Maintaining Soil fertility

Hi All

It’s been a while since my last post. I’ve got loads of things to write about now that the nights are getting longer, but thought that I would start with a short post about maintaining soil fertility. Some of you may have read a post that I wrote back in March, describing building a compost heap incorporating ideas/techniques culled from the book, Farmers of Forty Centuries. The post can be found by clicking this COMPOST link. I wanted to show you the results.

I’ve been using compost to prepare my vegetable beds for planting. I haven’t needed to use too much, as the beds are being used to grow grains, and they don’t need too much fertility. The picture below is of the last of my two year old hot compost.

two year old compost

two year old compost

It’s good compost, well matured, has been hot, and turned.

The picture below is of the heap built in March, using layers of straw (Deep Litter Duck bedding), retted horse manure, and pond mud.

Chinese style cold compost

Chinese style cold compost

It is really good. Good enough to use as potting compost, but probably mixed with sand to reduce nutrients a bit. As it is cold composted, there will be some weed seeds, especially from the pond mud, but I can live with that. Although the heap was slow(ish) to build, there was no turning involved, and the extra clay introduced with the pond mud will help to create a really stable humus. It’s not really six months old, as the deep bed was started in October.

The picture below is a close up.

Chinese style cold compost

Chinese style cold compost

I want to make another heap now, to use next Spring, but need to empty another bay first. That will take some time, and it looks like I need to build another another compost bay.

There are some changes that I’d like to try. My supply of horse manure is limited, and could stop at any time. As the manure is simply partially digested grass, I think that I can ‘digest’ it in bins using water, molasses, and microbes, possibly EM-1. The limiting factor may be the amount and size of theĀ  available containers. If the grass works, I can start using weeds, and foraged vegetation. I already ‘drown’ weeds to use as a liquid feed, and guess that the addition of molasses will help the microbes to break down the tough fibres.

I would also like to do the same with woody material.

I’m currently reading more of the research that has been conducted into soil fertility, and am making some interesting discoveries, which may lead to me trialling the addition of raw material directly to the vegetable beds, rather than via a compost heap. Some of what I am reading indicates that composting the raw material may reduce the amount of minerals that could be liberated from the soil by the action of soil microbes. It also indicates thatĀ  Permanent Agriculture could be possible, with only minor additions of lime, and possibly Phosphorous.

I’ll keep you posted.

15 thoughts on “Maintaining Soil fertility

  1. The Snail of Happiness

    I have started using some raw material direct on beds. This year I put kitchen waste directly in the bottom of one runner bean trench mixed with shredded paper. It’s only anecdotal, but this was the row of beans that has given me the best harvest this year. In addition, my ‘rubbish bed’ comprises mainly material that was uncomposted, including shredded willow, large quantities of beech leaves, grass clippings and sackfuls of moss that a friend rakes out of their (huge) lawn. I allow the chickens to ‘cultivate’ this over each winter and thus to add some nutrients of their own. It’s two years old now and has proved to be remarkably productive and has been low maintenance (in situ composting has saved all that business of lugging stuff round the garden). My gut feeling is that by using woody material and tree leaves, I have created a microbial system more similar to that found in a woodland than is usual in a vegetable bed. In addition, because the composting happens in the bed, I don’t disturb the structure much and it generates heat. It isn’t a true ‘hot bed’, but I suspect that if I measured the temperature early in the season it would be higher than the other beds.

    Reply
    1. Deano Post author

      I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading, and am pretty sure that I would get better results using high carbon material added directly.
      Lots of good links to publish at some point.
      Am just getting my stuff sorted out.

      Reply
      1. The Snail of Happiness

        The shreddings from the willow hedge seem to have a great impact on the beds – they make lovely compost too, but I prefer to use them in situ. We place the shredder directly onto the bed, so moving material around is minimal. I’m pretty sure this builds up a much better microbial community, especially fungi. I look forward to seeing your references.

        Reply
        1. Deano Post author

          Hi Jan.
          Using shredded wood, especially one that breaks down relatively quickly like willow, is a really good way of amending the soil. it’s particularly useful at this time of year, as the main loss of fertility is from leaching during the Winter (Source. Growing Green). Whilst the best way of locking the nutrients in is to grow something fast growing like cereal rye, adding a high carbon material, and incorporating it into to the top layer of the soil, will create a frenzy of microbe feeding, dragging Nitrogen and other nutrients out of the soil water, and into their bodies. These will be released in the new year as the soil temperatures rise, and microbial activity increases again with the rising temperatures.

          Reply
  2. Max

    Great Posts, both the initial one and this one. I had been using tree service tippings for the litter in my hen house and it worked really well at absorbing the odors but is very slow to breakdown, might be an option to increase the carbon in your pile?

    Reply
    1. Deano Post author

      Hi Max
      I have shredded wood, and prunings in a deep litter system for my chooks, but it is slow to break down as it’s so dry. i have taken to adding some greens for them to eat, and am about to give the whol floor a spray with compost tea. There’s a lot of carbon in the pile, it is mainly straw, and it breaks down really well.

      Reply
  3. Stuart

    I’ve a book recommendation for you: Teaming with Microbes by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis. In a really readable way, you’ll learn how bacteria, fungi, insects, earthworms, snails and even small mammals participate in the soil food web. It explains about bacteria-rich composts and fungi-rich composts and which plants lie what. Well worth the money to buy and time to read it. The shredded wood mentioned in the comments above will tend to give a fungi-rich compost.
    I’ll now sit down and read my way through that like you posted above, thanks.

    Reply
    1. Deano Post author

      Hi Stuart
      Teaming with Microbes is one of he books listed in my resource list. I would agree that it is well worth a read.
      Deano

      Reply
      1. Stuart

        Ah, yes, indeed it is. I’m just getting to find my way around your blog. I like reading lists: it’s fun to see what one has in common and find out some good recommendations too.
        Stuart

        Reply
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  5. annisveggies

    Hi Deano
    This is so interesting! I am sure that maintaining or increasing soil fertility is crucial to any aspiration to grow high quality plants and get good productivity. I will be reading the things recommended above during the winter.

    I do something similar to the comments above using what I call “mulching in place”. If I remove a “weed” or cut back another plant or shrub I tend to drop or scatter this green material on the nearest suitable soil surface. I haven’t paid really close attention to how long it takes to break down, but anecdotally it seems to disappear quite quickly. My view (currently unsubstantiated as I have not done any of the reading you and others mention above) is that this is doing several things at once – providing a “weed” suppressing mulch, feeding the soil from above, providing habitat for spiders / beetles etc. It also saves me time and energy which is important for me as I don’t have much of either!

    Best wishes

    Anni

    Reply
    1. Deano Post author

      Hi Anni
      This whole series of posts is heading somewhere, even if I don’t know exactly where yet. I have unearthed some interesting texts on Indian Agriculture, and these are adding to what I know.
      Hopefully this will lead to more useful stuff.

      Reply
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