making dirt #1: green manure

i am a longtime transplant into georgia upper-southern soil. gardening in the deep
rich topsoil of ohio has been GREATLY missed, but over the years i have managed to
recreate some version of that chocolate-cake dirt here in my gardens. the image of
making a cake is a pretty apt one; with the right ingredients, and long hours of
mixing it up, any tough garden spot can be renewed and made fertile enough
to make plants flourish. with compost, all things are possible....

this part of the country has been hard used. historically, heavy turn-plow farming
and consequent erosion have eaten away at the precious little topsoil that exists here.we lie well below the line of the glaciers that brought such perfect deep dirt to the midwest.

truly, i found myself a 'stranger in a strange land' with my first attempts to grow gardens like those that i had up yonder. we have generally poorer stuff to work with, as well as a tight red clay subsoil, that is rich in minerals, but hinders good drainage. although i lucked out with a very old dairy farm with much more topsoil, i still had the drainage problems of most southern ground. the traditional way to deal with this problem is to use a subsoiler to breakup the hardpan below. i wanted no heavy equipment on the garden. the option of digging out the dirt, and using a pick-ax on a 40x40 area of tough clay was just too daunting. and so, i just built UP, literally. i now have approx. knee-deep fertile dirt with good tilth on top of that pesky red clay.

the best reason for living in the south is that you can have things growing most all year. i began my DirtAid program with fall/winter covercrops that i plowed down in the spring, before planting time. green manure is the basis of early soil building, in any region. down here, 'early alaska' peas can be picked over-a real delight- fresh little peas for easter; then their legume roots and tops can go back into the garden. curlykale, rape, mizuna (chinese cabbage kin with spicy finecut leaf) and other leafy winter greens add juicy organic matter after you tire of eating them through the winter. red clover is planted late fall here, to bloom in may. as with most clovers, its roots extend very far into the ground, and make deep channels in the subsoil. its skill at the movement of nutrients and minerals, up and down, is one fine gift.

i began to catch the rhythm of the seasons here(winter up north is like our hot summer-and we simply avoid the garden in those impossible times, with hot chocolate or iced tea depending...) during the growing season, i grew alfalfa, the queen of soil nourishment, with up to 20' roots. although it doesn't do as well in the southern humidity, it adds so much that its worth it. summer heat is when buckwheat grows and chokes out the weeds. the white flowerheads attract and feed the bees, and butterflies. you can even grow and eat a first picking of beans, and then put them back into the earth. seems sinful to plow down fresh green beans, but they're juicy green matter too. you will eat better in times to come for this small sacrifice of good food.

the point is to keep adding and building the organic material into the ground whenever you can. any and all these things can be factored in, each year allowing a fallow part in your garden plot. for two years i did it regular, almost every season, also making and adding mulch/compost at every opportunity. i highly recommend green manure on even a small patch, for its nutrients and the amount of organic matter it quickly returns to your gardens.

next to my good gardening friend and host %) you can see i am one of the wordiest people ever. i have gotten totally out of hand! by dividing this southern soilbuilding sermon into(somewhat) manageable parts, i do realize that i am doing youall a big favor.

vty, J-lea

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by Ilona Erwin

A gardener, blogger, writer, who has been blogging here since 2004, and writing for my website, Ilona's Garden since 1998.

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  1. not at all wordier- although I now have shorter posts in more places:)

    I appreciate this post on green manure so much- you're right we have better soil to start with and so tend to overlook assiduous soil building; but we shouldn't! To grow good crops organically I think I need to pay a bit of attention to methods such as this.

    Do you till it in? Have you heard of "lasagna gardening" and would that be a good thing with growing green manure? ( Like pile stuff on top of the alfalfa to smother it ?) Around here the farmers sometimes will grow the alfalfa as a hay crop.

  2. How long did it take you to "build up" your soil? If you don't have the resources, it might take a number of years. I think some newbies expect too much too soon. I call that McGardening.

  3. I certainly agree with you and am working hard to improve our garden soil here. Spent some time today turning the compost pile. It is amazing how fast the compost ingredients break down. A real thing of beauty to me.

    Digging in the dirt yesterday reminded me how much work the soil really needs here. But day by day we'll improve the garden and grow some great food.


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