Tag Archives: soil improvement

Transmute mud to earth

We’ve spent the last week or so frenziedly working on turning a chunk of our former pigpen into a vegetable patch. The pigs did an incredible job of removing the thick, meadow-like layer of turf from their pen. They also (with ample help from weeks of heavy rain) turned the earth underneath into thick, squelching mud covered in large puddles of standing water.

It's like a pig sty in here. Seriously.

It’s like a pig sty in here. Seriously.

We’re not sure if this is the pigs’ doing, actually. Our area has heavy clay soil, and if you dig down a foot or so you’ll hit a layer of solid orange clay. So drainage isn’t exactly great to start with, and it may be that the turf was absorbing the rain before the pigs went in. Maybe if we’d taken off the turf by hand the same thing would have happened. However, looking at the earth in the pigpen, it seems the pigs may have destroyed the soil structure and mixed the clay into it, making a bad situation worse. Either way, our hope that the pigs would effectively rotavate the land for free were dashed.

So last weekend, we got our spades and a rotavator (the latter courtesy of Becky’s dad Mark) out and set to work fixing the situation. We wanted to do two things: improve the drainage, and break up the surface to increase evaporation. Both would help to dry the patch out.

My first attempts to drain the puddles had limited success.

My first attempts to drain the puddles had limited success.

I had already attempted to do a little of both on an earlier weekend. I had decided that with the soil so waterlogged it would be very difficult to dig over, but that I could perhaps drain some of the larger puddles by digging channels for the water to run off into. This was almost entirely unsuccessful; the water ran off but then when it rained the puddles filled up again and so did the channels I had dug. Nevertheless on my dad’s advice (we make a lot of use of paternal input, as both our fathers are keen gardeners), and with his help, we dug a ditch about a spades width and depth, on all sides of the plot, which together with a larger channel linking the ditch to the biggest puddle got rid of most of the standing water.

Stage two was rotavation. Frankly we weren’t sure this was going to work at all. The earth was so muddy that we feared it would just clog up the rotavator. But in fact the machine cut through the earth quite nicely, albeit mostly churning up the top couple of inches rather than getting deeper than that.

What an improvement!

What an improvement!

As an aside to this: rotavation is hard work. The machine is constantly trying to pull forward, its blades acting like a wheel to drag it along. To get it to tear up the earth instead, you have to pull back hard, yanking the spinning blades into the soil. We took it in shifts to avoid anyone getting too knackered.

With both jobs done, the plot started to look like real cultivated earth instead of the mudpit it had become. We’ve started improving the soil with manure from our neighbours’ horses, which will no doubt help move things along still further.

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Our first vegetables are in the ground. Left to right: garlic, shallots, potatoes, peas.

We had begun to fear that we wouldn’t be able to plant anything in it at all, but we now have three rows (14 feet each) of potatoes, two of garlic and shallots, and have started planting out peas and beans too. Below the first few inches the ground is still difficult to dig and it may yet turn out not to be hospitable enough for some of the vegetables we’ve planted, but for now we’re feeling optimistic.

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Mud to Clay.

The pigs have done their work and the proto-veg patch has been completed turned over. All the weeds and couch grass have been eaten, even the roots – this is very good news, we have been saved days of back-breaking labour trying to double dig the site over.

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As you probably know if you like in the UK we have had a wet and mild Winter.  Up here in the peak district on the higher ground we haven’t seen the terrible floods inflicted on the West Country for which I am grateful.  But watching the pigs turn over the veg patch in the last couple of months has revealed something else I suspected… our soil is a heavy clay.

I have been reading about what this means for us and how to deal with it.

So it seem that clay soil is dense, heavy and really really good at holding water (did I mention the really wet Winter).  This makes it difficult to dig, gets easily waterlogged and means crops like carrots and parsnips perform poorly.  On the other hand it is also nutrient dense.   One book on smallholding suggested that clay was so good at holding water that if you had clay soil you could make a pond without a pond liner and I’m tempted to try it.

So it seems that getting the pigs involved at such an early stage was absolutely the right decision, double digging it over would have been even worse than we realised at the time.  But there are pools of standing water now which are worrying me and I’m seriously considering getting a bucket and bailing them out!

In terms of our immediate plans we are going to have to dig in far more manure than we first anticipated, to try and improve the drainage.  We are also looking at digging some drainage ditch to see if that helps. I’ll be starting a lot more thing off in pots at this stage in the hopes that by the time I need to plant them out the soil will have dried out (at this stage the peas and beans would just rot in the ground it is so wet) and I’ll put off planting the potatoes for a week to see if that helps dry things out.

Longer term we are going to start making as much leaf mould as we can, and digging in and mulching in a serious way. Estimates say 2 inches of compost/manure/leaf mould over the whole plot every year to improve the soil’s structure. That is a LOT of compost over a 30×30 foot plot (and we may even go up to 45×45 foot as we have plenty of space.

If we want to keep having pigs then raised beds are probably out which runs the risk of the soil compacting as we walk on it.  I can only hope that having pigs once a year digging it over will deal with the worse of the compaction and they in themselves won’t make it worse. All this digging over the soil isn’t great from a permaculture perspective (something I’ve been researching a lot lately) but it is a side effect of having pigs which brings so many other benefits I can’t complain.

I can’t wait to see what does well here – this is our first year of actually growing veg up here so it is very exciting.  I’m hoping the peas and beans do well as they have always been total failures for us before, I think once the wetness issue has passed the nutrient dense soil will be really good for them.