highlight Add a note Don’t let fresh manures touch the parts of the plants you plan to harvest. This is particularly important for leafy greens and fruits eaten raw. Wash your harvest thoroughly before eating orRead more at location 1868 • Delete this highlight Add a note distributing the food. Of course, wash your hands and tools after handling manures to avoid cross-contamination.Read more at location 1869 • Delete this highlight Add a note Letting rainwater run off or leach your manure pile not only removes valuable nitrogen, it can pollute surface and ground water.Read more at location 1872 • Delete this highlight Add a note Because fresh manures are nutrient dense, limit applications to less than 1/2 inch. Spread the manure on the soil surface and incorporate 6 to 8 inches deep. For high-nitrogen poultry manures, apply less than 1/4 inch. When exposed to the atmosphere, nitrogen is quickly lost through volatilization. Because of this, be sure to incorporate fresh manures within twelve hours of spreading.Read more at location 1884 • Delete this highlight Add a note as you start the process of building healthy soils, organic matter alone may fall short of plants’ nutrient needs. When this happens, you can use concentrated fertilizers as a temporary fix to fill in the gaps.Read more at location 1899 • Delete this highlight Add a note soybean meal are just a few of the certified-organic nitrogen fertilizerRead more at location 1915 • Delete this highlight Add a note Organic fertilizers come from natural sources, while nonorganic fertilizers are synthetic chemicals.Read more at location 1936 • Delete this highlight Add a note The most environmentally friendly option is to minimize fertilizer use altogether by building living, sustainable soils. Both organic and synthetic fertilizers,Read more at location 1937 • Delete this highlight Add a note can cause water pollution. This happens due to improper storage, excessive application, or the wrong time of application.Read more at location 1939 • Delete this highlight Add a note peat moss, are mined from nonrenewable resources. Today there are enough alternative fertilizer and amendment options that it is easy to avoid using these unsustainable options.Read more at location 1942 • Delete this highlight Add a note If using synthetic chemical fertilizers, I advocate applying them with plenty of bulky organic material.Read more at location 1947 • Delete this highlight Add a note From the perspective of whole-soil fertility, fertilizers are used only when there is a nutrient deficiency that is not met by regular organic amendments.Read more at location 1949 • Delete this highlight Add a note Maximum plant nitrogen demand is during the leafy green stage of plant growth. This period varies from plant to plant. For corn, it is around four to six weeks after planting.Read more at location 1971 • Delete this highlight Add a note Phosphate and potash are slightly antiquated terms still used for fertilizers. Fortunately, plant nutrient recommendations on soil test reports are often made on the basis of phosphate and potash. If it is necessary to convert total P to phosphate or total K to potash, then use the following formulas: Phosphate (P2O5) = P × 2.3 Potash (K2O) = K × 1.2Read more at location 1983 • Delete this highlight Add a note Fertilizer Name Alfalfa meal/pellets Average NPK * 2-1-2 Release Time** Medium Form Solid—plant byproduct Notes Builds organic matter. Micronutrient source.Read more at location 2004 • Delete this highlight Add a note Fertilizer Name Colloidal phosphate Average NPK* 0-2-2 Release Time** Very slow Form Solid—rock (mined) Notes Total phosphate is 20%. Less effective in soils with pH > 7. Fertilizer Name Cottonseed meal Average NPK* 6-1-2 Release Time** Medium Form Solid—plant byproduct Notes May contain pesticides. Pesticide-free is also available.Read more at location 2031 • Delete this highlight Add a note Fertilizer Name Greensand Average NPK* 0-1.5-5 Release Time** Very slow Form Solid—rock (mined) Notes Micronutrient source.Read more at location 2070 • Delete this highlight Add a note Fertilizer Name Kelp powder Average NPK* 1-0-4 Release Time** Fast Form Liquid—plant (harvested) Notes Micronutrient source. Fertilizer Name Liquid kelp Average NPK* negligible Release Time** Fast Form liquid—plant (harvested) Notes Micronutrient source. Fertilizer Name Potassium magnesium sulfate Average NPK* 0-0-22 Release Time** Form solid—rock (mined) Notes Magnesium (11%) sulfur (22%). Fertilizer Name Rock phosphate Average NPK* 0-3-0Read more at location 2083 • Delete this highlight Add a note Release Time** Very slow Form Solid—rock (mined) Notes Total phosphate is 32%. Less effective in soils with pH > 7. Fertilizer Name Soybean meal Average NPK* 7-2-1 Release Time** Medium Form Solid—plant byproduct Notes Builds organic matter.Read more at location 2105 • Delete this highlight Add a note Gypsum (calcium sulfate) 23% calcium, 18% sulfur Softens clay soils. S fertilizer. Elemental sulfur 99% sulfur Lower pH of alkaline soils. S fertilizer. Natural and synthetic sources. Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) 10% magnesium, 13% sulfur Mg fertilizer. Caution due to salt toxicity use as foliar spray. Natural and synthetic sources.Read more at location 2131 • Delete this highlight Add a note Eggshells 1–2% nitrogen, calcium Add ground shells to compost or soils. Coffee grounds 2% nitrogen Add to compost or sidedress to provide nitrogen.Read more at location 2145 • Delete this highlight Add a note remember to use fertilizers wisely, conserving them to avoid overfertilization and waste.Read more at location 2157 • Delete this highlight Add a note wood ashRead more at location 2202 • Delete this highlight Add a note is good source of potassium, calcium, and magnesium. By adding these nutrients, it can also reduce soil acidity.Read more at location 2203 • Delete this highlight Add a note Lawns particularly benefit from a sprinkling of wood ash and are less susceptible to adverse effects from over-application. Wood ash should not be used if soils tend to be alkaline or high in salts.Read more at location 2204 • Delete this highlight Add a note Soil nitrogen is not confidently measured by the nutrient soil test. For this reason, we don’t use the soil test to determineRead more at location 2216 • Delete this highlight Add a note nitrogen needs. Instead, we base nitrogen needs on what a plant will actively use during a growing season.Read more at location 2217 • Delete this highlight Add a note YEARLY PLANT NITROGEN NEEDS Garden Type Plants Annual Nitrogen Need (pounds per 1,000 sq. ft.) Landscape Native plants or dry gardens 0–1 Established ornamentals 1–2 Flower beds and new gardens 2–4 Lawns* Fast-growing lawns (high maintenance) 3–4 Slow-growing lawns (low maintenance) 1–2 Berries Strawberries and cane berries 2–3 Fruit Trees** 1 year old 0–1 2 years old 2.5 3–5 years old 2.5–3.25 6–7 years old 3.25–5 Vegetables Low: beans, peas 1-2 Medium: lettuce, tomato, carrot, beet, melon, squash, potato, celery, pepper, spinach 2-3 High: onion, leek, garlic, sweet corn, asparagus, broccoli 4-6Read more at location 2222 • Delete this highlight Add a note Use the soil-test report to identify other nutrient deficiencies. We want to pay particular attention to phosphorus and potassium.Read more at location 2252 • Delete this highlight Add a note phosphorus, a nutrient that is particularlyRead more at location 2466 • Delete this highlight Add a note critical in seedling establishment.Read more at location 2467 • Delete this highlight Add a note compost tea,Read more at location 2468 • Delete this highlight Add a note designed for foliar application. This provides an immediate nutrient boost to plants during the growing season to correct for overlooked deficiencies.Read more at location 2469 • Delete this highlight Add a note New seedlings need a good supply of phosphorus to get established.Read more at location 2484 • Delete this highlight Add a note If annuals are slow growing and stunted, with yellowing leaves, a foliar nitrogen feeding is a quick Band-Aid solution.Read more at location 2506 • Delete this highlight Add a note Fertilize fruit trees with a sidedressing of manure in the late winter, before leaves start to bud. Trees make early use of nutrients to grow roots, shoots, and more productive fruits in the coming season.Read more at location 2541 • Delete this highlight Add a note Fertilize Perennials Early A flush of nutrients to trees, shrubs, berries, and other perennials causes them to put on new growth.Read more at location 2543 • Delete this highlight Add a note do not apply nutrient-richRead more at location 2546 • Delete this highlight Add a note materials such as fertilizers or manures after late spring. Trees, shrubs, and other perennials get the most benefit from a late winter or early spring fertilizer application.Read more at location 2546 • Delete this highlight Add a note Fertilize Lawns in the FallRead more at location 2548 • Delete this highlight Add a note COVER THE SOIL Walk out into a meadow or forest and look at the ground. What you won’t see is the soil.Read more at location 2562 • Delete this highlight Add a note one critical function: creating a good home for soil organisms.Read more at location 2569 • Delete this highlight Add a note Without cover, the top 1/2 inch of soil becomes lifeless when too dry, wet, or cold.Read more at location 2571 • Delete this highlight Add a note mulch. This simple cover has one of the most dramatic effects on garden productivity.Read more at location 2573 • Delete this highlight Add a note For the investment of time required to spread (or grow) a mulch, the paybacks are enormous.Read more at location 2575 • Delete this highlight Add a note Mulches are intimately connected to the most time-consuming garden maintenance tasks: watering and weeding. By increasing the amount of water held in the soil, mulch reduces the frequency with which I need to irrigate. The water I do apply is used more efficiently, as mulch helps plants develop more extensive root systems. Mulches keep the soil surface soft and moist and prevent the formation of hard-to-manage surfaceRead more at location 2581 • Delete this highlight Add a note crusts. A thick mulch smothers unwanted weeds and exponentially reduces the time I spend removing them. Most weeds that do come up through thick mulch are shallowly rooted and easy to pull. Most importantly, mulches build organic matter in the soil.Read more at location 2584 • Delete this highlight Add a note Mulches have their limitations as well. They can keep the soil too damp and moist, an environment that can harbor slugs and other pests. Avoid thick mulches on waterlogged soils that already have drainage problems. For early spring planting in clay soils, remove mulches to allow the soil to warm. Mulched perennials develop strong root systems at the soil surface, which are susceptible to damage if the mulch isRead more at location 2588 • Delete this highlight Add a note removed. Keep perennial gardens covered to protect these strong but sometimes shallow roots.Read more at location 2591 • Delete this highlight Add a note I like to mulch with a range of different materials. This is one of the easiest ways to get a variety of organic foods into the living soil, while creating a variety of soil habitats.Read more at location 2593 • Delete this highlight Add a note make your life simple by making your garden complex.Read more at location 2595 • Delete this highlight Add a note wood chips, bark, sawdust, and wheat straw, decompose slowly toRead more at location 2598 • Delete this highlight Add a note provide long-lasting benefits. When choosing a mulch, availability is the most important factor.Read more at location 2599 • Delete this highlight Add a note I’ll let my straw bales sit for a year to rot into the perfect vegetable garden mulch. When partially decomposed, straw is easier to spread and doesn’t tie up nutrients as it rots into the soil.Read more at location 2603 • Delete this highlight Add a note Finely chipped or shredded material, such as bark dust or sawdust, is less preferable. These small particles can crust at the surface and prevent water infiltration. Similarly, dense and nutrient-rich materials, such as grass clippings or leaves, may form water-repellent mats.Read more at location 2609 • Delete this highlight Add a note Cardboard Cardboard is a highly effective weed-smothering mat. Use for pathways or the first layer of a sheet mulch. Be sure to wetRead more at location 2648 • Delete this highlight Add a note thoroughly and cover with a heavier material to prevent it from blowing away. Lifespan: one year if moist.Read more at location 2649 • Delete this highlight Add a note Using Mulch When I spread mulch in the garden, I’m trying to accomplish many things at once. Conserving water, suppressing weeds, and feeding the living soil are at the top of theRead more at location 2667 • Delete this highlight Add a note list. Insulating soils and plants from freeze-thaw, preventing erosion on pathways or sloping gardens, and protecting tender vegetables and seedlings are additional concerns that can be addressed with mulching. Generally, mulches are applied in a thick, 2- to 4-inch layer. Thinner mulches will shift to create bare spots, while deeper mulches may prevent water from reaching the soil.Read more at location 2668 • Delete this highlight Add a note You can also pile mulch around frost-sensitive vegetables to protect them from frost and extend the growing season.Read more at location 2674 • Delete this highlight Add a note Straw mulch in vegetable gardens can serve many purposes. Pile heaps of straw on top of potato vines as they grow to build the garden bed vertically and increase potato yield. Tubers that form in the straw are easy to harvest by hand. In the vegetable garden, mulches protect sensitive vegetables from the sun and help seeds germinate. After sowing, cover beds with straw mulch to keep the soil moist. Large-seeded annuals, like beans or corn, will grow up through the mulch layer. For smaller-seeded vegetables, such as lettuce orRead more at location 2676 • Delete this highlight Add a note carrots, periodically pull back the mulch in the first few days after planting. Once seeds germinate, remove the mulch completely until new seedlings are large enough to thin.Read more at location 2680 • Delete this highlight Add a note Apply mulches in the fall or early spring for maximum water-holding benefits. • Make sure the ground is good and wet before mulching. Irrigate thoroughly or spread the mulch a couple of days after a soaking rain.Read more at location 2686 • Delete this highlight Add a note For single trees, mulch around the developing root system by extending the mulch beyond the drip line. Mulch entire beds in the landscape garden.Read more at location 2689 • Delete this highlight Add a note Spread mulch in 2- to 4-inch-thick layers. Rake to ensure even distribution and coverage. • Pull mulch away from the crowns andRead more at location 2691 • Delete this highlight Add a note stems of plants and trees to allow good air circulation. Mulch piled at the base of trees and perennials encourages rot and disease.Read more at location 2692 • Delete this highlight Add a note A Living MulchRead more at location 2694 • Delete this highlight Add a note Living mulches work because they compete with weeds forRead more at location 2696 • Delete this highlight Add a note nutrients, sun, and water. They occupy otherwise bare soil that weeds can exploit. Meanwhile, they build organic matter by adding fresh roots and shoots to the soil. Living mulches compete with desired garden plants as well as weeds. To avoid unwanted competition when planted together, choose plants of different heights and rooting depths. This maximizes the use of sunlight, water, and nutrients. To further reduce competition, maintain a buffer between living mulches and garden vegetables.Read more at location 2697 • Delete this highlight Add a note categories: groundcovers, green manures, and intercrops.Read more at location 2701 • Delete this highlight Add a note wooly thymeRead more at location 2704 • Delete this highlight Add a note great aroma.Read more at location 2705 • Delete this highlight Add a note I like to choose groundcovers that have low water requirements, as they compete less with other garden plants. Unfortunately, many invasive plants are sold as ornamental groundcovers in garden centers.Read more at location 2707 • Delete this highlight Add a note You can also reduce competition by staggering the timing of green manures. Plant quick-growing green manures early to cover bare soil and pull up as vegetables mature. Alternatively, plant green manures late, into maturing vegetables, to provide cover after harvest. When you pull, cut, or mow green manures, use them as a handy and nutritious mulch for nearby plants.Read more at location 2711 • Delete this highlight Add a note An intercrop is simply a crop grown in proximity to another crop.Read more at location 2717 • Delete this highlight Add a note lettuce and onion intercrop is one of my favorite combinations. The broad leaves of lettuce help control weeds between onion rows. Heat-sensitive and shade-tolerant lettuce also benefits from the partial shade of tall onion stems. Though both lettuce and onions can develop deep root systems, lettuce has more fine surface roots that maximize the use of water and nutrients closer to the soil surface.Read more at location 2719 • Delete this highlight Add a note Dandelions,Read more at location 2728 • Delete this highlight Add a note capture deep soil nutrients.Read more at location 2729 • Delete this highlight Add a note aggressively overtaking our gardens. They can come up through the thickest mulches or reemerge every time we till. Generally, these are either weeds that reproduce from the tiniest bit of root or rhizome or weed seeds that can last for years and years in the soil. Over time, improving soil health helps garden plants compete with invasive weeds. In the short-term, however, the garden needs your help to eradicate these pests.Read more at location 2739 • Delete this highlight Add a note Even immature seeds can mature and germinate in the soil. Do not put any part of these weeds in the compost:Read more at location 2750 • Delete this highlight Add a note Growing healthy garden plants, in fact, isRead more at location 2758 • Delete this highlight Add a note the number-one way to control garden weeds. This, in turn, comes back to growing a healthy living soil. We also control weeds with mulch and water.Read more at location 2759 • Delete this highlight Add a note plant-specific watering reduces weed problems.Read more at location 2761 • Delete this highlight Add a note What we don’t always think about is that soil organisms also need water. If a soil is too dry, then soil life goes dormant waiting for water. If it’s too wet, soil organisms are limited by lack of air. Because of this, both over- and underwatering stresses the soil ecosystem and reduces how well itRead more at location 2771 • Delete this highlight Add a note functions. For this reason, the right water at the right time is critical for growing living soils.Read more at location 2773 • Delete this highlight Add a note clay-rich soils easily become waterlogged if watered too much or too frequently. This means plants and microbes can’t breathe.Read more at location 2792 • Delete this highlight Add a note Generally, we want to water when the soil tank is between 75 and 50 percent full. HowRead more at location 2797 • Delete this highlight Add a note do we know when it’s time? We simply ask the soil. Go into the garden, dig down 6 inches to a foot, and take a few good handfuls of soil. If a soil is dry or only slightly moist, then it is time to water.Read more at location 2797 • Delete this highlight Add a note Over time, you’ll know the schedule that works for you. In the heat of summer, gardens need more water because of evaporation. As plants grow larger and roots go deeper, plants need a deeper, longer watering as well. With mulch, soils need less frequent, yet deeper, watering.Read more at location 2805 • Delete this highlight Add a note we want to shape our gardens in a way that maximizes water use while minimizing water damage.Read more at location 2825 • Delete this highlight Add a note walk outside in a rainstorm and watch where the water goes and how fast it moves.Read more at location 2826 • Delete this highlight Add a note need to slow the flow. This allows time for water to seep deeper into the soil and reduces its power to erode garden beds. Anything I can do to make the soil surface more complex and rough helps. A coarse mulch or a living cover of garden plants works for this purpose.Read more at location 2828 • Delete this highlight Add a note building sunken beds, and using swales and contours to direct water.Read more at location 2862 • Delete this highlight Add a note When we rip a soil, we’re basically trying to make a deep gash in the compacted layer to let water drain. Deep ripping is a bandage for the underlying soil problem. If soil can drain, then soil organisms can become active and plants can grow.Read more at location 2887 • Delete this highlight Add a note Raised beds, filled with a soil mix, function similarly to containerRead more at location 2899 • Delete this highlight Add a note gardens. Because they are removed from the soil ecosystem, they require more attention. They dry out quickly and need more frequent irrigation. You’ll need to replace organic matter, fertilizer, and a portion of the soil mix every year in a raised bed.Read more at location 2899 • Delete this highlight Add a note Raised beds warm quickly, so you’ll be able to plant early in the spring.Read more at location 2904 • Delete this highlight Add a note If there’s an area that feels sterile and lifeless, or an area overrun by pest and disease, then I need to nurture theRead more at location 2921 • Delete this highlight Add a note living soil to bring it back into balance.Read more at location 2922 • Delete this highlight Add a note fundamental tools. The first, and perhaps most important, tool is planning.Read more at location 2928 • Delete this highlight Add a note The second tool is what I add to the soil. This includes a mulch cover, an incorporated amendment, right water at the right time, or a fertilizer boost. The third tool is what I grow in the soil. Living cover aboveground and living roots belowground add structure, food, and shelter to the living soil. At the same time, the plants that form a living soil cover contribute to a diverse and healthy whole-garden ecosystem.Read more at location 2930 • Delete this highlight Add a note The fourth and final tool is what I do to cultivate the soil. Most of the time, I let the soil critters do this work for me.Read more at location 2936 • Delete this highlight Add a note speed up the processRead more at location 2938 • Delete this highlight Add a note digging fork,Read more at location 2939 • Delete this highlight Add a note Tilling leads to aching muscles and bent backs. Tractors and rototillers come with noise, gas, dust, and fumes.Read more at location 2948 • Delete this highlight Add a note injure the soil byRead more at location 2949 • Delete this highlight Add a note speeds organic matter decomposition, which counters our efforts to build up this vital fraction of the soil.Read more at location 2950 • Delete this highlight Add a note its effects on the living creatures in the soil. Fundamentally, tillage disturbs the soil ecosystem.Read more at location 2952 • Delete this highlight Add a note Repeated and intensive tillageRead more at location 2953 • Delete this highlight Add a note dramaticallyRead more at location 2954 • Delete this highlight Add a note reduces soil life.Read more at location 2954 • Delete this highlight Add a note I use sheet mulching or organic amendments to eliminate weeds, prepare garden soils, and invite soil organisms to improve the soil.Read more at location 2956 • Delete this highlight Add a note As the soil food web becomes more and more complex, residues left on the soil surface decompose rapidly, so I don’t need to till them under.Read more at location 2957 • Delete this highlight Add a note The least invasive way to till is not to till.Read more at location 2967 • Delete this highlight Add a note Grow a healthy soil community by reducing disturbance and building organic matter. Plan your garden around permanent beds that are maintained and developed without tilling.Read more at location 2969 • Delete this highlight Add a note soils are loosened, lightened, and tilled by burrowing soil animals and the roots of green manures.Read more at location 2971 • Delete this highlight Add a note Weeds are hand-pulled, and the soil surface is easily massaged into a crumbly and smooth seedbed.Read more at location 2972 • Delete this highlight Add a note When dealing with heavy clays, I also like to use a hybrid approach, since a no-till sheet mulch tends to be wet and heavy.Read more at location 2983 • Delete this highlight Add a note Sheet Mulching to Start New GardensRead more at location 2988 • Delete this highlight Add a note use sheet mulching to create new garden beds.Read more at location 2989 • Delete this highlight Add a note To plant immediately, pull back the sheet mulch and cut holes in the cardboard for transplants or large seeds, such as beans and corn. Plant smaller-seeded vegetables and flowers by spreading and planting into a thin layer of compost on top of the sheet mulch.Read more at location 3010 • Delete this highlight Add a note Work the Soil with Roots Plant roots in their own right are amazing tilling machines. They expend enormous energy to push through dense soil, loosening it up as they go. When plant roots decompose, they add a sizable amount of organic matter to the soil.Read more at location 3026 • Delete this highlight Add a note For this reason, living plant roots are an important part of a no-till system. A bare soil is an opportunity to plant cover crops,Read more at location 3029 • Delete this highlight Add a note whose roots till and prepare the soil for the next garden crop.Read more at location 3030 • Delete this highlight Add a note Let It RotRead more at location 3032 • Delete this highlight Add a note Manures and composts are easily added by forking them lightly into the soil.Read more at location 3034 • Delete this highlight Add a note add organic debris to the soil surface, where it rots with the help of soil microorganisms.Read more at location 3035 • Delete this highlight Add a note either chop or mow cover crops or garden residues onto the soil surface. If very woody, add some nitrogenRead more at location 3037 • Delete this highlight Add a note fertilizer, compost, or manure to speed decomposition. Keep residues well watered. This method has the advantage of acting as a mulch while adding organic matter to the soil. The disadvantage is that some nutrients are lost when they decompose on the soil surface. Cover It Up Successful no-till gardening depends on controlling weeds. For this reason, mulching is a key no-till technique.Read more at location 3037 • Delete this highlight Add a note mulching with cardboard in problem spotsRead more at location 3042 • Delete this highlight Add a note Continually add organic materials to the soil surface, and keep the soil covered with living plants to strategically keep weeds at bay.Read more at location 3043 • Delete this highlight Add a note avoid working the soil when it is too wet or too dry. This is particularly important for the clay soils. EvenRead more at location 3051 • Delete this highlight Add a note wrong time, can destroy their fragile structure.Read more at location 3052 • Delete this highlight Add a note If soils are too dry, water your garden for a day or two and wait for the soils to become soft and crumbly.Read more at location 3054 • Delete this highlight Add a note repeated tillage with mechanized implements can lead to a compacted layer known as plow pan.Read more at location 3111 • Delete this highlight Add a note Sunlight. The availability of both winter and summer sun is extremely important in garden planning. Map areas that receive maximum winter and summer sun, and plant your garden accordingly. Use trees and shrubs strategically to provide shadyRead more at location 3150 • Delete this highlight Add a note microclimates, without unnecessarily removing precious sunlight.Read more at location 3151 • Delete this highlight Add a note The presence and direction of slopes is a final consideration in garden planning. Depending on how we treat them, garden slopes can be assets or liabilities. Slopes can help to collect and direct sunlight and water, or they can lead to reduced soil quality by the action of water washing away precious topsoil.Read more at location 3154 • Delete this highlight Add a note Think about whether you can build trenches or swales diagonally across a slope to capture and slow water.Read more at location 3157 • Delete this highlight Add a note On more severe slopes, you may consider planting brush or tree breaks across a slope to prevent and capture eroding soil. Because erosion is a concern on sloping land, it becomes even more important to minimize disturbance. Always build beds on contour, horizontal to the direction of the slope.Read more at location 3159 • Delete this highlight Add a note establish groundcovers that conserve soil in place. On sloping land, keeping topsoil in place is the foundation for growing healthy, living soils.Read more at location 3162 • Delete this highlight Add a note considered plantingRead more at location 3177 • Delete this highlight Add a note nitrogen-fixing perennials that you can chip to add fertility to the garden?Read more at location 3177 • Delete this highlight Add a note If you’ve identified areas that are poorly drained, are high in salts, or have high or low pH, then consult garden guides to find which plants will tolerate these conditions. Alternatively, set these areas aside for storage, composts, or other soil-building activities. Choose the best plants to match each sector’s advantages and disadvantages.Read more at location 3180 • Delete this highlight Add a note Often, soils abandoned for many years are extremely fertile, healthy soils. This is particularly true where weeds, grasses, and existing plants grow into an untended jungle that covers the soil and adds organic matter, naturally.Read more at location 3189 • Delete this highlight Add a note The following sections outline the step-by-step way to prepare soils for new lawns,Read more at location 3199 • Delete this highlight Add a note vegetable gardens, or perennials.Read more at location 3200 • Delete this highlight Add a note Establishing a Vegetable GardenRead more at location 3213 • Delete this highlight Add a note Submit soil tests to laboratories in the early fall.Read more at location 3214 • Delete this highlight Add a note sheet mulch new garden beds at this timeRead more at location 3214 • Delete this highlight Add a note In the early spring, spread your remaining fertilizers and gently fork them into the sheet mulch. If the sheet mulch is only partially decomposed, pull it back in pockets to transplant seedlings into mineral soils. For more decomposed sheet mulches, plant directly into the new topsoil. If seeding, spread a thin layer of compost and seed directly into the compost.Read more at location 3217 • Delete this highlight Add a note If not planting right away, keep the beds well mulched. Consider planting a quick-growing buckwheat to cover spring soils before it is time to seed summer vegetables. Establishing a Perennial Garden Because perennial gardens are a more or less permanent feature, correct any drainage problems before establishment.Read more at location 3223 • Delete this highlight Add a note deep rip soils to remedy compaction.Read more at location 3226 • Delete this highlight Add a note cover the entire garden area in a thick sheet mulch. You can plant directly into this sheet mulch by cutting a hole in the bottom cardboard or give the entire area a year or so to compost and mellow. If planting directly into sheet mulch, be careful to keep mulch pulled back from the base of perennials in order to prevent rot. Because this leaves the base of plants open for weeds that have not been smothered by the sheet mulch, be prepared to hand pull around new plantings.Read more at location 3228 • Delete this highlight Add a note Most perennials are best planted in the early fall, to give their roots a head start on establishing before the spring rush.Read more at location 3234 • Delete this highlight Add a note Because nitrogen and potassium willRead more at location 3238 • Delete this highlight Add a note stimulate new growth, topdress with these nutrients in the later winter or early spring to prepare plants for the growing season.Read more at location 3238 • Delete this highlight Add a note The impulse to rebuild from scratch, however, sets your garden way back. It’s far better to use what you already have to build better soils from the ground up.Read more at location 3242 • Delete this highlight Add a note take a step back. Do your plants match the capabilities of your soil? Look for obvious mismatches, like drought-loving plants in a poorly draining soil or acid-intolerant species under low-pH conditions. Instead of ripping up your soil, take out the ill-suited plants and replace them with more appropriate varieties. Overall garden productivity, and gardener satisfaction, will definitely increase.Read more at location 3253 • Delete this highlight Add a note For lawns, compaction is a regular problem. Use the tines of your garden fork or a lawn core cultivator to periodically aerate the soil.Read more at location 3257 • Delete this highlight Add a note look at soil test results. Excessive salts, a pH less than 5 or greater than 8, and major nutrient deficiencies are red flags that must be addressed.Read more at location 3259 • Delete this highlight Add a note Build your own topsoil by continually adding organic amendments, sheet composts, and mulches. Gradually, this feeds and stimulates the soil microbes to improve belowground conditions.Read more at location 3270 • Delete this highlight Add a note Planning is the key to any successful garden.Read more at location 3275 • Delete this highlight Add a note think ahead. To prepare for the next spring, a soil grower’s calendar starts in the late summer.Read more at location 3277 • Delete this highlight Add a note SOIL-GROWER’S YEARLY CALENDAR Late Summer/Early Fall Submit soil tests. Plant cover crops.Read more at location 3283 • Delete this highlight Add a note Put beds to sleep—chop residues into soils and mulch the surface for winter. Spread and incorporate manures, fresh leaves, and yard debris. Sheet mulch new garden areas.Read more at location 3286 • Delete this highlight Add a note Late Fall/WinterRead more at location 3291 • Delete this highlight Add a note Plan for soil-building needs. Complete the Whole-Soil Fertility Worksheet to determine fertilizer needs. Plan crop rotations. Stockpile compost materials: manures, cardboard, leaves, grass clippings, etc.Read more at location 3292 • Delete this highlight Add a note Kill cover crops. Shred leaves for mulch. Prune trees and shrubs. Chip trimmings for mulch. Plant perennials. Fertilize perennials in the late winter.Read more at location 3295 • Delete this highlight Add a note SpringRead more at location 3298 • Delete this highlight Add a note Add fertilizers and amendments to soils. Incorporate winterkilled fall and winter cover crops. Incorporate compost and manures. Prepare new seedbeds. Remove mulch on heavy soils to let them warm. Plant spring crops. Plant quick-growing cover crops in summer vegetables beds. Build and turn compost. Summer Build and turn compost. Keep garden and compost well-watered. Plant warm-season cover crops.Read more at location 3299 • Delete this highlight Add a note Implement crop rotations andRead more at location 3306 • Delete this highlight Add a note intercrop plantings. Pull up early spring cover crops. Use as mulch. Pull weeds. Use non-noxious weeds to mulch soil surface. Mulch summer vegetables. Side-dress heavy feeders with nitrogen-rich material. Use foliar spray fertilizers as needed. Collect grass clippings from neighbors.Read more at location 3306 • Delete this highlight Add a note Hart, Robert. Forest Gardening: Cultivating and Edible Landscape, 2nd ed. Chelsea, VT: Chelsea Green Publications, 1996. Kourik, Robert. Designing and Maintaining Your Edible Landscape Naturally. SantaRead more at location 3330 • Delete this highlight Add a note Rosa, CA: Metamorphic Press, 1986.Read more at location 3332 • Delete this highlight Add a note Shein, Christopher. The Vegetable Gardener’s Guide to Permaculture: Creating an Edible Ecosystem. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2013.Read more at location 3334 • Delete this highlight Add a note Björkman, Thomas. Cover Crops for VegetableRead more at location 3341 • Delete this highlight Add a note Growers. Cornell University. covercrops.cals.cornell.eduRead more at location 3341 • Delete this highlight Add a note Lanza, Patricia. Lasagna Gardening. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, 1998. Stout, Ruth. Gardening Without Work. NY: Devin-Adair, 1963.Read more at location 3346 • Delete this highlight Add a note ATTRA—The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT). attra.ncat.org (a wealth of downloadable material, including designs and blueprints for sustainable farm and garden practices)Read more at location 3354 • Delete this highlight Add a note Mohler, Charles L. and Sue Ellen Johnson, eds. Crop Rotations on Organic Farms: A Planning Manual. Ithaca, NY: Natural Resources, Agriculture and Economics Service (NRAES), 2009.Read more at location 3365 • Delete this highlight Add a note The Soul of Soil: A Soil-Building Guide for Master Gardeners and Farmers, 4th Edition by Joseph Smillie, Grace Gershuny You have 4 highlighted passages You have 0 notes Last annotated on May 21, 2017 What a joy it is to feel the soft, springy earth under my feet once more, to follow grassy roads that lead to ferny brooks where I can bathe my fingers in a cataract of rippling notes, or to clamber over a stone wall into green fields that tumble and roll and climb in riotous gladness! —HELEN KELLER, from The Story of My LifeRead more at location 96 • Delete this highlight Add a note Cultivating soil and encouraging plants to grow in harmony with nature’s wondrous systems has been an honored avocation throughout history.Read more at location 100 • Delete this highlight Add a note The first rule of ecology is that everything is connected to everything else, and so when any one component changes, everything else changes in response, even if only a tiny bit.Read more at location 108 • Delete this highlight Add a note the magic of how soil works. This is also an ideal guide to how one can respect soil and be gentle and aware when working with it.
Keyline Design/SystemKeyline design is a technique for maximizing beneficial use of water resources of a piece of land. The Keyline refers to a specific topographic feature linked to water flow. --Wikipedia.
The tool used for keyline plowing is the Yeoman's plow, a subsoiler with very thin shanks. Created in the 1950s by P.A. Yeoman, an Australian mining engineer and farmer, it was designed to lift and aerate the soil while limiting soil disturbance to minimize oxidation of organic matter.
"Plan the work then work the plan." — P.A. Yeomans
Freshly keyline plowed (Photo: Kirsten Bradley)
In the mid 1950s, Australian engineer P.A. Yeomans demonstrated a new system of land management he called the Keyline system. The consensus of the time, championed by people like Dr H.H. Bennett, was that soil was a finite resource and that once depleted “it was irretrievably lost as if consumed by fire”. P.A. understood that long natural carbon cycles create soil, but also knew that this process takes hundreds or thousands of years. By adjusting the conditions in the soil with his plowing and management techniques, P.A. was able to speed this process and create dozens of millimeters of fertile topsoil in just one year.
P.A. started out as a conservationist, but quickly realized that creation of topsoil was the ideal solution, while conservation simply delayed the inevitable soil destruction. Depending on the climatological conditions, conservation may ‘work’ for just a few years under harsh conditions, while allowing profitable cropping for decades in other milder regions. This is a direct cause of the extractive farming methods still used today. Farming then and now is still dominated by the practice of mining the topsoil for minerals, turning over the exhausted topsoil with plows, and replenishing the minerals lost in the crop with fertilizers. This, as seen over and over, leads to soil depletion, erosion, and finally desertification.
Keyline Design was first developed by the great Australian, P.A. Yeomans (1904-1984), in the late 1940s & 50s initially as a practical response to the unpredictable rainfall regime he found on his new property
By changing this method of conservation to one that continually builds soil fertility to feed the crops, the land will become more fertile over time. This creates a feedback loop, but one with positive outcomes. It can be said that one should “feed the soil, not the plants.” When healthy soil is present and maintained, any crops suitable for the region will grow well without any fertilizer. Herein lies P.A.’s argument that soil creation and the Keyline system will lower the costs of the farm while at the same time producing higher yielding, and thus more profitable, harvests. This is even more relevant in today’s profit driven world. Farmers that would not otherwise concern themselves with improving their methods for the sake of the land will more often pursue actions that will increase their bottom lines.
Leveling is the primary concept when dealing with water and the Keyline system. Before any earth is moved the land should be sufficiently surveyed and pegged. Pegging is simply placing pegs at a corresponding level around the property to give rise to a visual level line. By manipulating the techniques used to determine each peg’s placement, one can plan-out all of the features of a system.
While a modern laser level would be the easiest tool to use in leveling, low-tech, do-it-yourself options exist. P.A. designed a type of level called a bunyip. Another DIY level is an A-Frame level. A-frame levels can be constructed even easier than bunyips, requiring only three pieces of wood, a string, and a rock!
Any of these leveling devices will need to be accompanied by a large number of pegs. When the level is found, the pegs can be placed accordingly to map out the land before any work is done. It may be useful to have pegs tall enough to be readily seen over the surrounding vegetation, or the vegetation can be cleared off before the pegs are placed. When using pegs to mark keylines, channels, and dam water levels, it is advisable to have the pegs painted or flagged to distinguish the lines dotting the landscape at a glance.
Employing the methods developed by P.A. Yeomans, keyline pattern plowing is a proven component in the job of revitalizing degraded soils. The plow performs deep ripping with minimal plant disturbance.
By using a chisel, tyne, or P.A.’s keyline plow, both aeration and water integration can be accomplished in one pass over the land. While mouldboard type plows turn over just the topsoil, the chisel plow creates numerous deep cuts into the compacted and often sealed soil where air and water can now penetrate deeper and activate the decomposition process just below the topsoil.
Different kinds of soil types may require altered preparation. For example, sandy, light soil in arid conditions can be chisel plowed deeply (45 cm) from the very start, while in heavy clay soils you must chisel plow shallowly (8 cm) the first year, while slowly increasing plow depth each year. This is because the heavier soil types will seal over with the first substantial rainfall, locking out the water and air.
The goal of this type of cultivation is to blend the subsoil and topsoil into one contiguous layer. This creates a more balanced distribution of minerals, nutrients, air, and water, everything needed to grow healthy plants. Again, a more traditional turn-plowing would leave the topsoil overturned and segregated from the subsoil leading to soil destruction rather than creation.
To create soil, certain conditions must be met. Some kind of organic material must be present that, when combined with the correct levels of moisture and air, will create an ideal soil climate for decay to occur. While adding organic material is often the fastest way to improve soil condition, over large areas of land it is not practical to haul in the massive amount of materials that would be required. The Keyline system focuses on hastening the decomposition of the naturally occurring organic material already in the soil by adjusting the moisture and air levels within. Once the biotic conditions in the soil are jump-started, micro and macroscopic life return in such abundance that it dwarfs the total weight of a harvested crop or the grazing cows above.
Roots are one of the main organic components that will be decomposing in the midst of the added moisture and air. As soil improves, more plants will grow, from the soil’s seed-bank or from being sown, and increase the field’s biomass; this is another positive feedback loop. Some of these plants are likely to have deep tap roots that stretch down into the subsoil and bring up minerals unlocked by chisel plowing, making them available for plants with shallower roots. As these and other pants die, the roots decay more rapidly in the improved soil conditions. The spaces left behind by the roots create natural pathways for air and water to further integrate into the soil. Even crops grown for harvest or grazing will still leave the roots in the soil, continuing the improvement process.
A positive interaction in soil life that can be used to your advantage is one between the roots of legume plants and bacteria that live on them. The bacteria fix nitrogen from the air into the soil, making it available to plants. The bacteria does this in exchange for starches created by the legume plant. If seeds are to be sown on land that is undergoing Keyline cultivation improvement, it is strongly suggested to use a mix that includes inoculated legume seeds appropriate for the area. Yet another benefit to growing legumes is that they are often high in protein, making them nutritious pasture.
The shape of the land will determine how water flows over it. While some land is flat, most have at least slight valley and ridge shapes. Water will naturally flow from the higher ridges into the valleys, following and eroding the steepest path. These waterlines should be identified at the beginning of a project because they form the framework the land will follow. The placement of buildings, dams, paddocks, and anything else on the farm will be determined in relation to the existing waterlines.
All water will flow off of ridges and into valleys perpendicular to contour. When examining a topographical map, water will flow the shortest distance between two contour lines.
Water and Controls
Within the Keyline system, all water sources available to the farm fall into four categories. The first is the rain that directly falls onto the land, the second is runoff from the farm itself, the third is runoff from outside the farm, and the fourth is groundwater. In short, the idea is to capture and hold the water on your land as long as possible by controlling when and where it flows — via channels, keyline plowing, dams, and other features of the Keyline system.
Plowing and the Keyline
The first step in determining your water management plan is to find the keylines of the land. These are on-contour lines that occur where the steeper and flatter parts of the land meet in the center of a valley. A keyline can be found on topographical maps where the contour lines begin to get further apart. This represents the highest contour of the land that can efficiently hold water; there may be lower keylines, but they represent the highest point in a valley formation, not the overall property, where water can be held. Not all valleys have their keylines on the same contour.
The plowing should start at the center of a valley and follow the keyline. As you get further away from the keyline, the contour of the land changes, but the plowing should continue parallel to the initial keyline. This creates a slight grade in the plow cut that channels water in the furrows toward the ridge.
Keyline valley map
The furrows’ grade is slight. It is not intended to create any great flow, but to distribute the water more evenly over the ridge and valley formations with a gentle drift. By slowing the flow, the water is allowed ample time to absorb into the soil. This has a side effect of obstructing erosion. If you are familiar with on-contour swales, this concept will be familiar to you.
In flat lands the plowing can continue down the land as needed. In more undulating lands, paddocks may need to be created and plowed from multiple keylines. Keyline plowing can continue up the steeper land as high as the tractor can go.
After the keylines have been identified, a determination of which valleys should have dams constructed in them can be made. It is always worth holding water at the highest point possible to take advantage of gravity doing the work of irrigating the land below the dam. With 15 meters of height, gravity irrigation from a dam will have as much pressure as a spray irrigation system and can be used as such. This would give the farmer the benefits of spray irrigation while letting gravity pick up any energy costs.
The cost of building any dam comes down to a ratio of earth moved to water stored. When determining the ideal minimum shape of a dam, the length of the wall across a valley should be less than or equal to the distance water will back-flood. The ideal depth is between 3 and 6 meters. This depth should include 0.9 meters of free-board, the height between the full water line and the top of the wall, above the spillway level. This compensation will allow for 0.6 meters of free-board during rain events where 0.3 meters depth of water evacuates the dam via the spillway. This extra safety precaution is to compensate for large, 50 or 100 year, floods.
Keyline and dams
Types of Dams
High contour dams are installed above the valley keyline. Water from runoff is limited above these dams given their high positioning in the landscape. To fill these dams, swales can be constructed around the ridge to channel rainfall to these types of dams. These steep land dams come at a high price since great deals of earth need to be moved to store relatively little water in these narrow dams. Their water will be freely available for use in pressurized and flood irrigation just about anywhere on the property.
Following the land lower, valley keyline dams are the most common dams found in the Keyline system. Found in undulating lands, keyline dams are more economical than high contour dams; they store greater sums of water for little earth moved. Keyline dams offer another chance to use the stored energy of water to irrigate, but the irrigation area is restricted to the lands below the dam.
In flatter lands dams become even more economical, storing great sums of water for very little earth moved. As the land becomes flatter the wall of the dam will not necessarily find enough height between 2 shallow ridges. In this case the wall is extended back to create sides, or wings, that hold the water in. An extreme example of a flat lands dam is the broken ring dam. The side walls on the broken ring dam extend and curve back on the dam itself.
Finally, in dead flat lands ring dams can be utilized. Ring dams will have no runoff entering them naturally. To keep a ring dam filled, water must either be pumped or piped in from another source. The advantage a ring dam has over a pond is that the ring dam sits above ground level and therefor contains energy, albeit slight, that can push the water into an irrigation channel.
Dams can be fitted with lock-pipes under the wall. While these lock-pipes add greatly to the cost of constructing the dam, they then provide gravity fed water at the turn of a valve. The cost of the lock-pipe will be overshadowed in the savings over running a pump for irrigation. Irrigation can be spray if the total height of the water is 15 meters or more, but even in flatter lands gravity will still allow for, what Yeomans calls, flood-flow irrigation.
Flood-flow irrigation uses an irrigation ditch to channel the water from a dam’s delivery point source, the lock-pipe. Watergates along the irrigation channel can be opened and closed by one man to irrigate several hectares per hour of the land below. This land can be separated into smaller paddocks by fencing that is run on an irrigation steering bank. The bank will allow for more control of water disbursement.
Each paddock should be Keyline cultivated to spread the irrigation, or rainfall, evenly over the land. The keylines should ultimately lead the water to the next lower dam on the property. The slow speed of the water traveling through the keyline system, coupled with good drainage in each paddock leading to the next dam, will allow for sufficient absorption while also preventing the land from ever being over-saturated. This keeps in-line with holding the water on the land as long as possible, using and reusing it as often as possible.
The irrigation channels should be grassed over quickly in dry, windy areas to prevent erosion. This should be a simple task given the nature of the channels to be watered with every rainfall or irrigating.
The "Wombat" point causes effective shattering of compacted subsoil ~ Finding Yeomans Keypoint
Swales, which appear similar to irrigation channels, can be used to connect dams, hold water in places dams are not viable, and to help direct rainfall to different parts of the land. By connecting dams of the same level with a swale, you gain additional flood insurance; after one dam fills, the excess water can back-fill the swale and equalize all the dams in a lateral chain before any water is lost over the spillway.
Swales are built on contour so that there is no directional flow. The energy of the rising water will evenly spread water along the length of the swale. The water held in a swale after a rain event absorbs into the soil, adding to the subsurface hydrological flows. This underground water will flow through and down the land very slowly. This water moves so slowly it is effectively held in the land itself instead of on the surface in a dam. If rains are regular, the land should build to maximum water content within a few years; at this point springs may appear in the lower portions of the property.
While swales are not a major component of the Keyline system, they are worth mentioning because modern permaculture uses of swales have evolved alongside the techniques described in Yeoman’s books – and compliment each other well. Swales can be effectively deployed on properties not large enough to support full sized dams. They are also extremely cost effective soft earthworks, requiring no compaction.
When dams become over full there needs to be a overflow mechanism in place that will not allow water to flow over the wall of the dam, but also not concentrate the water such that erosion occurs. Spillways accomplish this task by controlling the overflow of water through a wide level gap in the wall. The water flows evenly and slowly over the spillway and onto land outside of the wall that is also graded nearly flat. From here the water will be treated as rain that falls outside of the dam and its watershed. In a large rain event lock-pipes can be opened as extra insurance against an overflowing dam, but this should only be necessary in extraordinary rains.
Trees plan an important role in the Keyline system. Belts of timber can be planted above keylines on the steeper less suitable slopes. These belts provide wind breaks, erosion control, shelter for grazing animals, and an opportunity to harvest poles for fencing. Trees can also be used along fence and farm roads to like effect. When planted above keylines, the trees provide a plowing guideline that can be followed each subsequent year.
After implementation, the Keyline system offers up a number of benefits. Some of these benefits are seen immediately, such as the stopping of erosion, while others take longer to show and are not as overt, such as restoring subsurface hydrological flows. Still another boon offered by the Keyline system, particularly the system of dams, is the abatement of both floods and droughts.
Often times water is sheeted off the land as fast as possible, increasing stream and river flows greatly but temporarily, before the water finds itself disbursed into the ocean. This fast moving water contains a great deal of energy that is not only wasted, but actively erodes the land on its journey to the ocean. By slowing the advance of water over the land with the Keyline system, the water has a chance to absorb fully into the land.
This restores aquifers and ancient subsurface flows. These aquifers and subsurface flows act as a battery. Once recharged the surrounding landscape will come alive as springs begin to dot a once dry landscape. Further this battery of water will regulate the flow of rivers, preventing large floods by slowing the water and compensating for the flow lessening ill effects of drought.
Additionally water that takes a leisurely subsurface course will have time to be naturally filtered. The results of this would be rivers carrying less sediment. This sediment is not noticeable when deposited in the ocean, but many bodies of water such as the Newcastle Harbour in Australia and the Chesapeake in the United States have been polluted by runoff from improper water management. The implementation of the Keyline system would have a side effect of clearing such bodies of water over the subsequent decades.
Keyline Plowing Results
The Keyline system provides a total solution to farmers that provides ample water infiltration in even arid regions for cropping or grazing land. This water, coupled with Keyline cultivation, activates decomposition where the top and subsoils meet. This decomposition leads to deeper, richer, more biologically active soil which in turn leads to more productive land.
By capturing and controlling water as it falls and flows over the land, erosion is completely mitigated. The water control system also tempers the bust and boom flood and drought cycles. Ultimately Keyline planning is the only long term, cost effective, restorative land management system available that can be applied to conventional farm and pasture lands without the need for less conventional modifications seen in more modern permaculture solutions.
Ken Yeomans is continuing his father’s work, selling copies of the books listed below as well as offering keyline consulting.
This process is carried out when soil moisture conditions are ideal and is only done once a year if cover cropping or 5 – 7 years if sowing a permanent pasture.
Email Professor Colby Glass, MAc, MLIS, PhDc, Prof. Emeritus