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Old 04-11-2013, 09:16 AM   #1
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Default Amending soil vs. harming soil dwellers

Hi!
I'm having a dilemna of sorts that I wanted to ask about. The dilemna is how to continue amending my HEAVY clay soil without harming soil dwelling insects and organisms. Just the other day I went to plant four seedling Rudbeckias and in the process I unearthed a cool bombardier type beetle, some other cacoon and an ant nest. I also know that most native bees nest right in the ground, so I'm somewhat torn about this.
I'd like to get decent soil structure some day so I can grow more than just goldenrod and dandelions, but I don't want to do more harm in the process.

Andrew
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Old 04-11-2013, 12:46 PM   #2
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Hey Andrew!

The debate as to till or not till is a long and well researched one. At least you are aware of the issues. There are some good threads here relating to this, just do a search. There's the no till side saying you will not only disturb the soils structure, but also the soil fungi so important to plant life.

This may be more info than you wanted but here's a good primer on soil biology.
NRCS - Soil Quality / Soil Health - Soil Biology Primer

On top of the fungi and bacteria and structure of the soil there's the relationship with insects and other soil dwelling creatures. If you are willing to invest a little time in reading about that you'll come to your own decision on what to do with your garden.

I think many of us come to some compromise, depending on their particular conditions. I won't even get into the earthworm controversy but you'll find that informative as well.

How big of an area are you talking about? A garden plot or whole acreage? What are your goals for the property? What kind of gardener/land steward are you? Do you want a few ornamental plants, start a wildlife garden, or a vegetable garden? Begin at the beginning and ask yourself some of these questions. It seems you have sensitivity to the natural world already, if planting 4 rudbeckia seedlings stirs up some quandries for you.

Gardening essentially is a human intervention/interaction with the natural world. You have to decide the degree of intervention you are willing to engage in. It's a great sign you are already questioning that relationship.
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Old 04-11-2013, 07:07 PM   #3
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Great question, Andrew. I wish I had a great answer...but it looks like linrose is already pointing you in the right direction.

My guess is that adding layers of leaves and other organic materials shouldn't be too damaging to what lives underneath.

Then there is also the idea that the improvements will offer many more benefits by creating a more diverse habitat. I do understand how you feel though, when we first moved here, I was even concerned about removing multiflora rose and Japanese honeysuckle (among others) because they were offering something (even if only a hiding place), but it was a degraded habitat and this year I am finally removing the rest--over the years I've added more native shrubs and trees that will provide much more than what the invasives were offering.

Another thought, is that once you get things established, you will likely disturb much less. That, at least, is my theory as I remove some rocks from my woodland to create a stream and pond. Even when I remove a rock that is perfect for the pond/streambed, I make sure that replace it with something else that will provide shelter from the rain for what ever critter uses it. I hate when, on occasion, I uncover an ant colony. In that case, I either set the rock back down, or I find one to replace it with. This is all far from ideal in my mind, but I know that the streambed project will offer a lot to a variety of creatures, a habitat for various wetland plants, and a place of beauty for us to enjoy.

I hope you can glean something from my ramblings. I do appreciate your sensitivity to the critters that live in your habitat...and your desire to improve your habitat for yourself and the myriad of wildlife that will benefit from it.
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Old 04-11-2013, 09:53 PM   #4
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I worry about disturbing my tree roots too much, and injuring my trees thereby. I wasn't at all aware of this issue when we first moved into this property, and I have had a number of trees fall victim to root and trunk damage from driveway and stream construction.

There is also the question of effort for those of us with heavy clay - it sure is easier to lay compost and mulch on top of the clay than to try and till it in. Over the four years I have been here, I have seen some success in developing a top layer that looks like soil. I also have tree roots growing up into my mulch pile, and beetles/other insects and skinks that lay eggs in the mulch pile in the summer. I even unearthed a hibernating toad by accident in a sand pile I had left over from construction when I decided it was time to use it.

My rambling is a way of saying that there are critters and plant life everywhere, and they will happily come back into whatever you disturbance you cause. In fact, the part of my garden that has done the best is the soil that was most disturbed by the construction and was piled up loosely in a low pile along the side of the drive (it was soft enough for me to dig in it rather than needing a pick.)
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Old 04-12-2013, 09:11 AM   #5
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We've got heavy clay too. Sometimes you have to work backwards.... working with the natural environment not against it. If it were me.... and it's not.... I'd spend a day at your experimental research station and find out what was documented as having grown on your property before it was altered, Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station | Virginia Tech. Your native plant society is pretty good too but their information is more by county. The information is out there in bits and pieces but you would have to do a little detective work. Once you have an idea of what the native plant community was.... start from there with woodies because once those begin to establish.... their roots "work" the soil for you and it'll be easier planting back the grasses and herbaceous perennials that would be adapted to your local conditions.
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I do agree with this, "Gardening essentially is a human intervention/interaction with the natural world. You have to decide the degree of intervention you are willing to engage in." Remember.... our properties were stripped when they cleared them to make way for the foundations of our homes... our driveways... our outbuildings and their beloved turf.... so think of it as "udoing" some of what they did which..... is always a good thing.
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Old 04-12-2013, 09:41 AM   #6
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My approach is similar to Equilibrium's. I consider the history of the piece of land I'm working with. If it's been developed (agricultural, residential, etc.) I don't worry much about preserving what's there. What's there is a very disturbed and degraded soil ecosystem.

I look at these kinds of situations as a long term restoration process. There may be some short term harm (tilling, compaction, etc.) but when these actions are necessary to accomplish the long term goal I do them without hesitation. In your situation I would feel comfortable with some tilling of the soil in order to add organic matter. Most of the critters will survive this kind of temporary disturbance.
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Old 04-12-2013, 10:40 AM   #7
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Wonderful thoughts, everyone, and thank you for sharing. I think I like the idea of simply top dressing the soil with stuff from my compost pile and simply letting nature do its thing. I diligently worked one strip of soil in front of our patio for three growing seasons, and now it is wonderful stuff, but that was before I realized how much was going on underneath the surface. I've had the best luck just choosing natives that do well in clay: monardas, golden ragwort, golden rod, rudbeckias, etc. In fact I raised 10 new monarda fistulosa seedlings this spring, which I just transplante, so I should have monarda out the wazoo soon
Plus, I plan to keep dividing my ragworts - cut and paste!
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Old 04-12-2013, 11:09 AM   #8
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Cut and paste indeed! That's the best way to start sharing the bounty.

Oh monarda, I have a fondness for it in every iteration. I think I planted too much last fall though, I might end up with a monarda garden instead of a mixed planting.
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Old 04-12-2013, 10:39 PM   #9
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Great thoughts added to a great thread. Thanks for starting it, Helianthus.

What you have done so far sounds like success to me.

I'm not sure of your plans for the property, but if you do want to establish a woodland (of any size), you may want to start with some pioneer species, and as they change the area, add some trees that need what those pioneers are providing.

Please keep us posted.
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Old 04-14-2013, 06:47 AM   #10
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Not fighting nature and choosing plants that will do will with what you've got is always a good choice.


When you plant, I'm sure you put the soil (and the critters in it) back in the planting hole after loosening up the soil and adding "good stuff". You may have disturbed the critter, but don't forget - you're making things better for him in the long run too. Loosening compacted soil, adding food, aiding water absorption. Just think of it as fluffing his bed and leaving a mint on his pillow.
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amending, ammend, clay, compost, compost pile, dirt, distrub, disturbance, dwellers, earth, ecosystem, harming, organisms, sand, soil, soil ammendments, soil building, top dressing

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