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

Renovating eroded soil

Fennel flowers

The forest garden area we renovated on Thursday has been a major experimenting ground for me because I'm trying to find a way to grow useful plants on highly degraded soil.  Previous owners had used this spot as a pasture, and I suspect they overgrazed it so much that every bit of topsoil eroded away.  As a result, there's a gully leading from the forest garden down to the floodplain, absolutely no topsoil above the bare clay remaining in Planting on moundsplace, and a very high water table.  On the positive side, the spot gets good sun and is close to our trailer, so it's easy to keep the deer out.  Clearly, the ground is worth renovating back into production.

I'm slowly figuring out ways to grow things in this extremely sub-prime soil.  The trick is to raise the plants' roots up high enough that they don't drown while also adding enough organic matter and mulch that the plants have something to eat and don't dry to a crisp in the summer sun.  Planting trees in raised beds works well for year one, but by year two the trees want to spread their roots further, so I need to keep expanding the mound --- this winter's hugelkultur donuts seem to have been a good option in that regard.
Pearl millet
Since there's a lot of empty space between the young fruit trees, I've also been experimenting with making instant raised beds out of a layer of cardboard topped by a bunch of composted manure.  I can plant annual crops on these rich raised beds and get a return on my investment in year one.  Meanwhile, by attaching the vegetable beds to my tree islands, I'm also giving my fruit trees room to grow.  This idea works great if you mulch the manure beds immediately so the top doesn't crust up, then transplant in tomatoes or direct-seed squash into small, mulch-free areas.  Without mulch, though, the cowpeas, field corn, and amaranth I planted in another bed barely germinated (although pearl millet seems to be hardy enough that even scattered on the manure surface, enough seeds sprouted to make the stand pictured here.)

Punky wood

When Mark cut all of the weeds I'd let grow up over our heads, I raked some into piles alongside the tree beds for a new experiment.  My hope is that they'll rot down slowly enough that the greenery will act like a kill mulch and smother weeds underneath.  Meanwhile, the composting weeds will add organic matter and height to the soil.  I even threw some firewood that was too punky to split into the lowest spot for yet more height and organic matter.

Measure tomato

The beauty of permaculture is that every problem can be viewed as a benefit.  Yes, this part of the garden is extremely troubled, but the high groundwater acts to subirrigate my beds, keeping roots moist and the leaves dry.  The tomatoes in the forest garden are taller than the unwatered tomatoes in tomato alley and less blighted than the tomatoes in the watered part of the mule garden.  Maybe I should plant all of my tomatoes here next year?

Our chicken waterer eliminates poopy water and nasty farm chores.

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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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What about terraced gardens with either punky wood or a more permanent retaining feature like rock if you have any? It would be easier to build up small areas of good soil in retained bads than one large one. Leave the clay for your path ways.

Love all of your pictures and your intelligent and common sense approaches


Comment by Anonymous Wed Aug 10 11:26:04 2011

Despite the erosion, terraces aren't necessary. The ground is actually only barely sloped, which is why I think it had to have been grazed bare to cause any erosion to happen.

In our vegetable garden, we used a technique a bit like what you're suggesting, shoveling the topsoil onto raised beds and leaving the subsoil for the aisles. Unfortunately, in the forest garden, there is no topsoil. Plus, when I tried to shovel some of the clay up to make raised beds, I caused more problems since the groundwater is so high that even a tiny trench fills with water. The water doesn't stick around well enough to make ponds or support marsh plants, unfortunately, but does stay long enough to kill dry land plants. So I end up with bare spots --- just what I'm trying to avoid! Which is all a long way of explaining why I'm adding external inputs to make big raised beds and leaving the paths at ground level.

Comment by anna Wed Aug 10 16:36:45 2011

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