I think I've poisoned my soil and I'm desperate!

farm_boy(6)July 2, 2010

Apparently I've managed to poison my soil--organically--and I'm at my wits end.

I started gardening this plot 8 years ago. The first year I double dug and used lots of organic fertilizer, and that first year was amazing! Then each year got less and less amazing. One year I asked a friend (who is a trained expert) for advice, and I showed him the results of my soil test and he told me to sprinkle Epsom Salt on the garden to raise some mineral or other.

Well, each year is worse. I keep buying products and getting advice from the county extension, a local organic fertilizer business, and friends, but now virtually nothing will germinate in it except green beans. In some patches not even weeds will grow. I've added tons of compost. When I set in seedlings they just sit there for a few weeks, then grow only a little. I get two or three soil tests a year, and they come out fine.

I haven't seen any earthworms in the garden for years. The soil is dark, with the texture of instant coffee. Even when I water it for several hours, the next day the soil is bone dry.

Advice?

How about buying a bunch of red worms and burying them just under the surface? Or should I just give up and start a garden elsewhere, or dig out all the old soil and truck in new soil?

Thanks

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Michael

Post the detailed results of your most recent soil test. Sounds like you have 100% organic matter if it dries out so quickly. What type of soil was there that you double dug into, clay, sand, a gravel mine?

Earthworms do not like dry soil, they like cool and moist as opposed to hot and dry and can and do migrate to where they like the conditions.

    Bookmark   July 2, 2010 at 10:26PM
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ericwi

Need more information. Do you have a lawn? Do you have trees, and shrubs? Is there a flower bed? Does anything grow anywhere, in your yard? Do you make your own compost, or do you buy it somewhere? You seem to be doing so many things right, and yet you have major problems. Is there a possibility that the compost you have added to your garden might have been contaminated with herbicide? Certain herbicides can survive the composting process, and may take several years to break down in the soil. If the compost was made from lawn clippings, and the lawn was treated with weedkiller, it might not be suitable for your garden.

    Bookmark   July 2, 2010 at 11:21PM
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Kimmsr(4a/5b-MI)

Where in the United States are you?
What is you native soil?
How well does that native soil drain?
How much organic matter is in your soil?
How is the tilth of that soil? If you take a handful of moist soil and squeeze it does it ball up and then fall apart when poked?
Earthworms need lots of organic matter, and sufficient levels of moisture, to exist in soils. Where the are not one or the other, at least, is lacking.

    Bookmark   July 3, 2010 at 6:46AM
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farm_boy(6)

I could give details of the latest soil test, but it is quite lengthy. They wrote in the notes section "Fertility is fine."

I think maybe I put in too much compost. About half the compost was my own (yard and kitchen waste)and half was a pickup load I bought from the city. Originally, the soil was clay, and I'm in the Ozarks. I live in town, so I am limited as to where I can garden. This small plot (about 10' by 20')is about the only space available.

The bottom line is this: Do I keep trying to improve the soil (I've gotten nowhere with this method for 6 years now), or do I scoop it out and bring in new soil? If I do scoop it out, how many inches deep?

    Bookmark   July 3, 2010 at 8:33AM
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lazy_gardens

I keep buying products and getting advice from the county extension, a local organic fertilizer business, and friends ... I've added tons of compost. I get two or three soil tests a year, and they come out fine.

What ALL (as much as you can remember) have you applied, sprayed, or done to this plot?

Several things that soil testing can't tell you ... your watering practices, for example, have to be adjusted for your soil's ability to hold water. How are you watering your garden? How often and how much?

Because you have been "doing everything" to it with no luck, try leaving it alone for a while ... water it well, spread a thick layer of newspapers or cardboard, and let it rest.

Unless you know what you did, replacing the soil isn't going to solve the problem. You'll probably do it again.

    Bookmark   July 3, 2010 at 11:03AM
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farm_boy(6)

I just had a lengthy discussion with an agronomist, and I think my problem is that I put in too much young compost and of unknown origin (I bought a load from the city).

He thinks my nitrogen isn't available, so I should add some (and now that I look at my soil report again, it does say to add nitrogen). Since my green beans grow well, but nothing else (e.g. the scrawny tomato plants have yellow leaves at the bottom), he thinks it's a nitrogen problem, since the green beans fix their own.

So I've applied some nitrogen, just in time for a light steady rain today. We'll see.

But keep the advice coming, please.

    Bookmark   July 3, 2010 at 12:56PM
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farm_boy(6)

I just had a lengthy discussion with an agronomist, and I think my problem is that I put in too much young compost and of unknown origin (I bought a load from the city).

He thinks my nitrogen isn't available, so I should add some (and now that I look at my soil report again, it does say to add nitrogen). Since my green beans grow well, but nothing else (e.g. the scrawny tomato plants have yellow leaves at the bottom), he thinks it's a nitrogen problem, since the green beans fix their own.

So I've applied some nitrogen, just in time for a light steady rain today. We'll see.

But keep the advice coming, please.

    Bookmark   July 3, 2010 at 1:00PM
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ericwi

I've never tried to garden with fresh compost, we have a slow compost pile, that gets dug out in the spring, & as a result, the compost that gets put down on our garden plot is likely 6 months beyond "finished." There are several places in our yard where I have persistent problems getting anything to grow and thrive, and these are places that get dried out repeatedly, due to tree roots, from a Norway maple that grows in our front yard. If your garden plot has similar tree roots below the surface, you might be having the same problem.

    Bookmark   July 3, 2010 at 1:54PM
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captturbo

Farmboy, It sounds like you have solved the mystery! Also, the lack of available nitrogen should be a short lived problem as things break down pretty quickly over summer.

If you have ammended heavily (as it seems that you have) with unfinished compost, you can keep up with adding organic matter using the same stuff but only using it as a mulch. You won't tie up your nitrogen in this mannor and it will feed the soil. Glad you have things figured out. Well done!

    Bookmark   July 3, 2010 at 4:23PM
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snoggerboy(RSA)

I know a guy that makes compost commercially:
The recipe is woodchips and urea...!!!
It looks black w bit an' pieces in it
- and stuff grows incredibly well... initially
once all N is pent all growth will come to a halt !
I shudder to think of having that stuff in my soil...
so I steer clear of commercial stuff as I like to keep things organic.

    Bookmark   July 5, 2010 at 2:52AM
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Kimmsr(4a/5b-MI)

"I'm in the Ozarks" Missouri, Arkansas? While we don't need the specific latitude and longitude something that would place you a bit better then "United States" would be helpful.
How much organic matter is in the soil?
What is the tilth of your soil?
What does your soil smell like?
What kind of life is in that soil?
How well does that soil drain?
How well does that soil retain moisture?

    Bookmark   July 5, 2010 at 7:45AM
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renataka(Bay Area CA)

Has your soil test included testing for pesticides? You mentioned you bought a load from the city. I've been warned repeatedly against using city compost because people put all sorts of chemicals onto their plants, throw the pesticide-laced trimmings into their city yard waste bin, and then the city's composting program breaks down the green waste and concentrates the pesticides.

However, I like the idea of unavailable nitrogen better, especially since your beans are thriving. If it were truly a pesticide problem I think the beans would be just as scrawny and unhappy as the rest of the plants.

Good luck!

    Bookmark   July 5, 2010 at 6:40PM
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farm_boy(6)

Thanks for all the posts. I can't answer all the questions, and I'm not even sure what some of them mean (e.g. "tilth"?).

If the nitrogen hypothesis is correct, will I start noticing results right away? I hope so... I feel like a failure when I look at my 10 scrawny tomato plants, each one with only one or two small green tomatoes.

At any rate, no more compost of questionable heritage for my garden.

    Bookmark   July 5, 2010 at 8:28PM
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idaho_gardener

I would stop adding organic material for at least a year. You can create a compost pile if you like, but let the soil go without adding any more OM. Don't till the soil. Cover it with a mulch of some sort, something like straw or grass clippings (or straw covered with grass clippings). I don't think the soil will dry out if it's covered with a mulch.

Sprout some melon seeds in pots and transplant them with they've got some true leaves.

You might have too much unfinished compost in your soil. If you let the soil sit, the compost fill 'finish' and you'll be able to grow again.

    Bookmark   July 6, 2010 at 1:12PM
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toxcrusadr Clay Soil(Zone 6a - MO)

Or, you could nuke it with high nitrogen fertilizer now, and possibly recover a crop for this year from your sad-looking plants. Don't overdo, but you might consider some soluble plant food (eg Miracle Gro) with a high N number, and if that seems to help, maybe combine it with a top dressing of high-N lawn fertilizer that would release over several days or weeks.

I have similar conditions in my 20-year old garden, and I'm wondering if my history of avoiding fertilizer plus slacking off on compost additions the last few years has caused the same kind of effect. The wife fertilized the rhubarb plants this spring and they turned very green and really went to town, so that reinforces the idea.

    Bookmark   July 6, 2010 at 4:26PM
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