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How We Destroyed Our Soil & How We Plan to Build it Back

"A person who never made a mistake, never tried something new" - Albert Einstein

"We learn from failure, not from success" - Bram Stoker

Those of you who have followed us from the start know that we moved in and dove right in. We had a vision, limited time, grieving hearts, and a need to kick the dream off. I have a HUGE heart for sustainability, soil health, and stewarding the land. I grew up with conventional farming methods (not all bad) but really want to make some changes to bring our soil to life. Our year 1 has REALLY kicked us in the butt with that mission in the form of a big OOPS! We didn't know at the time though and have learned a lot since.

We gained access to our garden in April (after mowing down the weeds and moving a handful of pine trees from the area). We had seedlings we NEEDED to plant so we did what we knew how to. We mapped out our area, rented a sod cutter, and spent hours of muscle moving large sod chunks. The intention was to hopefully prevent weeds and to give us a fresh start. We did this at our old house with great success; however, our old house had very different soil.

Every no-till and regenerative farming book SCREAMS the importance of top soil layer and minimal disturbance to that layer. We ignored both those and now see the damaging effect. By removing that top layer instead of leaving it we removed SO MUCH organic matter. So much so that we only have 2.6% (the goal is 5-10% with a bare minimum of 2%) organic matter in our garden soil and almost every plant shows a MAJOR thirst for Nitrogen.

I cringe at sharing the above pictures. I felt defeated with failure to thrive plants (after investing so much work) and let the garden go... the weeds took over. This year we are deep mulching and laying down some landscape fabric radically knock down weed pressure.

Deprived soil requires extra time in watering since the large sand particles allow water to run right thru. It also requires fertilizing and a lot of extra attention. We do have adequate amounts of phosphorous and potassium BUT the lack of water retention can make it hard for the roots to absorb the needed nutrients due to lack of beneficial bacteria that aid in absorption. Without diving too much into the science - healthy soil is alive (literally). Healthy soil makes healthier plants with better nutrients and taste.

In our u-pick field we kept that top layer. We did still till to kill the grass then planted winter rye in the fall. We tilled it under this spring, brought in a little compost (we added compost to our garden too), and planted. What we have seen is that the u-pick flourished in comparison to the garden area. It produced but not nearly as much as it should have. For example we planted a few dahlias in the u-pick field a week AFTER the 200 we planted in the garden space. Those dahlias have already surpassed the garden ones. Not just in size but also showing deep green healthy growth where as the garden leaves are light, slow growing, and yellowing which then requires us to fertilize weekly in hopes to save this year. Our garden tomatoes which were indeterminate variety and should have reached 6-8 feet tall never grew past 3-4 feet and produced only a few tomatoes per plant.

So what now? We have been doing a lot of research on how to bring our soil back to a place where life is able to flourish.

What we plan to do to bring our soil to life so plants can flourish:

  • ORGANIC MATERIAL: Organic material breaks down into organic matter which is essential for creating a reservoir of nutrients, increase the water-holding capacity, improve soil structure which creates stable environments for micro-bacteria.

  • Dig and Drop Method at the end of the growing season. Any healthy plants (no signs of disease) we will chop and bury in the soil. Essentially the stalks will break down over the winter months giving back some of the nutrients. (we plan to start this 2023)

  • Animal compost: we have heard mixed reviews on horse compost but we have access to a LOT of it for free. So we plan to compost with horse, chicken, and our own compost pile that we started last year. We do plan to till the u-pick this year but our garden is now entirely no-till (deep mulch method).

  • COVER CROP: Cover crops are planted with the future in mind, they are also called green manure. Their goal is to improve the soil allowing future crops to thrive. They are used to crowd out weeds, improve soil structure, prevent erosion, and increase biodiversity. If we have time tihs year we plan to plant each row with winter rye OR a winter terminating cover crop.

  • COVER, cover, COVER: Bare soil is an open invitation for weeds to grow. Our goal is to have all rows covered with at least 4" of wood chips (especially if we do not have time for the cover crop). This means that our soil will be COVERED all winter and early spring. We will plant into the woodchips come spring and only clear chips in the spaces we are planting. The woodchips also help maintain even moisture.

One important thing I am working on is training my mind to celebrate the success of this year. It is really easy to get discouraged with our garden at the moment but there are wins too. So we celebrate for example with a zucchini and snap peas for dinner the night I initially wrote this but also plan for improvement. I am excited for the day in a couple years when we can look back and go WOW what a difference! In the mean time we are getting a really good lesson in patience and perseverance as we build our organic matter and restore micro biomes thriving in beneficial bacteria.

Update: Since initially writing this I am ecstatic to share little victories. Spring 2022 we covered half our garden with wood chips. That half has earthworms thriving (something we NEVER saw in 2021 when our soil was open) and a deep rich black dirt developing below the woodchips that are breaking down!

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