I have written previously about the land formation on which we garden in the Appalachian Mountains and our process of starting a garden area with potatoes. The net result of this layer of shale and layer of potatoes is that we harvest about 5 bushels of rocks for every bushel of potatoes from a new area of garden. The locals call this “sour” ground, for which our breaking and building up process will over time yield surprisingly “sweet” ground. The solution is compost.
We started out thinking that we would have a small cottage garden along our front pathway about 15 years ago. I plotted out a area about 5′ by 15′, built a 3’x3′ frame with 1/4″ mesh wire with the idea that I would turn the ground by digging out a shovel’s depth, sift out the rocks and return the fine grains of soil to the flower bed. That process lasted about two weeks before I tossed out the sifting frame. Fist to football sized rocks accumulated faster than fine grains. But, with some effort, we ended up with a 5′ x 3′ pile of dirt 2′ high. It looked like a fresh grave, so this initial garden became nicknamed “The Cemetery Garden”. This also suggested that trying to garden in the mountains would kill us. A neighbor claims that he cannot start a garden up here until he has a tractor. I guess he does not own a shovel.
We persisted though, moving to our next attempt with rock walls (of which I wrote recently) to terrace our gently sloping ground. This allowed for backfilling, rather than just digging. Being in the country we had no lack of material with which to backfill. It was just a mater of hauling it from point A to the garden, point B. Point A turned out to be the ditches and culverts, filled with half decayed leaves, along our dirt road, and our neighbor’s barn. Organic mater + shale clay – rocks + time = garden soil.
Our next process was to try double-digging. This is a technique in which you dig, two shovel depths down, a trench at one end of the garden. The material from this trench is set aside. The next trench’s soil is turned into the first trench, minus rocks. You continue across the garden this way. The last trench is filled with the soil taken out at the beginning. Now in shale, “two shovel depths” is really about 3 to 4 inches down per year. Thus, over half a dozen years, we worked our way down about 15 inches. Also, to compensate for all the rocks we took out, we added manure and leaves, which we turned in during the double digging.
This is about when we came across the concept of hilling potatoes with leaves, of which we have more than an ample supply. The idea is that we put down a layer of manure and leaves on a new area for the garden in the fall. In Spring we place our seed potato slices in this layer, without digging into the shale, then cover them with a layer of silty leaves from the road ditches. When the potato stalks are up about 6 inches, we collect a truck load of leaves and “hill” them around each plant, with the top leaf branches above the leaves. Every couple of weeks, we add another layer of leaves, until we have about 2 feet of leaves with potatoes growing in them. Come fall, we use the potato rake to pull down the hills and harvest the potatoes (and rocks, which somehow grow up into the the leaves). With the potatoes harvested, we rake the decaying leaves back over that new garden area, add some manure, and let it be for the winter. Come Spring, we double dig this before planting something else in this area. Anyone need to work out in the gym?
As our farmer neighbor has recognized that we are regular barn cleaners for him, he has now gone to hauling us a few loads of manure each Spring when he uses the Bobcat to clearn his barn. This builds up our compost pile, which is behind the garage, and about the size of a truck now. With lots of additional leaves and worms, year to year, we have a constant supply of new soil to add to the layers of the garden.
We do add a few other elements to round out our soil. Given the clay content of our shale, we add sand occasionally to help keep the clay from becoming too sticky. We do have some sandstone on our mountain, and we have found certain breakers along the road tend to fill up with the sand that runs off from these sections of the road. Another trip with the truck and drywall buckets to harvest this free sand. Also, as our soil has a high acidity level, we add lime to chemically bind with the soil until the roots of alkaline loving vegetables suck it up to make tomatoes and other tasty meals. As we burn wood to heat our cabin, we also have a good supply of ashes at the end of the heating season. We do not put this directly on the garden, as the ashes tend to prevent seeds from sprouting. But, layering this in the compost pile with leaves and manure helps to add post ash.
We started with a pile of coffee grounds and salad trimmings. We now have a complete fitness and nutrition program.
What is your green workout?