So, what goes right or wrong with soil? I live on glacial till which means my soil is layered sand, rock, gravel and clay. I removed my topsoil because it contained toxic levels of arsenic. My challenge has been to rebuild non-toxic topsoil. Now, I’d just as soon not mow, so I don’t try to improve non-garden soil.
When I started gardening here sixteen years ago, I imported manure, some topsoil, some fill dirt, basically anything I could find that didn’t contain toxins. I dumped this mix into raised beds and covered it with straw. It worked. The manure and straw broke down, so I began to see some good-looking dirt.
Next, I got cancer. I didn’t get much done in the gardens. The beds I let go to weeds actually survived better than the beds along the driveway that I weeded. Some years we cut the weeds in some beds and let them lie. This spring I dug up one of the neglected beds and found deep healthy soil. My problem is the two beds along the driveway. Each year while sick, I hired two young men to weed these beds and dump the weeds in a compost pile on the back of the property. I sprinkled alfalfa meal, bone meal and greensand around the plants and ignored the dirt.
After five years of removing organic matter and not replenishing it, the soil turned hard and lifeless. My plants are spindly and yellow. Because my subsoil is sand, rocks and gravel, water drains through so fast it leaves dust trails behind. Earlier this year I tried to dig holes for some dahlias. I couldn’t get the shovel into the ground. It needed a pick. Even the crab grass refused to invade these beds. This is not soil for a perennial bed.
Clearly, something must be done with these beds that are the first guests see when they come to visit. They are also my best full sun beds and should be supplying my cut flower business with bushels of beautiful roses, lilies and perennials.
As Mother Nature would have it, the beds did grow weeds. I even found some vetch twining among the grasses and dandelions. I could have dug everything out and imported new soil. I didn’t want to spend the money, and I really want to break up a thin layer of clay above the rocky layer.
I am a great fan of Ruth Stout and layered lasagna beds. I try to compost everything. I decided to leave the weed roots in the ground. I didn’t see anything that appeared too invasive and perennial. Hopefully the roots will rot in place and break up the soil. I cut down the weeds leaving them lie on the ground in the bed. In some places the cut weeds were about six inches deep. Next, I watered so the dead weeds were nice and wet. I threw on a little blood meal to help speed along the composting process. My next layer is paper and cardboard. It is time to compost old bank statements, grocery bags and those boxes from Amazon--mostly the boxes from Amazon. I have a thin layer of dead dirt from plant pots. Finally, I’ve layered six inches of organic straw over the top of the paper and dirt. I’ll still need to water to help with the composing and feed the tough roses and Flox that have survived the neglect and hard dirt.
I can make manure tea to pour on the layered mulch to add microbes to the mix. I doubt that the soil underneath knows what a microbe looks like. I do have a precious source of microbes that I use like gold. When I change the duck’s drinking water, the old water is full of muck that must be growing something. My roses love the stuff.
I will continue to toss organic matter on these beds, especially trimmings from my flower business and trimmings from the vegetable beds. I have a plethora of Kale that reseeds itself where I don’t want it. It will at least be useful as compost.
I’ve used this process all over my gardens, so I’m confident that by the time I need to plant the fall bulbs, I’ll be able to dig the soil. It won’t be great dirt yet, but it will be better. By spring, I should have a nice layer of nutritious fluffy topsoil. It will take several seasons of mulching, manure tea and refraining from over-digging before the topsoil will gain any depth. It will happen because, given care, soil can heal.