Friday, April 5, 2013

Soil swap and sowing

With respect to the spring-has-sprung theme, in this post from last week, I showed two massive piles of dirt-like substances.
That's mulch on the left and Living Earth's "veggie mix" soil on the right.  It's high season for landscaping, when materials like this are at their most expensive.  Six yards of this material cost about $200 including delivery.  Most suburbanites don't need six whole cubic yards, but my landscaping and gardening spread is extensive and my property can absorb this much without even looking like anything was really done to it. 
Here are my top two personal recommendations regarding spring landscaping spruce-up in the suburbs:

(1) Mulch your beds and trees once per year at a minimum.  Even if you are not into landscaping and gardening, do this one thing.  You'll be engaging in sheet composting maybe without even realizing it.  Most native soils in Houston are crummy "gumbo soils" which don't support healthy landscaping or gardening.  They are clay-rich and exceedingly poor in useable organic matter.  You have to augment that soil in order to maintain healthy growth of most suburban cultivars.   Mulching is the easiest way to add organic matter without adding a lot of hassle or expense.  It just sits there and breaks down, building up your soil in the process.  That's why you have to add new mulch every year - because it breaks down.  But that attenuation is a natural process and beneficial to your yard.

(2) If you choose to augment either raised beds and/or flower or vegetable gardens with purchased soils, face the music and realize that most of what's on the market is not going to work well for you unless you make additional expensive enhancements.  That photo above... do you see how light-colored the soil is?  Here's a close-up:
This is what I bought about two weeks ago, at a heart-stopping $45 per cubic yard when delivery is factored in.  What I see here is a lot of light-colored loamy sand with shredded wood mixed in.  Personally, I don't see a lot of humus and compost in this view. 

Well-known Houstonian gardener "Jackie" described this soil yard quality effect in this concise post of hers.  This is basically the type of product that we have to live with in our area.  It follows logically that stuff like this is mostly what's available on the market: if our regional soils are poor quality to start with, where are soil yards going to go to excavate better soils for sale?  Answer: nowhere.  We have to build them ourselves.   
Let's compare that purchased material to my existing garden soil: - the soil that's currently in my stock tanks, shown above.  It's darker, isn't it?  That's because it contains a lot more compost including stuff I've created myself, Cotton Burr Compost that I have added, and fully-composted (not fresh) horse manure.  The horse manure is not an ideal additive for a variety of reasons, but I got it for free from a friend in San Leon, and compost is so expensive in our area that I have to resign myself into accepting some non-ideal augmentations. 

Speaking of expense, this other local blogger, whose observations are consistent with my own, recommends augmenting your upper-Texas-coastal native gumbo soil with "as much compost as you can afford".  Same goes for purchased soils. 

Blogger "Jackie" mentions Nature's Way Resources as THE place to buy good soil, but we in Clear Lake are arguably too far from that source to make transportation economical (it's in Conroe). 
Here's where this style of gardening is not for the faint of heart: if I must replenish ("top off") my existing tank soils because of natural organic breakdown, and if the only soils available in my local market are of poorer quality than my own created soils, then what has to happen??  If you guessed "back loading", you'd be correct.
Now you can really see the difference in richness and color:  that's my own created soil removed from the tank and staged on the blue tarp to the left, and the new purchased soil in the wheelbarrow to the right.  By "back loading" I mean swapping out the better-quality deeper soils with the new stuff.  I have to excavate each of my stock tanks and underlay them with the new poorer-quality soil, replacing the better stuff on top where my crops can use it. 

In this case, in order to do the back-loading, I had to first remove all expired vegetable and herb plant remains except for that one tenacious oregano on the left side of the tank, which is there mostly for aesthetic reasons (its waterfall cascade over the side looks very cool). 
If you think that this kind of thing is a whole hell of a lot of strenuous work, you'd be correct...
...but it's a big part of how I maintain my health and my figure as the age of fifty gets closer and closer.  You can work your buns at the gym all day long, but until you start making integrated mechanical use of your entire body as one cohesive unit the way evolution intended for it to be used, you might fall short of an ideal work-out.  No gym machine that I've ever used compares to the core work-out I get from intensive gardening.  Soil back-loading is back-breaking.  And belly-busting.  But you also get really good food out of it, which is another facet of belly-busting.  Pic from this post on harvesting cauliflower, my winter-season crop from this same stock tank that I'm now augmenting with additional soil. 
So anyway, here's what the interim result looks like after all that soil back-loading is completed and the new spring vegetable plants installed:
This is the smallest of my three round stock tanks (this is a four-footer; the other two are six feet in diameter, and I also have two five-foot oblong troughs).  I added three species I haven't attempted to grow before:  one crookneck squash, two zipper cream cowpeas, and two melons.  I'm still at the point where I'm experimenting with what grows best where and under what care regime. 

Yes, that's a large garden mirror behind the tank.  I'll have more to say about that in a future post.   
You may be wondering why on earth I'd go to all this trouble to grow just a few individual vegetable plants.  The answer is that, under a hyper-fertile organic planting regime like this, the yields are much higher than you might first guess.  Last year I planted cantaloupe for the first time, and ended up with something like 26 pounds of the stuff from just three plants.  So it'll be interesting to see if these melons produce as intensely. 

And also recall those two massive cauliflower heads pictured above.  Producing those required only half the square footage of this one small stock tank (I also grew two broccolis with them).  Done properly, this growing method can produce fantastic yields. 

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