Monday, August 08, 2022

Clay Is Rock Without Ambition

This morning, instead of going to the gym, I went back to our old house and dug in the dirt. As a part of our remodel, almost the whole back yard will be redone, so we had much of our existing landscape removed in preparation. That leaves a lot of space for leaves. Tobacco leaves, to be precise.

The soil is trash. Despite my offers to pay the previous gardener handsomely for getting rid of the clay, which he agreed to do, he just dug holes in the clay big enough for the plants he was planting. They did poorly and years of putting decorative bark on top of the soil didn't help much. If I recall correctly, bark leaches some nutrient out of the soil as it starts to decay.

So that left me with 24 tobacco plants to put into the ground and soil that was unfit for purpose. It turns out that neither crops nor livestock nor babies know what time it is. If it's light enough to see, it's light enough to farm. At 0600, I was there, turning over the soil and putting the clay in an ugly pile off to the side.

San Diego's native soil is horrid. Big chunks of clay like this are all you get. Since we barely get any rain, there's no decaying, organic material mixed into the dirt. Clay is rock without ambition. That is, you can cut it with a shovel, but then you have two chunks of clay.

We've been gardening enough back here over the years to have amended the soil to some extent. Turning it over wasn't hard, but it really needs some help in the form of topsoil and fertilizers.

The tobacco plants have been doing great and are eager to be transplanted.

I'll move these into the dirt tomorrow morning.

On a sad note, it looks like all of our watermelon plants are only going to deliver five melons. The rest were shoved into tight places or planted in lousy dirt and while they grew, they haven't delivered up any fruit. Oh well. Five melons should be enough for a couple bottles of wine.


tim eisele said...

Well, that sounds unpleasant. Hopefully you can eventually do something with it. It sounds like what you really need, is some manure. A truckload would probably do it. Horse manure is the least foul-smelling, if you can get it.

A few years back, my wife wanted to start a garden in our back yard. Which, unfortunately, does have some ambition to be rock (it is sand, but is sufficiently cemented together to be nearly sandstone in spots). So what we ended up doing was digging up what soil was available, and using our cheap portable concrete mixer[1] to make a blend of 1/3 by volume soil, horse manure, and perlite. The concrete mixer worked great, and it produced this marvelous soil that makes the plants just take off.

[1] It was one of these mixers: Not the greatest quality device in the world, but the price is right, and for occasional use around the house it is plenty good enough.

K T Cat said...

Your cement mixer idea is genius!

My long-term plan is to have our contractor bring in a backhoe and a dump truck and dig two feet down. They'll remove the dirt and replace it with bulk topsoil. It will be a bit expensive, but for the rest of our lives, we'll have proper gardening soil. Our raised beds work wonders, so we know it's the soil, not the water quality or the climate.

Mostly Nothing said...

Our new house is filled with a huge garden everywhere. The former owners had it set up so there was something new flowering every week. It started with the Cherry tree and went through so many different plants. Really nice. We (as in my wife, not me) are trying to figure out what all everything is.

I'm working on getting the lawn up to the standard of all the plants. There was a total water ban last summer, and all the lawns suffered for it. But with the break in the heat last week and the recent rain, things are looking up.

K T Cat said...

Mulch does indeed remove nitrogen from the soil.

"The nitrogen is not really “robbed” from the soil, it is just temporarily tied-up in the bodies of the soil bacteria as their populations surge while they are working to break down the wood chips.

These bacteria need nitrogen to survive and do the decomposition work on the low-in-nitrogen wood chips. Once the chips are decomposed the nitrogen is released back into the soil as these bacteria die off."

Because we get so little rain, decomposition takes forever here in San Diego. Once the nitrogen has been removed, you'll be waiting a long, long time for it to come back.

tim eisele said...

Yep, that's the advantage of manure over mulch. Manure has a high available nitrogen content. Particularly chicken manure. Birds combine their urine with their solid wastes, and so all the nitrogen-rich uric acid stays with the manure. We've been using the manure from our daughter's chickens pretty liberally as a nitrogen source, and boy howdy does it work.

We've also taken to using a compostable cat litter, and then using the cat wastes as a combination fertilizer/rodent repellent around the hickory and hazelnut trees out back. Cat urine in particular is loaded with bioavailable nitrogen. It makes a bullseye of lush green growth around the base of the trees that we place it around.

Both chicken and cat manure smell pretty appalling when they get wet, though. In your neighborhood, the neighbors might object.

Ilíon said...

My property is on top of a big pile of clay, so I well understand your frustration (*). After a good rain, or in the spring as the snow melts, I can hear the water trying to drain away.

When I first bought the property, I bought a load of "topsoil" ... it was just darker colored clay. So, I've been making my own topsoil. For the past 35 years, I've been composting lawn clippings and autumn leaf-fall in a long barrow where the summit of the hill drops into the woods. Understandably, this isn't an option for you.

Now that I'm retired and have the time to care for a garden, I'm mixing the compost and native clay (aiming for roughly half-and-half) and using that to build up the garden.

Tell you what, I have so much compost that you can have a load ;)

(*) Still, and perhaps I'm wrong, but I understand that clay is good soil, in the sense of having nutrients for the plants, but that being so dense, it doesn't drain well nor allow good root aeration and just generally impedes good root development.

Ilíon said...

==Clay Is Rock Without Ambition==

Back when I first bought the property, I nearly destroyed my feet (I needed to use an "orthotic" for decades) by stupidly wearing tennis shoes, rather than wook boots, as I was trying to dig in clay that had turned to rock due to the dryness of that summer.