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So My Soil Is Crap. Thank God.

Just went to a great little seminar on edible landscaping at Niche Gardens down the road, and was generally pleased. First of all, I have apparently absorbed more information from all that reading about permaculture and sustainable gardening than I realized.

Secondly, my soil is crap.

“But Ursula!” you say. “That is a BAD thing!”

Yes, it’s a terrible thing, very awful. But it’s a problem throughout the Piedmont, which has been under intense cultivation for over 300 years and is frankly exhausted, and then for a lot of us, whatever pathetic soil remained was scraped off when the lot was leveled. So basically what I’ve got is dreadful heavy clay subsoil (also badly abused), topped by the sad sifting of dirt the developer threw down to take the grass seed.

And this is terrible and requires a lot of help, but it is also wonderful because it means I’m not a terrible gardener.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’m the rankest of rank amateurs, I never dig the hole deep enough or wide enough or amended enough and I forget to prune for six months and then go out in a fit of madness and leave the garden looking like a slasher flick. Dead-heading, so far as I am concerned, was something they did in the French Revolution.

Still, that I have managed to get things growing even as well as they are is pretty good. The prairie planting is depressingly straggly, the chokecherry a grim survivor of a nearly dead zone, but maybe next year.

I had known all along that my particular lot was dreadful, because of the scraping and all of that, but I hadn’t realized that even after the scraping, gardeners in the Piedmont are working uphill against centuries of abuse. Soil fertility takes a really long time to replenish on its own. Hundreds of years is not out of the question. And so while nobody would cheer for horrible soil, the fact that it’s not just ME, and professionals are using words like “heinous” and “really really bad” to describe the general state of dirt around here makes me feel a lot better.

It’s like going to a support group for anything—it sucks, but at least you realize that you’re not alone.

So what is the solution to this miserable wreckage of soil that we are left with?

Well, mulch. Mulch cures a whole lot of ills, particularly hardwood mulch and leaf mulch, which both break down into soil pretty quickly and turn into dirt and after a few seasons of relentless mulching, the wretched clay underneath is starting to get broken up by worms and turned into something a little more suited to gardening than pottery. And bone meal, since our soil is nearly denuded of phosphates. And organic matter, because that’s what the soil misses the most, so compost and manure, manure and compost, yea verily, world without end.

Except for the bone meal (which I am very glad to know about!) I have already been doing this for some time, so things are getting better in my garden. The bed I created out of manga and mulch and manure has been in place for just under a full year, and it’s amazing to dig down into it—while you can certainly tell where the bit I put in ends and the clay begins, the clay is much softer and damper and more easily dug than before. You can imagine roots sinking into this and getting purchase. And when the roots get in, they pull minerals up from the clay and everybody is much happier.

So I came away from the seminar feeling much happier, with recommendations for a few fruit trees that do well here and are not labor-intensive. Persimmon and pie cherry might be worth trying. (I’ve already got a fig and elderberries and raspberry and native plum and whatnot.) The plants that require major work, like apples and peaches, are sort of like cows, as far as I’m concerned—I’ll buy at the farmer’s market, but I’m not willing to put in anything like the labor involved, or give up the space.

It is times like this when I walk in and inform Kevin that we will be dying in this house, because I cannot bear the notion of laboring over dirt for years, putting in fruit trees and just getting them to the point of fruiting and then having to move. Kevin shrugs and says that this is pretty much what he planned to do, barring incident and our knees giving out to the point where we can’t climb stairs.

Still, no matter what happens, even if we moved in a year and somebody came in with no interest whatsoever in gardening and razed the whole place to the soil-line, I will have fixed some of this dirt, goddamnit. This will be good dirt. This will be dirt that makes earthworms compose tiny odes and sonnets and recite them to each other eyelessly under the earth. This dirt will rock.

And y’know, I’m starting to think that’s a pretty important thing.

Originally published at Squash's Garden. You can comment here or there.


Apples take work?

*beth peers out the window*

Mostly, we just stuck our apples in the ground, tried to water them for a week or two, and let them fend for themselves. Sort of like people did with barn cats, I guess.

We have barn apples?

The one that gets a mix of sun and protection is doing pretty well -- the others contend with having snow shoved up against them, and the ones down by the road get salty snow shoved into their area. (The pear trees are doing much better. The plums, sadly, got Black Knot. *sniffle*)

The nectarine is down near the wetlands, and has only produced fruit once. The next two years, the fruit withered on the branch, even though it's on the border of a friggin' swamp (what more does it want??).

You are supposed to prune apple trees, although I've never ever bothered.

Brown cow (or any brand) mushroom compost is amazing stuff. Can't recommend it highly enough, and you don't have to use nearly as much as they recommend. Just sprinkle it around everywhere, mix it in the dirt, the mulch, etc. We're working with clay too. Once I realized that majority of things I read in gardening forums didn't pertain to clay areas in the Deep South I felt much better :)

Your place sounds amazing, btw, like a little oasis of biodiversity.

Many people are starting to keep worm bins to essentially make soil out of their kitchen scraps. I've been saving my organic garbage for over 20 years now for my downstairs neighbor, who founded the Lower East Side Ecology Center and still operates it; it has grown and the programs have expanded greatly.

I haven't gotten so far as to keep a worm box of my own, since I'm not a gardener myself and it's not a problem to drop off my scraps at her garden (which is just a block away from me.) The worm castings that are the end product of this composting are magical, I'm told, in their ability to fertilize soil and make things grow.

This give me hope. I'm on soil so alkaline that adding sulfuric acid is recommended for amending.
Thank you!

Sulfur, or ammonium sulfate, will also acidify soil.

I foresee.... Mount Mulch, volume II in the future...

Good luck with that. I am very much the evolutionary planter around my home. I accept what mother nature and my grandfather (He built the house, back in the day) put there, and live with the things that my parents and older sister have planted.

When the dead tree fell over in the ice storm a couple years ago, I borrowed my dad's chainsaw and cut it to manageable bits, then threw those bits into the bramble thicket that the tree was growing in the middle of. I mow the grass when someone nags me sufficiently to do it.

I dream of the day that I can afford to put in a heated front walk and driveway, so when it snows, all I have to do is turn on the heaters for a couple hours.

I hope you have fun with your dirt, and create the best dirt in the town. Perhaps you will have dirt so good, that in a few years, you will attract vampires, looking to borrow a bucket of quality soil for their coffin. I'd believe that of you.

Could you get (or have you gotten) your hands on native perennial grasses? They do wonders for bad dirt, especially if you mow them about once a year. Or at least they do in California's Central Valley.

That's what the prairie planting mostly is. Second year, and they're still pretty straggly...I'm hoping that the third year (the leap of sleep, creep, leap!) will really change things, but they're definitely working with some rough conditions.

Here I thought you meant your soil is literally crap. And I thought, that's good, isn't it?

On my family's little hamlet in Colorado, the chokecherries grow wild. My grandmother and my great grandmother would pick the fruit and make chokecherry jelly. And it was incredibly delicious.
Unfortunately, it's difficult to ship jelly to Texas, but I would highly recommend trying it. It is heavenly.


You are made of so much awesome! Art, books, general geekery, and gardening. I love reading your gardening posts.

I love the thought of earthworms composing odes and sonnets to The Great Two-Legger That Makes Things Better.

I was in Orlando today, thinking of sushi and you guys.

You could be working against SAND.

I was changing planes in Orlando on Monday, I was thinking to myself (as I sprinted out of Security in C towards Security in A with less than 5 mins to get to my plane) about how if I had to get stranded anywhere, at least I have a friend in Orlando that I could give a call to and there would be sushi if I missed the plane.

I made the plane, so you didn't get a call.

This time. *grin*

I've discovered the soil around my new residence is clay as well. Makes planting things (like transplanting the oak sapling that thought growing intertwined with one of the pipe access points to my house was a good idea) really fun. Your post gives me hope that the soil can recover.

And I never understood people who *don't* mulch or compost, like the people who bag their cut grass and take it to the dump. With one notable exception, I always set my mower to mulch mode. It takes longer, true, but it means my grass gets the nutrients from the decaying compost of their severed upper parts. ;-)

I know one can buy mulch, can one buy compost or do you have to actually make a compost heap?

You can buy composted manure, and mushroom compost, but composting for yourself is not hard, especially if you're not too exacting. Simply tilling uncomposted organic matter into the ground (or spreading it and letting it rot; "sheet composting") can be effective.

You claim to be an amateur, but at least you know what you need to work on. I am still looking at the little pots I bought for a kitchen herb garden with more than a little trepidation.

Get bigger pots. If it's one of those kit things with teeny 1 1/2 inch pots, you will disappointing in the outcome. How big a pot can you fit in that space? That one.

(measured across the top circle)

"This will be dirt that makes earthworms compose tiny odes and sonnets and recite them to each other eyelessly under the earth."

We lived in the Potteries in England for a couple of years (and they weren't known as The Potteries for no reason) and our pocket handkerchief section was solid clay with about 1/2" soil on top, EXCEPT for the corner under a hawthorn bush that looked as if it had been there since forever, and that bit of the section was gorgeous soil.

There is hope for your soil, but it may take a little while...

That's probably where they dumped the 'night-soil' back in the days of yore...

Well, the real problem with the Piedmont is that it started out as sand dunes. So I go from there. Dump in anything organic I can find, and then correct for other stuff later. But if I miss a season of amendment, back to sand dunes. Although I guess I'm east of the fall line, so you get the clay and I get the sand dunes.

Edited at 2011-09-18 12:44 am (UTC)

Thank you, this is very encouraging. My gardening efforts definitely took a back seat after the no-longer-quite-so-small-one arrived, but I had been wondering just what was wrong with me. Of course, I should be spending more time and a lot more money, on mulch and compost and such, but it helps to know that it is an uphill battle.