The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Building soil

Chickens in garden

My garden soil feels very different this year than it has in the past.  I've never seen so many worms, especially the huge nightcrawlers that love a steady supply of mulch.  And I've never had soil so rich, dark, and alive.  After four years of maintaining soil, I feel like in 2011 I finally built soil.

I made three big changes in the garden over the last year.  I kept a constant straw mulch whenever possible, I doubled my application rate of horse manure compost to a full inch before every crop, and I slipped in cover crops whenever possible.

The plants responded with astonishing bounty, with one notable exception.  We had a terrible time with Mexican bean beetles this year, which I suspect is due to the high application rate of compost.  I've read that if you feed beans too much, the nitrogen in their leaves is in a slightly different form that's tastier to bean beetles than if they'd made the Green beansproteins by fixing nitrogen out of the air.  I tested this hypothesis by planting my last bed of beans with no compost at all, and that was the one bed where the bean beetles barely made any headway --- the insects were present, but were darker in color and seemed to be growing much more slowly.  The beans, on the other hand, grew vigorously and churned out dozens of dinners.  The experiment was far from definitive because the lower bean beetle vigor could have just been due to the decline of the gardening year, but I think I'll cut back on the compost going to my beans next year.  For the rest of the garden, though, I wouldn't change a thing.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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The photos and stories from your garden have always impressed me. Someday my soil will also be phenomenal. It is already a lot better than it was just two years ago.
Comment by Eric in Japan Tue Oct 25 08:51:51 2011

Well that's interesting. I fought the bean beetles last year and this year. They were so bad that I was tempted to spray chemicals to control them. This year I even pulled my crop much earlier than I would have without the beetles. I plant in raised beds whose soil is at least half yard waste compost. While that is great for all other crops, maybe it was a mistake to use so much compost in the beds.

I haven't been too active on the straw mulch over the winter and cover crops. Maybe I need to rethink things. I'll add the straw mulch and see if I can come up with some cover crops that will get started before the freeze comes.

Comment by Fritz Tue Oct 25 09:25:52 2011
Our soil is horrible. Rocky and infertile, even grass has a hard time growing We weren't able to do much before the growing season this year, but are definitely looking at what we can do for next year
Comment by Cesar Diaz Tue Oct 25 10:41:00 2011

Eric --- Thanks for your kind words! I can tell the gardeners I have the most in common with because they envy other peoples' soil, not their gardens. :-) I feel the same way about certain soil I have seen....

Fritz --- I wouldn't be surprised if the compost was your problem. You could try doing what I did with my last batch --- plant them directly after a hungry feeder like sweet corn. It's really the nitrogen in the soil that you want to limit for beans, so a simple rotation like that should do the trick.

Cesar --- Sounds like you've got a great opportunity for growth! Just think of all the minerals and good drainage from those rocks, once you add plenty of organic matter on top.

Comment by anna Tue Oct 25 12:40:50 2011
I'll have to give that a shot. Up til now, I would build my new bed, fill it with soil/compost and the first crops in it are always beans. This is to ensure that there is enough nitrogen for anything that follows. This year, what followed was another batch of beans. The first crop had a few bean beetles, but it was manageable. But the second was horrible with bean beetles. I credited it for being late in the season when they had time to reproduce elsewhere, and that all the soybean plants around were already starting to brown. Maybe this year I'll try planting them into beds that haven't had beans in a couple years.
Comment by Fritz Wed Oct 26 07:23:46 2011
If you're building a new bed with lots of compost, nitrogen won't be a problem. Sounds like you're ready for a different crop rotation (and definitely rotate vegetables so that they're never in the same bed more than once every four years!)
Comment by anna Wed Oct 26 08:07:26 2011

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