Turning clay to workable soil, a progress report

>> Wednesday, November 7, 2007

I thought I would take this time to report on how well my clay soil is turning into workable garden soil. It is coming along quite nicely. When I first began planning these beds three years ago they were covered with grass and the occasional weed. Mainly bindweed and what I used to (until today) call buttonweed.

Just now I looked up buttonweed on the internet to provide a picture or a description link of it here and learned that what I thought was buttonweed is actually something else. I found Virginia Buttonweed and this clearly is not what I have. My education continues and now I have to figure out just what weed I do have. I swear it looks like a bunch of buttons on the end of each stem. So, what is it?

To date, I have converted 1,135 sq ft into eight perennial and four vegetable beds.

All four vegetable beds and two perennial beds are raised using untreated redwood and cedar lumber, to resist rot.

The remaining perennial beds are not raised but currently bordered with cherry wood logs partially buried. I plan on replacing them with stone or brick within the next few years.

Looking back on it, I can’t believe I have dug up this much soil. That is a lot of ground to cover with mulch and amend with compost every year.

I chose to experiment in preparing the beds by using three different methods, one, weed killer and then waiting until the soil was safe to use; two, digging the soil up with a shovel and pulling up grass for the next two years; and three, covering the area with newspaper over winter and then digging in the spring.

The weed killer is by far the easiest and quickest method but the prospect of poisoning the water table scared me. I read extensively about the product and decided it was safe. The product I chose to use was glyphosate. It is the main ingredient in RoundUp (produced by Monsanto), and since the patent ran out in 2000, there are now other products on the market that use it. I chose to use Hi-Yield Kill-Zall.

Glyphosate is non-toxic to humans and animals. Glyphosate moves through the weed to the root, and stops the function of an essential enzyme found in plants (but not in humans or other animals). Any Glyphosate not absorbed by plants breaks down into natural materials without moving in or on the soil to untreated plants. It is only effective on actively growing plants and breaks down over the course of ten days or so.

Weeds and grass will generally re-emerge with one to two months, so it doesn’t get rid of them completely but you now have a really good head start towards getting your garden in. If I want to start a bed quickly I will use this method again. But, I plan on having enough patience to let newspaper and mulch do the job.

Spreading newspaper over the ground and then laying mulch on top of that was pretty simple and effective but I had to wait over winter. Since I wasn’t going to plant anything for awhile this method worked pretty well.

Using a shovel was obviously the most labor intensive and after it was done the grass kept coming back for a couple of years until I had pulled up enough of it that I finally got all of the roots out.

The soil under the grass was fairly easy to work in and I added composted steer manure and shredded bark mulch over two years before finally planting anything. I used a rototiller in one bed but was told that it can create a hardpan beyond the reach of the tines so I won’t be doing that again.

Paul James, of Garden by the Yard, says it is okay to use a pitch fork to loosen the soil each year and I guess it will have to be an ongoing thing.

After all of this work on these beds I feel pretty confident that they are all life sustaining. I find fat worms and baby worms so that is a good indication that the soil is thriving.

Although I will never be free of weeds, don’t I wish and pray for that miracle, at least with enough good stuff growing in the beds most weeds will be crowded out and weeding should get better over time.

After all the work I have put into it, the soil is fairly easy to work in but I will need to add compost to it every fall.


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