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How do you go from red clay to rich soil?

PostPosted: Sat Feb 04, 2012 2:55 am
by George Collins
We hired a general contractor to oversee the building of our house. He abandoned us midstream. My wife, having the packed head that she does coupled with her love of projects stepped up to the plate and pulled it out. Having never built a house before, the work she did was truly impressive. Having never built a house before, there were things that happened that she couldn't have foreseen.

One of the things that happened was that the dozer operator was supposed to scrape off the top soil, pile it up, do the required foundational dirt work and once the house was complete, redistribute the top soil into the yard.

Bastage pushed it all down a gully.

Now, a large portion of the yard which was virgin soil is red clay.

There are a couple of known options:
- buy new top soil and have it trucked in
- something else

That second option is the more attractive of the two at the moment.

Here's the current idea - Take the trailer to Pop's cow pasture, harvest every cow pie not too fresh to oooooze through our fingers, pulverize with shovels, scatter over the entirety of the yard where the top soil was scraped off.

Before I work myself harder than a rented mule, is there anyone that already knows that I'm embarking on a venture destined to be no more productive than the type of farmer that rents mules?

Are there any other options?

Re: How do you go from red clay to rich soil?

PostPosted: Sat Feb 04, 2012 5:26 am
by pa_friendly_guy
Is the clay that is left there growing any grass now at all? Have you tried to plant anything in it at all? Is it just hard pan sub soil that is so hard and compacted that its like concrete and nothing grows in it? If the soil seems to be wanting to suport plant life now that would be a very good sign. If it can't grow weeds as it is, well that is a very bad sign George. If grass is now growing in it but sparsly I think the dry poop treatment would go a long way to improve things, and its free. A second option that I have seem on another site was rotted hay. Just spread it around and mow it into the grass. If it is just hard pan and nothing is growing, you have alot more work ahead of you. Putting in enough nutrients for grass to grow, either in dried poop, mulch, or top soil will mean alot of hauling tilling raking and replanting. If you have to do it yourself with out equipment, that rented mule thing comes to mind. If you or your Dad have some equipment that will make the job easier it may not be too bad. I don't know when you can plant grass down there and expect it to grow, around here March 15th to June 15th is considered ok to plant, or in the fall up until Oct 15th. Good luck with the project.

Re: How do you go from red clay to rich soil?

PostPosted: Sat Feb 04, 2012 1:37 pm
by George Collins

This is what the back yard looks like as of this morning at first light. The grass that you see is rye grass. The area of relative fertility is where a pig tractor was placed back in the fall. Once moved, the area was seeded and good results achieved. A similar, maybe even better result was achieved with a chicken tractor. Markedly better results were achieved in a couple areas where the chicken tractor was placed on the area just vacated by the pig tractor.

All of this begs the question, "Why not keep running that same play?"

And the answer to that question is, "Family."

Subsequent to the placement of the two tractors but prior to the results manifesting, there was a deafening cacophony of familial cackles concerning the chosen locations of the two tractors. Yes, I could over-ride and/or endure the complaints and would but for three things:
- the hogs will be pork in the to-near future to make a material difference
- the chickens are lending their fertility to another area at the moment
- spring looks to have made an abnormally early appearance and the crunch is being felt acutely.

Cow manure can be obtained in virtually limitless amounts.

I have many hands, a large trailor, a tractor, disc, section harrow and about 400 gallons of barrels and buckets at my disposal to turn towards this chore.

What if I were to re-seed it with rye grass and cover with a layer of cow manure? Or might it be better to put the seeds atop the manure?

I'm brainstorming this thing. All input and ideas are welcome.

Re: How do you go from red clay to rich soil?

PostPosted: Sat Feb 04, 2012 2:15 pm
by pa_friendly_guy
You have the equipment, you have unlimited amounts of poop, and you have kids. Like my brother always said, " Whats the use of having Dwarfs if they can't do work '. I would suggest spreading the poop and disking it into the ground along with the small amount of green manure that is growing there now. Drag it and rake it level and replant. The more poop the better. Grass grows, and it doesn't take all that much to get it going. Nature does not like a vacume, it will put somthing green there over time. It may not be grass, but something will cover that ground in time. A neighbor of mine is a farmer and always uses hay to cover his grass seeds instead of straw. Most people use straw because they do not want weed seeds to grow with their grass. At this point you want green yard. Clover seeds etc from the hay might help set some nitogen into your clay soil. I saw a Plugger cartoon some years ago, the picture was this guy pushing a smoking mower through very high grass, The caption said " Pluggers know that mowed weeds look about the same as mowed Lawn ". Once you get a bit of yard going there you will see the ground improve from the grass clippings that lay there and rot into mulch and the earth worms that help brake up the ground. At that point , if you have bare spots a top dressing of poop or rotted hay would be in order. That is my best suggestion for your situation, it certainly isn't an ideal situation, but I believe it can be fixed with time. And you shouldn't have to work like a rented mule either. ;)

Re: How do you go from red clay to rich soil?

PostPosted: Sat Feb 04, 2012 5:54 pm
by eeldip
if you can get free arborist chips, they have been shown to restore sites in very short amount of time. 8-12 inches thick is what i have read for full site restoration. ... -mulching/

Re: How do you go from red clay to rich soil?

PostPosted: Sat Feb 04, 2012 6:57 pm
by matt walker
I think you are on the right track. Heavy mulch, whether it is manure, hay, wood chips, or whatever, should get things going in the right direction. I wouldn't engage the ground at all, just cover it and get the worms going working the organic material into the soil. Some legumes to fix some nitrogen and break up the pan would probably be great. Oats work very well for this, as does clover.

If you've never read any Louis Bromfield, I encourage you to find some of his writings. Malabar Farm is a great read, and his ideas on soil rebuilding will probably give you some ideas.

Re: How do you go from red clay to rich soil?

PostPosted: Sun Feb 05, 2012 10:20 pm
by eeldip
if you are patient and have a lot of years to do the work, i think "green manure" might be a less intensive approach.

like so: ... e-mix.aspx

a few years of growing that, and mulching what grows would go a long way.

when we are talking about bringing in a few inches of compost on an acre basis thats a HUGE amount of material.

Re: How do you go from red clay to rich soil?

PostPosted: Tue Feb 07, 2012 8:27 pm
by Lollykoko
George, do you have access to all the leaf duff that is under those trees shown in your photo?

Free poop sounds like a wonderful idea. Old cardboard for sheet mulch in the spots that are bare dirt will help keep what soil you do have in place. Is that gully where the topsoil was dumped someplace where you can move the dirt back, one bucket and barrelfull at a time?

Re: How do you go from red clay to rich soil?

PostPosted: Tue Feb 07, 2012 9:30 pm
by pa_friendly_guy
I wondered about trying to fetch the top soil back from the gully as well, but I am sure there is a reason he can't do that. From the picture it looks like some of that clay will not grow weeds. I an afraid that some of it has turned into adobe, or something of a hard compacted nature like that. That is why I suggested tilling the poop into the clay to loosen it a bit so the roots have a place to take hold. I am sure that just spreading the poop on top will give the grass seeds a place to grow in time, but loosening the soil should speed up the process.

Re: How do you go from red clay to rich soil?

PostPosted: Tue Feb 07, 2012 10:20 pm
by George Collins
I live on the apex of a hill. The top of the hill had to be flattened and in the process, by necessity, widened. The dozer operator, as best as I can tell, started scraping off the crest of the hill by scraping the top layers off first and working into progressively lower layers. That is to say, that which WAS the topsoil is now the subsoil and that which was subsoil is now top soil in an effort to make everything level.

At least that's what I think happened. What I know is that I have no top soil nor is there any big pile of such anywhere on the property.

As for working organic material into the ground, that thought has crossed my mind. That is actually the same advice that Ruth Stout gave if a person wanted to use her method of gardening on exceptionally poor soil. She told them to lay dawn 8" of hay, disc it in and then lay down another 8" layer of hay to act as a permanent mulch. I think that's what I remember reading. I loaned my Ruth Stout book to a friend so I can't look it up to be sure right now. And that is actually the method I am leaning toward at the moment. Before the week is out, we will be gathering cow manure in large quantities and spreading it around. As soon as possible, it will be disced in and possibly covered again with cow manure.

A sheet mulch consisting of a double layer of cardboard, cow manure and leaves is right up against the house in the area too risky to disc in.

One thing that stands out from the experience thus far - the amount of material required to do this sort of thing is VAST.