Novice learning more about soil, hoping for some advice.

etehiverNovember 3, 2009

Hello All,

I've very much appreciated the advice I've gleaned from reading all of these posts. I've read many of them, so thanks to everyone for sharing your knowledge and advice. It's especially helpful to those of us who are novices.

A few years ago our family moved from an inner-city apartment to a brand new home in the suburbs of Minneapolis/St.Paul, MN. I didn't know anything about gardening, plants or soil. As we finished our home, we hired a landscape designer to develop a "plan". New neighbors recommended the designer, and I'd seen examples of her work. We were confident of the choice. To give you a sense of my ignorance at the time, she asked which style of landscaping we preferred. To be honest, I really had never considered there were different styles. I didn't know. Our designer was helpful, but I think the plan and subsequent installation suffered from the all-to-common "typical" plant choices and shortcuts to installing plants.

A few years later, I've surprisingly found that I'm more interested in what the landscaping looks like outside my home. More so I think than most of my (very nice) neighbors. This led me to read up a bit more on the subject. I now know that our soil is very clay-ey (is that a word?). It retains moisture like crazy, and doesn't drain well at all. The landscape installers spread a few inches of black dirt over the top of the clay in the landscape beds, dug holes in the clay, and plugged in the plants according to the designer's plan. They backfilled and added a few inches of mulch on top. I suspect that this is common industry practice, but the plants have not done well.

Since then I've read "The Well Tended Perennial Garden" by Tracy D'Sabato Aust and learned a lot more about building better soil. After reading this and other books, I decided I knew enough to make changes to the designer's plan, and began work on my own. I enlarged some of the beds, transplanted perennials and shrubs to area where they'd hopefully do better (with better sun, soil, moisture, etc. conditions), double-dug nearly everything, mixed in a lot of municipal (leaves) compost, bagged composted cow manure, black dirt and sphagnum peat moss.

Recent cold and wet weather limited my progress, and I had to rush to get as much done as possible in the time I had. One thing I didn't get to was sampling the soil in the various beds. I'm afraid they'll all be a little different from each other depending on how much I amended. Now I have to wait until spring to begin again, as I think I've run out of time this fall to plant new stuff. I transplanted a bunch of shrubs and perennials, but that's as far as I got. I'm planning to re-mulch next spring with D'Sabato Aust's recommended pine bark mulch, plant some "new" plants, and continue building better soil conditions and drainage.

I'm sorry about the long explanation, but at this point I'm looking for advice on how to proceed next spring and into the future. I know that gardening takes patience, but I'm a restless "do-it-yourselfer." I'm impatient, and want to see progress as soon as possible.

I never consciously intended to become an organic gardener. With all the soil amendments and digging I did though, I want to build on that progress. The last thing I want to do is to spray chemicals over everything, and kill the good stuff in the soil.

I have a question or two if you're willing to respond: Do most of you do soil samples every year to determine what the soil "needs"? Should I stick with an "organic-only" approach, or is there a hybrid approach that takes advantage of the best of the organic and synthetic methods. I don't want to over-think this but I don't want to undo the progress I've made either.

Your thoughts are welcomed and appreciated. Thanks!

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I'm envious of your clay. We moved five years ago to gardening space that is near pure sand. From what I've read the best thing to help with drainage for clay soil is to add sand. Tied with that is compost. I've just been adding compost, and compost, and compost, as well as other organic nutrients and have seen improvement every year.

There's no reason to abandon your organic approach. Check out the Organic Gardening Forum where you can get more advice and suggestions.

    Bookmark   November 3, 2009 at 8:42PM
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hostaholic2 z 4, MN

Here is a website that you may find useful. There is a wealth of info there.
It really isn't necessary to test your soil every year, I think the recommendation is about every five years. Compost is one of the best things you can do for your soil. You need to be careful adding sand to clay, you can end up with bricks. You can build raised beds, or berms if drainage is a problem.Leaf mold, compost, peat moss....any organic material will be helpful.
I am mainly organic but do not rule out synthetic chemicals in some cases. You may want to research IPM (integrated pest management). An excellent book is "The Truth About Organic Gardening" by Jeff Gilman. He talks about and compares synthetic and natural chemicals and their eco impact.
If you haven't had a soil test done, it would be a good idea. Also, instead of trying to change your conditions to meet plant needs you may want to choose plants suited to your conditions. Best of luck to you and have fun playing in the dirt.

    Bookmark   November 3, 2009 at 9:43PM
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leftwood(z4a MN)

You do not need to wait until spring to test your soils, unless you have added something like sulfur flakes or granules that take a while to break down and influence the soil. This excludes organic matter. There is no need to test every year, unless there is a specific reason to.

Adding sand to clay only produces hard pan soil in certain situations, situations where if the clay was just mixed by itself it would produce the same result. Still, if you add sand (which is a good thing), I would always include organic matter sources as amendments at the same time. You can never add too much organic matter. You should never need to add lime as a general practice. Compost is a wonderful thing.

As you have already figured out, wet clay based soils should never be worked, and the colder it is, the worse it will be. Digging wet clay will produce the hard bricks that hostaholic talks of.

    Bookmark   November 4, 2009 at 2:59PM
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Thanks for all the good info. I've added lots of municipal and cow manure compost and peat moss. I haven't added any sand at all (after reading warnings about creating concrete). I think I may just do a few soil samples yet this fall. Just to make sure I didn't screw something up, and prior to planting next spring. I hope that the organic stuff I dug in will provide the food the plants need.

Unfortunately, I'm very aware of the wet clay soil issue. Ours is almost always a little wet. Problem is our water table is so high, If I dig down much more than a foot, I hit really wet clay soil- even when we've had relatively little rain. (I've honestly considered digging in a water feature without a pond liner. The groundwater's so close to the surface.) It's also taught me to raise plants up a bit when I install them, and choose plants that can tolerate wetter feet.

I hope I'm starting to get the hang of this. The results will be evident either way hopefully starting next season.

    Bookmark   November 5, 2009 at 3:01AM
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hostaholic2 z 4, MN

It sounds as though you are off to a good start. You are aware that good soil is the basis for successful gardening and are choosing plants to fit your conditions. Those are two things that many people ignore and then wonder why they have problems.

    Bookmark   November 9, 2009 at 10:31PM
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Thanks for all the great advice on soil. The compost,amendments, and double digging really is paying off this year. The plants are all growing fast and healthy. The only problem is that a few of my plant choices (especially Johnson's Blue Hardy Geraniums) have grown so well, that I think I need to re-evaluate their placement. They've doubled the size that the label said they would grow to.

I'll keep on adding compost whenever I can. I can really see that it's working.

Thanks again!

    Bookmark   August 18, 2011 at 3:55AM
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hostaholic2 z 4, MN

Congratulations! It takes some people many years to learn what you already know.

    Bookmark   August 19, 2011 at 12:10AM
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An intriguing supplement advocated by some is the litteral dust from rocks, called rock dust. Can you believe it? People who like it say it re-mineralizes the soil in a good, cheap and natural way. You might even be able to find it super cheap around here since the people at the large garden centers aren't really familiar with it yet.

    Bookmark   September 1, 2011 at 2:10AM
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