Thursday, January 28, 2016

Making A New Garden: History and Soil


As compelling reading goes, the topic of soil isn't so hot. It's not sexy like big, fluffy floozie flowers, but it is what gives the birds and bees something to sing about. It is, we say, what makes or breaks a garden - without nourishing soil and good structure, all plants wither. With two acres of soil on my hands, it might be a good idea to find out a little more. So I did a bit of homework.

There is a fabulous website -- the Web Soil Survey, a joint effort of the USDA, and many local participants. It is a product of the National Cooperative Soil Survey. You can choose any chunk of land and it will give you more details about the soil than you can imagine. I did just that for our property and discovered it is made up of Cascade silt loam and Cornelius silt loam. I learned, for example, that Cascade silt loam is typically silt loam from 0 - 24 inches down and silty clay loam from 24 - 60 inches down. It is somewhat poorly drained and there is a typical depth of 18 - 30 inches to the water table. This type of soil makes up the northwest corner of the property while the remainder is the Cornelius type. This is nearly the same but is considered "moderately well drained'. Well, there's a relief. I have a mostly moderately, well-drained garden.

Hooray for all this knowledge. That only goes so far for me, though. I need to be hands-on, to dig in it and see for myself. Happily, this past week I've had a chance to do so as I've started planting a few larger shrubs and trees and have seen what this land is made up of.


It all began with the planting of my four Olea europaea 'Arbequina' or olive trees. I knew exactly where I wanted them so in they went. 


The first dig. Not too bad but, yes, basically clay. I dug really large holes for these and added lime and shovelfuls of compost. These olive trees are planted on the southern border of the property which has a gentle slope that continues down into our neighbor's property. It's a good spot for these as there won't be any cold air collecting here and the water drains right on down slope. It's also complete and total sunshine in this area.



The leaves are a gorgeous silver color. I can't wait for these to mature. They grow to between 10 - 20' tall and are hardier than most olive trees.



What a mess! But all four are snug in the ground, and I shall watch their progress with great interest.



Back to the topic of soil. See, it's easy to get sidetracked with such a thrilling topic. So knowing the soil is somewhat clay-ey and not wanting to do more work than necessary, I decided to sheet mulch sections at a time. Even this is incredibly laborious in a rain-soaked situation, but I have faith it will turn into fabulous soil as so many experts have promised. I am working my way from closest to the house outward a little at a time.


Guess what happened to all those moving boxes? Minus every little bit of tape and staple, mind you. Oy. That alone took me a few hours - tape removal.


Next was the organic bulk layer. All I really had on hand were leaves...many many heavy, wet leaves.


You can do this with many differing layers of material. The suggested one from the book Gaia's Garden, which is what I loosely based my quick and dirty method on, suggests layers in this order, bottom to top: existing soil, amendments, thin layer of manure, newspaper or cardboard 1/2 inch thick, manure again, 8 -12 inches of bulk organic matter such as hay or stable bedding, 1 - 2 inches of compost then FINALLY 2 inches of straw, leaves or other seedless mulch. WHEW.

Mine is more like this: some amendments, cardboard (minus tape), sopping wet leaves then sopping wet compost. I *might* add more leaves on top but, oh my, that's some heavy work schlepping saturated compost uphill. The leaves are bad enough. So the ideas is it all breaks down and the grass goes away and I'll have fluffy soil in no time thanks to many soil microbes, worms and such, plus it's a way to get rid of grass with no herbicides or digging. All of that organic material breaks down and adds nutrients. Now, I know I'm not doing it the "right" way but I also know that nature is forgiving and my muscles are sore. Whatever kind of soil ends up under there, I'm planting things in that science project as soon as I figure out what I want where.


Moving on. We are going to have a compost area soon, but until that happens we ordered 2.5 units (18.75 cubic yards) of organic compost and had it delivered. I've never ordered that much before so I was a little underwhelmed when it arrived. I pictured Mount Compost but instead I got speed bump of compost. Well, not that bad but....I was just surprised. I think the vast land beyond dwarfs it.


Aaaaand guess what I've been doing all week? The missing chunk represents a whole week of scooping up sopping compost and schlepping it up the hill past the sheet mulching experiment to another spot:


The berm on the north end of the house. This is a before photo from November.


Here it is as of the end of January. I know it's not that impressive but this represents over 50 loads up the hill, and I am still not finished.


This soil up here seems to be more of the "less likely to drain" Cascade silt loam. I adore the woman who used to own this property but I don't think she ever amended this soil. It is like a suction cup of mud which is unfortunate as there are so many plants in there that would appreciate good drainage. I have my work cut out for me. So the basic idea is this: Start by adding compost, any organic matter to improve soil structure now and let it do its work over the winter. I would also love to add quarter-ten gravel to the mix but that will wait until summer. The soil has to dry out more before I do much with it, this is just a first (hopefully healing) step. Plus, you just know I'm going to dig every one of those plants up and rearrange 23 times so I'll have plenty of opportunity to keep adding compost and gravel as I go. Compost and gravel -- my two best friends.


I have yet to get a soil test because I don't know where to start, that is to say which area to test first. When it comes time to deal with the veggie bed I think I'll get one for that area. For now I'm going with the mantra that you can never have too much compost to improve soil structure. It improves all types of soil -- sandy and clay. I guess we better start building that compost bin out back pretty soon!


With so much land to care for and only so much compost (and muscles and time), my strategy will be to use the remainder for new plantings and for the upcoming vegetable bed. I can't spread it everywhere, there isn't enough. Pictured here is my Cotinus 'Grace' near the gate to wow the neighbors with its fall colors someday. I hope they like it! As a side note, I have planted about 20 trees and shrubs so far and have learned that the soil in the "wooded" areas such as under the hazel thicket is fluffy and loamy. Really nice. It's the open grass areas that seem to be the worst.



This photo is from September, a sunny time for us. I include it now to suggest that you imagine this area covered in forest. That's the history part of this post (well, soil is history, too, in a funny way). We found out that it was a forested area not that long ago, covered in Douglas fir and I'm sure western hemlock and other ubiquitous trees from this area. It was cleared some years ago and has not ever really been cultivated.

At one time, the whole area was owned by a farming family. That home is just down the street. The land has been divided a few times until it is the parcel we see today. Apparently it has been owned by about five different people, five is about as far back as we can go. We are the third owners of the house, and we are honored to be caretakers of both for this stretch of history.

Soil is one of those things that isn't particularly fun to talk about because if you don't have good soil, it's a lot of work to improve it. I know I won't be able to have fluffy black soil everywhere but I will allow nature to do its thing and help me in creating good soil in most places. I think as I work it and continue to add both compost and plant material and let leaves and other organic matter fall where it will (even attracting birds to the land adds to the soil), it will improve in time. That's the hope and nature never fails to deliver.

That's what's happening this week at Chickadee Gardens at Blue Jay Lane - thank you for reading and until next time, happy gardening!



22 comments :

  1. Replies
    1. Thanks, Phillip - more just trying things out - I'll keep you posted how it goes! How's your new garden? Have you had a chance to settle in yet?

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  2. I've been adding compost annually for fifteen years and it still isn't "perfect" soil. I don't envy the work you're putting in. I dread humping wheelbarrow loads from the street to the backyard every spring. And that's on a MUCH smaller scale. Your plants will love you for it, though. :)

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    1. Oh, I know the pain of getting it to the backyard, that's no small chore! I'm hoping the plants love me for it, or will. I figure I can do it now before I'm an old lady...as I plan to drink a lot in my old age.

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  3. Well I think soil is fascinating. That soil survey site is a wonderful tool once you figure out how to navigate it.

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    1. Yes it is, Amy! It takes a bit of dinking around before it becomes logical - but a great tool anyone can use. Thank you for coming out and your recommendations, I will definitely seek out soil tests for the veg patch. You're the best!

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  4. Soil may not be sexy, but it's important! I've looked at that soil survey website before. My parents house is smack in the middle of a stretch of Seaquest Silty Loam, with silty loam on the top 0-6 inches and silty clay loam below that. Of course, all the open areas I want to garden in have had that important top layer scraped away, and the clay underneath is frequently compacted. Like your property, the soil in the woods is wonderfully fluffy and loamy. But I won't be touching those areas, except a little bit around the edges closer to the house. I'm surprised at how close to the water table you are. According to that site, my water table is over 80 inches down, though I've got a clay deposit in one area that holds more water and is very soggy in winter.

    Good choice with the olives! I've been thinking about planting a few at my parents' house, too. The ones at work are beautiful, and a lot of them are in more shade than you'd think an olive would accept. You're so smart to start out with all that sheet mulching and spreading compost. I've been too impatient and impulsive to do that. I think I will start sheet mulching a few areas, though, to have them ready for planting in the future. Yes, you've discovered one of the dilemmas of gardening on an acre or more. All that space really sucks up the labor and materials. Be prepared to order many more truckloads of compost. But at least you have free leaf mulch on site. I really do envy you that. About 99% of the trees at my parents house are Douglas firs.

    I'm really enjoying reading your posts on starting your new garden. Despite having moved there the year I started 3rd grade, my parents' garden is still in the early stages of development. I love seeing how you're taking on this task and getting ideas for what to do in my own garden.

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    1. OH SO IMPORTANT. It really does matter, there's no getting around it. I think some of this top soil has been washed away as we're on a slight slope. The olives are so pretty and hopefully will take to their new home.

      The sheet mulching: I just have so much to do that the chances of getting to that area before it's all decomposed is slim, so call it "lazy gardening"...

      Glad you are enjoying the posts, Evan! Sometimes I wonder who would find these interesting -- they seem like all in a day's work to me but I think when I look back they will hold some humor for me - like the "oh, Honey...do you remember when we sheet mulched that darned garden? Ha ha...that was so much fun!".....

      Oh, and I would love to have you out to help I.D. some trees and see the area now...I think you could give me some ideas!

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  5. I'm thrilled to look at these images and actually be able to place them and know what I'm looking at. You've been busy and already done so much, it's kind of mind boggling.

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    1. Yay! So glad you were able to come out. You know I had the same experience seeing your garden for the first time. It was totally in the wrong direction. You need to move your house to fit my imagination.

      Mind boggling is that we chose to do this. Hah ahahhah...well, it will get easier, right?

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  6. It's so much work but worth it if you want a good garden. I'd love to have room for olive trees, they add so much to the landscape.

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    1. Hi Shirley, thanks for reading and commenting. It is a lot of work but will be worth it in the long run. The olives do add a lot, I've seen some larger ones in urban gardens and they make a lovely airy screen, I got the idea from J.J. DeSouza's garden, she's the owner of Digs Inside and Out and is a garden designer. Wonderful garden to see in person if you're in Portland, or google it...a few of us have done blog posts about her.

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  7. You've make a great start on that sheet mulching and all the other work too. I've made beds with sheet mulching in the past, and I just want to say "Get some manure in there." Where you're living now, I bet you won't have any trouble finding some nice aged horse manure. Check craigslist. I can't remember if I've offered cardboard boxes, but I have plenty, if you want more.

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    1. Thanks, Alison! Ok, manure...I just checked on Craigslist and there are a few options. I think a drive around the area might yield some more opportunities to procure good poop. Cardboard boxes?? Well, thank you - I don't see getting to Tacoma any time soon....if they're still around this summer, though... :)

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  8. Ooh, I'm VERY interested in soil. Ever since I read that before houses and developments get built, the top soil is removed from the property (and sold), and that the country's top soil is eroding away, I'm super interested! The dirt at my property is average to poor and I'm always thinking about planting more deciduous trees and shrubs that can generate precious compost material.

    (BTW, i am reading Gaia's Garden and love it so far!)

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    1. Oh, cool! Of course you are...you're the science geeky kid that I admire. Yes, it's true about top soil. It also gets compacted in construction, so it's often a huge challenge for the home gardener to make great soil. It's evident by just walking in the woods how nature can take care of things - that is to say the soil is rich and fluffy and provides all the plants need to survive through recycling. If you have deciduous trees to provide leaf litter that's a huge help.

      Glad you like Gaia's Garden, Gina recommended it and I really enjoyed the read.

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  9. Congratulations on the move. Its a big change compared to the old home. I had to go back a few posts to see the whole story. I feel your pain hauling all that compost. I am so glad we don't have hills. I love sheet mulching and we did it the same way. The leaves are a gardener's dream for the garden. I look forward to seeing your garden grow.

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    1. Whoa, Nellie it is a huge change. From the old 50 x 100' lot in urban Portland to 2.07 acres is WOW...a lot to take in.

      Glad to know you had good results via sheet mulching. Leaves are a dream, aren't they? I'll keep everyone posted on the progress of the new Chickadee Gardens...stay tuned, changes may be slow but they're coming!

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  10. Your efforts WILL be rewarded, I have no doubt of that. I've been working on my own soil almost since we moved in to our current house 5 years ago. I have much less land than you do (just over 1/2 acre) but I appreciate the effort that goes into improving the soil and I've seen first-hand what a difference it makes. Best wishes! Pace yourself!

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    1. I listen to you, Kris-of-the-FABULOUS-Dreamworthy-Garden. Thanks for your encouragement. I'm glad some people out there can appreciate the brute force it takes to schlep dirt up a hill. Sheesh. No respect (except from fellow gardeners!!)...I tell ya'.

      Pacing myself now with a cup of coffee and watching the husband through the window chop blackberry. Now that's how to garden :)

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  11. Looks like you're going to be needing a tractor! I'm definitely getting one shortly after we move onto our property. I'm very excited for you - it's looking so good!

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    1. Oy...not another expense! But you're probably right. Good thing our neighbor has one :) Thanks for the compliments, Gina - it means a lot coming from a Garden Goddess like you!

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