Friday, January 15, 2010

Our Native Soil

Did you do your soil sample? If your asking what sample, I'd suggest you go back one post and read From The Ground Up or it will be like skipping the first chapter of a book.

Mine held some real surprises. Not good ones.
Because areas of the ground was muddy and I could detect dusty ground in others, I thought I could dig down four inches at least and get a soil sample. But, when I leaped upon the shovel with my chunky frame, it went doing, jarring my frame and only penetrated just over an inch into the ground. 'Great!' I thought to myself. I'd just announced to the whole world on my blog that I was doing a soil sample. I couldn't back down so if an inch was all I could get, then 1 inch was what I'd test. Besides that is suppose to be the highest in humus and the richest cream - metaphorically speaking. I even went the second mile and tested a sample with and without salt. If you haven't tested yet, definitely use the salt if you think you might have clay soil. My first sample without salt, the clay hung suspended in the water for over an hour, a murky mess. An hour and a half later, the heaviest clay layer had separated and finally the last 3/8th's of an inch settled on top. What the prairie sample told me was my garden's top soil had originally been, heavy clay, clay and clay. I hadn't been wrong when I said our top soil was only called that because it was on top. It definitely had no reference to richness.
What does this rich- lol - soil produce? This is a picture of the prairie just behind our house. As you can see a little stubby grass and shrimpy sagebrush.

Yup, not even the sagebrush grows well in this plot of ground.
How is a garden, especially one around 700 square feet going to produce anything? It won't without a great deal of help. If I'd of done this simple soil test when I first began gardening, well... I don't know what I'd have done. Sometimes ignorance can be bliss for I merrily piled on the manure and planted seeds. And though the results were pretty puny, I chocked it up to inexperience. My parents didn't have but a few garden plants most years and though my first two gardens after I was married were pretty good, I just figured my new home's soil was just going to be a little more of a challenge - what an understatement.

I tested the soil in five locations in my garden. Just the first inch and figured if I found clay it needed some serious work because the lower layers would be only worse since clay is heavier. The contrast of the prairie soil jar and the five taken from my garden was profound. I wanted to show it to you but I lost the pictures. Oh, where or where can they be? When I tried to redo the test this morning so I could take pictures, last night's dusting of snow had frozen the ground solid. Instead, I'll show you a picture of the wet prairie soil I dumped onto a wet section of garden soil.
Looks like something was sick and actually it is --the soil. Note the crack in the ground on the left hand corner. That's a sign of clay. No this isn't the best area of my garden.
I tell you what I started to do yesterday to remedy this problem in the next gardening lesson or maybe the next. This is taking longer to explain than I thought.
While I was doing more research yesterday, I came across another test for clay. You wet some soil and roll it into a ball and work it with your thumb. Now this is an area that I'm an expert in. I was the mud pie queen was I was little mixing seeds, grass, and water with mud, and sometimes rolling it out like pie dough, pretending I was cooking and canning. A lot of spoons and jars disappeared out of my mother's kitchen during this stage of development.
With so much practice my mud balls were a cinch to make. But, when I tried to stretch the clay into a ribbon with my thumb, it kept sticking. When I pulled my thumb away, it made a fairly loud sucking sound. I almost thought I had something beyond clay until a little research told me I'd used too much water. It was a long time ago that I was a mud pie queen. I guess I'm a little rusty.
This is the nicest area of my garden. See-- no cracks despite the thawing and freezing that causes soil to shrink and swell. It's not exactly rich loam, but it's not half bad. The clay isn't the dominating soil type.
This spring I'm going to do the -Shake and Settle - test (that's what I'm going to call it.) again only I'll take samples beyond an inch in depth of soil.
Next in our gardening lesson, I tell you the virtues of clay soil - Yes, there are some - and of course its draw back as if you many of you didn't already know. I'll even tell you how I made bricks while I was trying to amend the soil. And for those of you with sand I've a few things to say about it too. Some areas beyond town have pockets of sand.

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