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Gardening question

Post in 'The Green Room' started by timfromohio, Oct 26, 2009.

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  1. timfromohio

    timfromohio Minister of Fire

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    I tried to post this question yesterday but it didn't work. Try again.

    Gardening question - has anybody ever tried the "Ruth Stout" method? Calls for no tilling and lots of mulching. Tons of mulching actually. The idea is to leave the underlying soil as undisturbed as possible with a steady supply of ever decaying mulch that improves soil quality, retains moisture, keeps weed growth at bay.

    Wondering if anybody has tried this sort of thing and had any success, in particular on a heavy, clay-rich soil.

    Thanks!

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  2. Tom Pencil

    Tom Pencil Member

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    My Dad is doing that method with a few modifications. Not sure if he has a lot of clay in his soil but I know he likes gardening this way. I'll give him a call and see if I can dig up more information from him.
  3. timfromohio

    timfromohio Minister of Fire

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    Thanks Bantam. My wife picked up the Ruth Stout book at a library book sale. I tilled up a new 45x55 or so new garden area last year - lots of clay. I'm wondering if this sort of heavy mulching will help this garden area becoming more productive sooner than later.

    Tipp City - I used to have to travel to Troy for work a couple of times a year and I think drive right by Tipp City! Small world. We're up in NEOhio, west Akron, Bath Township.
  4. Tom Pencil

    Tom Pencil Member

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    He says that he has a lot of clay also. Old moldy hay was his primary mulch. His tomato plants did not grow as well as he thought they should because he says he needs to come up with a way to get the soil warm before plants are surrounded by the mulch. Also had a problem with germinating peas and green beans. Came up with the idea of pulling back the mulch to form a row, plant the seeds then cover with sawdust from his shop. Watered the beans daily then when they sprouted and came thru the sawdust then he would suround the plants with mulch. Had a problem with skunks digging up the mulch looking for worms/grubs but other than that he says its a lot less work. Still learning the whole process as he goes but said that he will not go back to the standard way of doing gardening.
  5. SolarAndWood

    SolarAndWood Minister of Fire

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    We heavy compost/mulch and the soil we plant in has never been compacted...the tractor spans the soil and the 4' rototiller hangs down in between. The tire/walkways are heavily wood mulched. We were going to do winter rye/clover/vetch this year but haven't had the time, maybe next year. Probably not what most gardeners would call working the soil, but a decent compromise for someone who wants to know where their food comes from but doesn't have a lot of time.
  6. kenny chaos

    kenny chaos Minister of Fire

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    I always thought a rototiller compacted soil pretty darn bad.
  7. SolarAndWood

    SolarAndWood Minister of Fire

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    I think it depends on where the weight is carried and how deep you are trying to till. We just break up the surface/turn under the plants with the rototiller and use a cultivator to go deeper. We are strictly glacial till and clay yet have nice deep relatively well drained soil other than one spot I screwed up when constructing one of the terraces.
  8. Wood Duck

    Wood Duck Minister of Fire

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    I have tried both the standard method of digging organic matter into the soil (I always use a shovel, not a rototiller), and the heavy mulch method. The heavy mulch approach definitely is less work per square foot, but nowhere near as fast at improving the soil, in my experience. I often grow things like pumpkins, melons, or strawberries by simply mulching the whole plot and clearing the mulch away to plant seeds (or strawberry plants) at scattered spots. I have also grown fruit bushes like raspberries, perennials, and woodland native plants this way. You certainly can improve soil this way, but it takes time. i think it worked better in Louisiana than it does here in PA, since the invertebrates in Louisiana seemed to turn the soil more rapidly than they do here. I use fall leaves, grass clippings, almost anything, but be careful with carbon rich/ nutrient poor materials like sawdust, chainsaw chips, or chipped wood, because it can deplete nitrogen in the soil if you work it in to the soil. With fall leaves, you almost can't add too much - four feet deep in the fall is only a foot or less by spring, and 6 inches by mid summer. Grass clippings are great -high in nitrogen - but they can stink if you add them too thickly all at once. I try to spread them only a couple of inches deep at a time.

    So, to garden a large area with moderate work, use a heavy mulch, keep adding to it, and in a few years you'll have a great surface layer of organic matter and an improved soil beneath. To quickly improve the soil, work the organic matter into the soil, but it will be a lot more work per square foot.
  9. timfromohio

    timfromohio Minister of Fire

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    Bantam - thanks for checking with your dad. His plan sounds just like the book. As an aside, I detest skunks. I killed 5 last year and 3 so far this year. Neighbor across the street got 2. We are over run with those destructive little creatures. I wouldn't mind one or two, but I have gone outside with the dog at night only to have to grab him as a pair ran across the back driveway. I've seen a three-pack of them chewing up the back portion of my yard and the young ones have managed to squeeze through the mesh on the garden fence. Skunks are evil ....

    The soil I'm dealing with is clay-rich and slow to warm up and dry out in the Spring. Last year I tilled in all the leaves I could using an old BCS walk-behind tractor (rototiller on steroids). It doesn't seem to compact the soil too bad so long as it's dry. Kenny - to your point, I think even if you use a small tiller like I do it's still good to run a single bottom plow or something similar to break up sub-soil compaction. As light as my tiller is relative to a tractor, you're right - it's still got to be creating some layer of hardpan.

    SolarandWood - how large is your tractor?

    Woodduck - thanks for your suggestions. I wouldn't mind the work of getting organic matter into the soil it's just that timing is the problem. By the time the soil is truly workable in the Spring it's time to plant. NEOhio typically has very wet springs which compounds the problem. Looks like I'll try deep mulching this year.
  10. SolarAndWood

    SolarAndWood Minister of Fire

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    Older Ford, 3000 lbs somewhere around 30 hp at the pto. It has no problem with a 4 ft tiller. The single blade cultivator drops in and the tractor has no problems with it 18" down. I make three runs down each row, one in the middle and then one at each end of the 3pt adjustment which is almost rubbing the tires. Lazy mans approach but makes quick work of it. We make big compost piles and toss them on when we clean up in the fall and when we prep in the spring. Again, the lazy approach to composting. Fall cleanup and spring prep is 2 or 3 hours. Adding the 40 or so yards of wood mulch on the walkways takes some time but I would much rather mulch than weed. The seed beds are then easy to run a hand cultivator through a couple times a week. We use grass clippings around the plants for weed control as well.
  11. colsmith

    colsmith New Member

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    I can assure you from many years of experience that the sheet composting/lasagna method of gardening works great with clay soil, and almost instantly. Those of you that don't think so must not be putting a good variety of layers in your garden. I use mainly layers of leaves, old produce, and horse manure, with a sprinkling of wood ashes and crushed egg shells. I put compost on the top, and can then plant in that pretty much instantly. The plants then grow into the decomposing materials. The raised bed method keeps the soil warmer in the spring (things are composting, so make some of their own heat) and since it is raised up it drains better, so you can garden sooner after lots of spring rain.

    My tomato plants are always 8-10 feet tall, my flowers look like they are on steroids, etc. I get all the leftovers from a local produce stand, so I routinely have layers of say bananas, pears, cantaloupe, cabbage leaves, cucumbers, etc. along with the leaves and horse manure. You put layers of newspaper or cardboard down first to smother any weeds. After a while that breaks down and the underlying soil mixes with the stuff on top, due to action from roots, water, worms, and other soil life. I don't till anything. That just destroys your soil structure, e.g., the air and water microchannels, and also chops up and kills earthworms. Some worms can be cut up and live, but not earthworms, folks.

    We have 8 raised beds, one is 25 ft. long, the rest are smaller. Some people just make layers on their regular soil and sort of mound it up, but we have quack grass here, so we need a barrier between garden and not-garden. I recommend you visit Gardenweb and their Soil, Mulch, and Compost forum, and search for "lasagna" http://forums2.gardenweb.com/forums/soil/
  12. SolarAndWood

    SolarAndWood Minister of Fire

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    Great link Marcia, I didn't know about the Starbucks program.

    There is no doubt that if you can come up with 2 ft of compost for your entire garden, it will rock. No different I suppose than being 5 years ahead on your wood supply. Good motivation to get my collection program going again. Urban compost scrounging works just as well as wood scrounging.
  13. timfromohio

    timfromohio Minister of Fire

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    Thanks for all of the input. I was on leaf duty again after work yesterday and am now committed to trying this method next Spring - I have about a 6" layer of shredded Maple leaves on the garden area right now. I'll pile some grass clippings on top of that and think I've found a supply of free, composted horse manure - I'll try to get as much of that out there as well and just let everything rot down.

    SolarandWood - 4' tiller sounds awesome. I have toyed with the idea of getting a compact diesel tractor and wondered about hp ratings.

    Marcia - thanks for the link. I know what I'll be reading at lunch today.
  14. SolarAndWood

    SolarAndWood Minister of Fire

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    The last tractor was about 20 hp, 2wd and weighed about a ton. Not nearly as versatile as the current one but I think the current one is too big to mow a suburban yard. If you don't care about any serious loader work, a smaller one with industrial tires that can both mow and do the other stuff would be nice instead of having two machines. Those little diesels are great on fuel.
  15. timfromohio

    timfromohio Minister of Fire

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    I was looking at older Fords (I believe same as Massey Furgeson). Models like 1510, 1520 - they had 3 cylinder diesel motors that were rated in the low 20s for hp. 4wd. Wasn't sure if they would have enough umph to run a bottom plow, but capable of everything else I'd like - small bucket for moving compost around, could easily run a blade for snow plowing the driveway, tiller, large belly mower, etc.
  16. SolarAndWood

    SolarAndWood Minister of Fire

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    I have a 1910, think it is early 80s. Very capable little tractor. The lift arms are rated for almost 2 ton and has no problem getting the butt of a hardwood tree off the ground and skidding it. Also, has no problems with the 4' tiller, single point cultivator/hiller, 6' brush hog, 6 ft box blade, 8' york rake, small backhoe, etc. However, unless you have a very simple open lawn, I think you would get pretty annoyed mowing with it. The loader is fine for plowing the driveway, compost, etc but it doesn't take too much weight in it to pick the rear end of the tractor off the ground. I run into this whenever moving rock, stone or when picking up something substantial with a chain suspended from the loader.
  17. d.n.f.

    d.n.f. New Member

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    I just set up a garden this summer using the lasagna bed method. Uses very little soil and has been described in this site already.

    Tons of mulch and free cardboard (both from the local tree nursery). All put in raised beds.

    Will be ready to plant next year as we need some decomposition and more importantly I didn't get the deer fence up this year.

    Google 'lasagna gardening'. Tons of stuff on it. There is most of a book on the topic online and it tells you everything you need to know.
  18. timfromohio

    timfromohio Minister of Fire

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    Thanks dnf - I like hearing success stories. The garden area I'll be trying this on was mildly productive last year, but nearly as successful as I was hoping for - hopefully heavy mulching will help.
  19. Rick

    Rick Member

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    About 5 years ago I filled in an area about 2' deep with wood chips. Not for a garden but to fill in a low area. Those chips have broken down into the darkest, best looking soil on my property. I had notions of digging the soil out and moving it to my garden but I never got around to it. I also tried an experiment last year where I covered a 20X10 area with a dump truck load of leaves. Just last week I raked back the remaining leaves (which rotted down to about 10% of the initial volume) to reveal a very rich soil, but only an inch or so deep at ground level. I'm going to till that area up this fall and cover it with another dump truck load to see what happens next year. The problem with my soil is that it is hard like a rock, and is filled with rocks, so at some point I have to dig to give the roots somewhere to go.
  20. SolarAndWood

    SolarAndWood Minister of Fire

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    Or do raised beds...a lot of people swear by them.
  21. timfromohio

    timfromohio Minister of Fire

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    SolarandWood - do you mean raised beds without sides to them? That might work but I would have to bring in a lot of growing medium - I'm afraid if I mounded up what I have available to me I'd be creating canals in the walkways in between the beds since the clay-rich soil is slow to drain.
  22. timfromohio

    timfromohio Minister of Fire

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    PS - the root cause of this problem is greedy land developers. Apparently even back in the 1970s when our neighborhood was built the good top soil was trucked out. I saw that first hand when we lived in Columbus - the neighborhood there had been a corn field. What was left of the chemically-saturated top soil was scooped up and taken away. Houses built and sod laid down on top of hard clay. I probably wouldn't have wanted that dirt anyway ...

    I have many options, but all revolve around getting as much good organic matter into the soil as possible.

    Rick - I have been using woodchips from cutting as well as sawdust on the path in this garden area - if I have extra, I'll just throw them in the mix on the rest of the garden. 2' is a lot of wood chips - wow.
  23. SolarAndWood

    SolarAndWood Minister of Fire

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    I have no experience with raised beds, but Marcia's link talked about 2 ft of compost material over sod which would suggest that Rick might never have to dig it up if he got enough compost material.

    I would probably never do raised beds because I find the tractor to be a huge advantage in garden prep/cleanup. It makes it trivial.

    We have clay and glacial till. If you break it up with a cultivator/subsoiler and add compost, it does fine. We added a terrace this spring and it is full of strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, herbs, pumpkins and 10 ft tall sunflowers in its first year. Clay isn't the end of the world.
  24. colsmith

    colsmith New Member

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    Once you get a raised bed made and filled, maintenance is low. After a few years they only subside about an inch a year, and that is easily made up each fall w/leaves and horse manure or compost on top (they hold the leaves down and help them rot). You just pull the weeds and old plants out easily, as the soil you have created is so light and fluffy. Quack grass is my main foe, other weeds don't make it under the raised beds.

    Fortunately it is much easier to scrounge garden materials than firewood. Most municipalities have free wood chips, some even have free compost. Both work well in raised beds. I would put the wood chips on the bottom, and be sure to put something with more nitrogen on them, like manure or coffee grounds. I brought home my first bag of other people's leaves today, while I was out shopping in my tiny car. I usually get a few truckloads each fall, for my raised beds and to stockpile for mixing with the old produce in my compost piles. Used coffee grounds, animal manure, grass clippings, lots of these things are easy to obtain. Just lift the grass clipping and leaves in their bags at the curb. Old fruit and veg seems to be particularly nutritious, but that may be harder to get. Ask at a local farmer's market or ?

    My raised beds vary from about 8" to 15" tall. I use exclusively free materials for them, with the exception of screws to hold lumber together. 3 raised beds are plastic children's pools with small holes cut into the sides for drainage. One bed is literally that, an old waterbed frame I scavenged from a friend's burn pile. One is random scrap lumber, another is from some hinged boards that were support for something packed on a pallet, a friend saved them at work for me. The best one is the wood that formerly went all the way around playground equipment at my brother's former house, the new owners didn't want it. Another is surrounded by concrete bricks. Got everything from friends or on freecycle or people's trash.

    My garden is phenomenal. This year many friends reported trouble with tomatoes, some kind of blight, but that barely slowed mine down. Last year I had a really impressive eggplant yield from 3 plants in a raised bed, while the control in regular dirt had one eggplant. We have clay, not from developers stealing topsoil, but because we are on a slight slope. The neighbors down the road by the river got most of our topsoil years ago. :)

    No tilling means no fumes, no buying fuel, no compacting the soil with heavy equipment. Tractors and things are needed for large scale crop production, but for family sized gardens they are best avoided. If you have nice decomposing mulch, why till it in? Air, water, worms, bugs, and roots will mix it for you without compacting the soil. No-till is an increasing trend in gardening, since it lets the soil fungus develop that helps spread water and nutrients to your plants' roots, plus doesn't disturb the air and water channels that develop over time.
  25. timfromohio

    timfromohio Minister of Fire

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    SLIH - I have a lot of experienced with raised beds that have sides to them - we currently have a setup with 13 beds like this that are excellent. For this new garden area, I was thinking of much larger raised bed areas that are simply mounded up withouth defined sides. The problem we have had with the raised beds we already have is that they just don't lend themselves to growing things like corn or squash. I've found that you just need more space than provided by a conventional raised bed which is why we expanded and created another garden area to be dedicated to conventional "row" type growing. While we have successfully grown both corn and squash in our raised beds, we wanted more square footage for blocks of each. Also, since the squash vines go everywhere I was hoping to try "3 sisters", well maybe just "2 sisters" if I can get the soil fertile enough (3 sisters is corn, beans, squash all interplanted - corn is used as a natural trellice for the squash, beans adding nitrogen to the soil)

    Hopefully the clay will be a blessing in the long term - it's full of nutrients, just needs to be ammended to aid in drainage. I know that the Amish farmers in our area prefer clay-rich soil due to its long-term potential productivity.

    Thanks for all of the continued comments and suggestions.
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