Can I use forest humus as compost?

fenbields5November 29, 2012

Hello, first time poster here. Anyways, I just bought 2 acres and 1 acre is wooded. We are going to be planting a garden on about .25 acre that is very sandy. I was wondering if I could just take a few wheel barrows full of the humus lining the wooded forest floor and use it like compost to improve the soil of the garden area.

Also, is the humus in the forest the same thing as compost?


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Assuming what you're planting doesn't require a specific soil ph different from that of the humus, I'd say go for it. There may be some random seeds in what you pick up, but that's easy to deal with.

    Bookmark   November 29, 2012 at 11:04PM
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Lucky duck.

    Bookmark   November 30, 2012 at 6:57AM
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Humus is the residual organic matter in soil, so what is on that forest floor is not humus but could be considered compost. You can remove that from the forest as long as you understand that you are taking valuable nutrients from the forest, that you will be disrupting the nutrient flow of that forest.
A few wheelbarrows full of that might be a start, but you will need to have enough to end up with between 6 and 8 percent humus in your garden.

    Bookmark   November 30, 2012 at 7:05AM
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toxcrusadr Clay Soil(Zone 6a - MO)

It's part of the forest ecosystem, so take care not to shock it. Nature can usually tolerate some use of a resource, just don't take it all.

If your garden is really .25 acres of sand, you're going to need more than a few wheelbarrows! You might want to look for a local farm or someone who keeps horses where you can get some truckloads of manure. Just watch out for weed seeds and persistent herbicides.

Happy gardening!

    Bookmark   November 30, 2012 at 10:37AM
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You might access the woodland plants that you'll be disrupting before you do it; if you're like me, you'll eventually come to appreciate your native areas more than your cultivated ones. Lots of woodland plants don't survive soil disruption---lady slippers and trillium, for example, require that duff layer for survival.

    Bookmark   November 30, 2012 at 11:04AM
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tsugajunkie z5 SE WI

I agree with annpat and tox. I'd wait to remove anything from the woodland just to see what's there and since you're going to need a whole lot more anyway I'd look to manures.


    Bookmark   November 30, 2012 at 4:37PM
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Yikes, I knew something was wrong with my post---Assess, not access. Check out what you have growing in your native spots before stripping the duff is what I meant.

    Bookmark   November 30, 2012 at 6:27PM
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claireplymouth z6b coastal MA

I agree with everyone who says that taking loads of organic material off of the forest floor can seriously harm the ecosystem there.

I have the same reaction when people repeatedly strip beaches of seaweed. While this is a great gardening component, the beach also has a complex ecosystem that depends on the nutrients and structure of the seaweed deposited on the beach. It's not as obvious to the eye as the forest plant community but the seaweed wrack line is still important to life on the shore and the stability of the beach.


Another reference: South Padre Beach Raking Policy: It's Not a Theme Park, It's Nature

Here is a link that might be useful: All Washed Up and Somewhere to Go

This post was edited by claire on Sun, Dec 2, 12 at 16:50

    Bookmark   December 1, 2012 at 5:23PM
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Perhaps I should clarify a bit. I use the term forest rather loosely--it is actually just woods. It appears that they were cleared 10-20 years ago and the "humus" is really just the beginning of a new floor. Aside from trees, the majority of plants are yaupon, wild blueberry, and random brush. So, I'm not too worried about upsetting the ecosystem since it has been upset already.

About the garden, while it is sandy, it is not a complete sandbox. It is, however, quite sandy and I am going to try and improve it with as much manure as possible, but am considering adding the forest floor material as well.

    Bookmark   December 1, 2012 at 7:35PM
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Woods and forest are synonymous terms, although few people would refer to their stand of trees as a forest lot rather than a wood lot.
As I said, you can take that "duff" from the floor of the woods or forest as long as you understand you will be disrupting its ecosystem.

    Bookmark   December 2, 2012 at 6:50AM
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Forest floor compost is great stuff, I use it for starting container plants, but it would take too much to really make an impact in garden areas.

You might consider getting a few truckloads of wood chips and plowing them into your garden with lots of manure.

I used wood chips in my clay soil and the worm population exploded. I could see lots of dark worm castings in the soil over a foot deep at the end of the season.

Here is a link that might be useful: Pictures of soil amended with wood chips

    Bookmark   December 2, 2012 at 4:41PM
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I agree with the other comments and don't have much to add except that this reminded me of the story of Golden Gate Park, which was established in the late 1800s on an area that consisted mostly of sand dunes. When you see the park today you would never guess that all this beautiful landscaping, including huge lawns and the botanical garden, is growing out of ocean sand. The secret ingredient was horse manure, which was readily available in great quantities during this time.

    Bookmark   December 2, 2012 at 5:43PM
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tishtoshnm Zone 6/NM

Last year I used some of the duff under the trees on my land to begin mulching my vegetable beds for the winter. I tried to be careful to not take too much from any one tree. It was a lovely mulch but, in the spring I discovered the draw back was that there were eggs laid in the duff and I had a much higher concentration of cut worms in vegetable garden than other areas.

In your case, I would also pause. If you remove the duff, you will set back the rebuilding process on the soil in that area of the property. I would opt for outside inputs to get things started.

    Bookmark   December 2, 2012 at 6:28PM
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All the forest I have gathered from, mostly hedge rows 25 feet wide have only about 2 inches of "humus" & it is full of bug,ants & roots. The upper layers of whole,semi-rotten & rotten leaves are fine for what you want.
An they will not be missed by the trees, as a forest fire will remove them anyways. Removal of loose organic waste is a way to control forest fires.

    Bookmark   December 5, 2012 at 7:26PM
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claire, you sure have ruined my week. I used to harvest fresh seaweed for my garden, but I brought home so many live crabs and snails, it was upsetting to me. So, I switched to gathering the washed up seaweed, which I understand the impact of, but was able to justify to myself because a.) the seaweed is removed by the town anyway (people are actually encouraged to gather it) and b.)the seaweed washes up to a causeway that already impacts the shoreline.

So far I haven't thought of any way to justify my continuing this practice. You've caused me a lot of heartache.

    Bookmark   December 6, 2012 at 2:22PM
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claireplymouth z6b coastal MA

annpat: If the town is going to remove the seaweed anyway, you might as well take it; it's not going to do any good if it's not left there.

I wanted to raise the issue - people tend to think that washed up seaweed is just the beach's trash and they're doing the public a favor by cleaning up the sand. But just as people usually don't think of the damage done by taking duff from a forest (it's just wild woods), they don't realize that the wild shore also needs nourishment.

You get more sensitive to the issue when you've seen the changes to a beach and the erosion of a coastal bluff over many years.


    Bookmark   December 6, 2012 at 4:19PM
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toxcrusadr Clay Soil(Zone 6a - MO)

It's kind of like mowing the grass and hauling it away to a dump. If they're going to do it anyway, why not take the bags off the curb? It's not ideal but at least it goes back to the soil.

    Bookmark   December 7, 2012 at 1:51PM
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what a bunch of whiny political correctness. Like one guy taking a bit of soil is going to damage the forest. Don't be ridiculous. There's shedloads of soil in the forest. Go take what you need. You won't damage anything.

    Bookmark   September 10, 2013 at 1:54AM
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As a soil scientist who's worked on watershed projects I'd like to say that the issue isn't a matter of "political correctness"'s just a simple function of how forest soils work.

No one fertilizes forests. When light doesn't produce new seeds/plants under canopies or enough shade plants to produce a massive amount of cover, the tree's entire growth and nutrient profile mostly comes from what falls nearby in the way of leaves to provide nutrients for further growth. This is why some forest trees have evolved to form symbiotic relationships with fungi to feed over longer distances.

Yes, you can damage a forest by taking too much...especially from one area. In some areas (especially arid new growth forests), taking any is too much. There are "smart" ways to harvest with minimal impact in most areas, though.

Smartly harvesting in areas or ways where runoff won't erode more than what you're taking because you may disrupt the water flow through a soil profile is a huge concern. This can not only impact tree health (especially with tall or very young trees), it can cause serious runoff erosion issues depending on how serious the excavation is and the soil/moisture profile in it's environment. I've seen stable stands of old growth turn into tree-toppling mud pits from improper soil harvesting causing water to channel, pool, weaken, and/or uproot trees in storms. A tree in stress is a tree that welcomes disease, too.

While most home gardeners aren't going to harvest enough to do the kind of damage mentioned above, I have seen small localized harvesting cause tree weakening and channel/rill flooding localized in small areas...especially when harvested on the edges of forest buffers or at the base of slopes (where a lot tends to be harvested because it's the easiest to access).

This isn't man vs nature and we get to take what we want because there's no impact. You can harvest the forest floor...but you need to do it with foresight and thought.

"Political correctness"...geez...I don't even know where to go with criticizing the notion that someone might not want to disturb a natural process simply because it's assumed they're hippies rather than there being sound scientific reasoning behind the concern. This isn't a political's what man has learned and chronicled via a learned process.

If you do it right...and in the right area plus the right amount with the lowest amount of consequence.

    Bookmark   September 10, 2013 at 2:42AM
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"Go take what you need."

In a nutshell, this is a perfect example of what is wrong with society today.


    Bookmark   September 10, 2013 at 7:12AM
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hairmetal4ever(Z7 MD)

The only way I'd do this is if I were planting on a cleared lot, i.e., the forest had been cut anyway.

I wouldn't feel comfortable doing this in an "active" forest.

    Bookmark   September 10, 2013 at 4:56PM
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toxcrusadr Clay Soil(Zone 6a - MO)

There's plenty of manure, municipal compost and other organic matter available - and some of it is really looking for a home, as opposed to forest duff, which is already at home. Everyone has to make their own choices depending upon their situation.

    Bookmark   September 11, 2013 at 4:21PM
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The best source of carbon is the air. It is a whole lot
easier and cheaper to grow plants that love sand and work
them in for a few years. Let the plants do the work for
you instead of spending so much time and money hauling in
carbon. They will sink more carbon than you could ever hope
to haul in. Don't get wrong; manure is good.

I do not normally recommend biochar but in very sandy soil
it does make sense. And a very small amount of forest soil
from nearby is all you need to inoculate with a wide variety
of micro-organisms.
Mixing in some black soil high in black clay also helps.

Then grow hearty grasses such as sorghum, millet, rye, and
barley mixed with hardy high nitrogen fixing legumes:
alfalfa, feugreek, fava, clover, and vetch.
Be sure to inoculate the legumes.
Work that in for as many seasons as it takes to build up
some carbon.

Then you can move to crops that are close to their wild
relatives and thrive in sand:
okra, tatume squash, chicory, seven top turnip,
nettle, kale, garlic, onion, leek, hemp, parsnip,
salsify,and amaranth.

Leek and sorghum are especially important as they encourage
a wider variety of benefical micro-organisms than the vast
majority of other plants
Sorghum, millet, brassica, and amaranth are also C4 plants
so they will grow very fast in hot weather.
Never leave the soil without roots and turn in what you do
not eat. Always use direct composting since bin composting
has a tendency to waste nitrogen.

Here is a link that might be useful: Garden For Nutrition

This post was edited by GreeneGarden on Sun, Sep 15, 13 at 8:28

    Bookmark   September 13, 2013 at 10:19PM
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Direct composting can waste just as much N as bin composting. If it's can precipitate or volatilize.

Time of year applied, cover, moisture, microbial activity, and heat effect the rate of loss in the greatest amount.

    Bookmark   September 13, 2013 at 10:56PM
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Once you have buried the organic matter, why would you expose it?

I usually spray it with a little honey water before I work it in and then I deep till it in. Within a few weeks it has decomposed so much that it is producing more nitrogen than it is consuming so I can plant. I do a very very shallow till to kill weeds and then plant. Most of the newly generated nitrogen will have been absorbed by the soil so It does not evaporate easily.

I do not understand why anyone would want to expose the soil again until the end of the growing season.

Here is a link that might be useful: Garden For Nutrition

This post was edited by GreeneGarden on Sat, Sep 14, 13 at 12:36

    Bookmark   September 14, 2013 at 8:44AM
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If you're burying it, then less losses composts slower, though.

Most direct composters top apply...some top apply then cover/mulch.

    Bookmark   September 14, 2013 at 5:40PM
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toxcrusadr Clay Soil(Zone 6a - MO)

I can hardly afford to put honey on my toast these days. :-p

    Bookmark   September 16, 2013 at 10:39AM
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On a temperate climate self sufficient farm, if you keep bees, honey is the best source of concentrated sugars. But any cheap sugar will do. One tablespoon per gallon is all you need. It speeds up the bacterial activity so you can plant quickly after working in large amounts of organic matter. The advantages of direct composting are that it encourages a broader variety of micro-organisms, prevents nitrogen evaporation, and reduces labor. The disadvantage is that it can take longer to decompose unless a stimulant such as sugar is added. Deep tilling also disrupts fungal networks unless you can speed up decomposition so you can plant more quickly and provide the roots that feed mycorrhizal fungus. I am also planting crop varieties that are more tolerant of a high residue environment.

Here is a link that might be useful: Garden For Nutrition

This post was edited by GreeneGarden on Sat, Sep 21, 13 at 11:18

    Bookmark   September 21, 2013 at 10:37AM
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I don't want to get into the debate. I will add that I have some "wilder" sections of my "yard" where I pulled in what I knew was some well-aged leaf mold running along the fence line.

I was very selective. I knew I was disturbing the area's plant life. I enjoy the wild flowers blooming in this area.

You know the saying, "What goes around comes around?"

Think: bugs.

Whatever's in that soil will go right into your garden. Time is required for beneficial bugs to arrive.

I had TONS of ... climbing grubs to content. I planted them right in. Good plot, though. Great amendment except for the bugs.

    Bookmark   September 21, 2013 at 10:58PM
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the_virginian(Zone 7 NoVA)

Yes, go ahead and use it and forget these tree hugger PC alarmists. It is not like you are going to strip the forest bare and turn it into a strip mine moonscape or that new fall leaves will start the process over again. Use the humus and enjoy the results.

    Bookmark   September 24, 2013 at 2:16AM
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Why is it some people have to make this political?

Is it really that threatening that now 2 people have chosen to come at this subject breaking it down to "they're hippie PC liberal scum thug tree hugger alarmist sub-humans."

If one reads this thread then you'll see some of the experienced, learned, scientific, and EXPLAINED reasons to approach this method with caution rather than saying "MUH FREEDOMS!" and turning it into class warfare while ignoring generations of soil and forest ecology research.

This is not about "stripping the forest bare."

....check my post from "Tue, Sep 10, 13 at 2:42" for further information on the well as what others have explained, from grub concerns to roles that returned "litter" play in soils. In the case of the original poster, we're talking about what sounds like a very new growth forest stand.

My post from 9/10/13 doesn't advise not doing advises not doing it in some areas, picking your area of collection wisely, and the possible results of doing it if done unwisely.

This post was edited by nc-crn on Tue, Sep 24, 13 at 3:00

    Bookmark   September 24, 2013 at 2:38AM
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blue_skink(z3 MB Cda)

If you are near a large forest and you have an itty bitty 20 X 40 garden (just by way of example) I can't see how maybe scraping forest soil off of uprooted large tree roots would do a lot of damage. Yes the forest is a complex ecosystem, and I love nature esp. trees. But every last one of us is living on a piece of land that was once primeval forest or grassland and I see no rending of garments over that.

Those natural fertilizers we buy - they all come from somewhere. Everything we eat, everything we use in our gardens, can be traced back to destruction of the environment of one kind or another. There is no karma free food or living space as far as I can see.

I am not trying to gore anyone's ox.

Maybe there are just too many people on this earth.

    Bookmark   September 26, 2013 at 12:37PM
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the_virginian(Zone 7 NoVA)

Blue Skink: Well said and I could not agree more. I am constantly reminded of how extreme some of the environmentalist PC tree hugger extremists can be. The fact is there are more trees growing and planted in the ground than when Columbus landed in the Bahamas 500+ years ago. Lots of wasteland that was strip mined has been reclaimed too using biosolids/compost in VA, WV, KY and TN with native tree plantings. The forest that results is very healthy. So, go ahead, use the forest compost, the impact will be like a mouse fart in the Superdome. Nature will renew the humus as it has for centuries as in after a flood or landslide NOT caused by humans.

    Bookmark   October 13, 2013 at 2:46PM
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"I am constantly reminded of how extreme some of the environmentalist PC tree hugger extremists can be."

Yes, let's just ignore the actual known science of the situation and make it a political issue.

I've seen harvesting from field edges and bottom slopes turn a normal rainfall into 10x+ the removal of soil outside of the initial soil removal after a rain event because of incorrect harvesting...and furthering the process with following rainfall. Water is a powerful thing...especially when it meets a new opportunity to pool and/or create new places to flow.

Let's totally ignore the points of being able to do it, yet doing it smartly.

Let's ignore how doing it incorrectly can cause a huge tree to weaken itself over time and cause a $500+ removal fee or the sudden dumping of a huge amount of soil into your property because of improper removal.

Let's pretend soil rills creating channeled waters cutting into your land and moving water through previously unavailable channels cannot happen if you believe in politics over science.

Just do what you want as long as you're not a "environmentalist PC tree hugger extremist" and you'll be immune from 100+ years of scientific knowledge about how to properly remove things from existing ecosystems with minimum impact in and outside that environment.

I mean...really? C'mon...

You can do it, but you need to do it right.

    Bookmark   October 13, 2013 at 6:42PM
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I spect the op is long gone and i can't blame them.
As I understand,we are talking about 1 acre which was previously logged or otherwise cut over.
Let's talk about the mouse fart in the Superdome.
During the VC war,USA tax payers paid to kill millions of trees and everything on or under them by spraying herbicides onto the forest.
For decades,USA taxpayers have been paying for and/or helping pay for millions of acres of forest land to be destroyed with herbicides and bull dozers then burned. After spending billions to destroy Mesquite across Southwestern states,it was decided tax payers would spend billions more,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,to replant Mesquite trees on the same millions of acres they had been eraticated from. I personaly witnessed while several thousands of those acres were destroyed. Let me see if I can paint you a vision of an actual single tree that I saw meet it's demise at tax payer's expense. This oak was easily hundereds of years old. Two men could not incircle the trunk with their arms. Aproximatly 50 acres surounding the tree had been cleared several years earlier. I would guess the land owner at the time felt the tree would furnish welcome shade for cattle or it was simply so large they decided it wasn't worth the effort required to take it down. The new owner was about 80 years old and worth a fortune. The D-8 Cat operator told the owner more than once while pushing timber on the place that the tree was too large to push over. The owner wasn't having it,he wanted that tree gone. The contractor rented another big Cat and proceeded to dig around the tree,cutting roots and built a earthen ramp going up one side. 2 Cats and 7 hours later the Cats lined up one behind the other and began pushing.
I love the land. I was born on a farm and relied on the earth for a living for years. I have done all I can to protect it and to convince those that can make the most difference to do the same.
Friends,don't you think you could pick more important battles than a man wanting to move soil around on one acre?
If you take nothing else away from what I say,just don't alow people to use shiny objects to divert your attention from things that realy matter.

    Bookmark   October 14, 2013 at 12:58AM
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The problem I'm talking about isn't even harvesting the's doing it with some consideration about future impact. This isn't star-sign astrology, mother Earth, crystals and meditation's "oh, i don't need my land torn up, trees falling, or new water management issues" stuff.

What I'm mainly going on about is how incorrect harvesting...especially on forest/clearing breaks and slopes (especially slope bottoms) can end up removing many times more multiples of soil than the harvested amount...mostly due to water channeling.

My rant about "if you're going to do it, do it right" can turn into a hurricane in the Superdome rather than a mouse fart in the Superdome if you do it in some areas incorrectly...even if you're just taking a little bit. If you take it in the right area spread out over a wide spread of space you can lessen the impact to minimal-to-practically-nothing...if you take it in the wrong area and compound the issue by taking it out incorrectly, you can lose many times more volume of soil than you took out to move. You really should scrape the rough stuff on top of the soil to the side before harvesting, then spread it back around covering the area when done. That rough stuff helps a lot with keeping runoff and splash from eroding soil or creating rill channels.

Water movement is an extremely powerful force. I've seen surface soil removal on forest edges of farm land (trying to eradicate plant pest overwintering/breeding areas) turn the adjacent farmland into multiple 20+ foot long water rill channels. I've seen soil removal at the base of slopes and on slopes (even shallow slopes) create more erosion in/around the area than any of the soil that was actually removed in the first place.

The point it right if you're going to do it...not, them eco-terrorist commie nazis muh freedoms do what i want get off my lawn. A lot of people have learned a lot of hard lessons over the years in order to give us insight on how to do this in the least invasive provide us with what we need without creating unintended problems.

You can drive a screw into a wall with a's generally a good idea to use a screwdriver, though.

    Bookmark   October 14, 2013 at 1:37AM
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"than a man wanting to move soil around on one acre? "

A point some are making is that this 'it's only one man' concept probably means thousands are doing the same thing. What harm could it do if I poured a measly couple of litres of used motor oil down the drain. After all, we're talking an inconsequential amount when considering the billions of litres of waste water that gets discarded daily. Imagine if only one person in ten thousand do this in a large city. How many litres of oil gets dumped?

IOW, it's the attitude, not necessarily the specific action mentioned in this thread.


    Bookmark   October 14, 2013 at 10:06AM
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blue_skink(z3 MB Cda)

Yes, how it's done is everything. And how much. And why you are taking it in the first place. People will order a truckload of soil for their flower beds, not asking precisely where it came from Usually some desperate farmer selling his top soil. How do we undo this?

Too many people on this godforsaken planet.

    Bookmark   October 14, 2013 at 11:57AM
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I gathered many plastic bags of fall leaves last fall. I only used some. Last week I picked up many unused leaf bags and discovered compost a half foot thick under most bags. So I would say to the OP or anyone, if you dump some fall leaves over an area of your yard and can wait a year in between plantings, just adding some fall leaves and covering it with a porous cover or if plastic check on the moisture now and then. There may be a way that after covering with fall leaves in the fall of course and adding some nitrogen source and some sugar as mentioned by someone else, that you can plant sooner. The bags I moved were opened by bugs. They punctured the bags from underneath. I would imagine if you just gave them the leaves without bags to rip through, they would process the leaves sooner and make compost sooner.

    Bookmark   October 14, 2013 at 11:10PM
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forest floor humus is basically leaf mold............I would just make your own when the leaves drop.....the problem is that if you remove too much you may cause erosion.....then you have all sorts of problems.

    Bookmark   October 15, 2013 at 11:13AM
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Shoreside soil disruption is the leading cause of lake pollution here in Maine. Soil scientists advise us to leave our leaves, brush, duff in place to help protect against erosion. No one does, of course; most people are too appalled by natural processes in their yards to go along with that, or they're uneducated about natural processes, or they don't care because they want what they want.

None of us is taking issue with the OP who, it turns out, was basically robbing an already robbed area. His removal was equivalent to us raking leaves off our coiffed lawns.

The issue is that soil disruption does alter the landscape whether by affecting the plants growing there or by subsequent erosion, and to equate science with political correctness is ridiculous.

Not that I have any problem, mind you, with political correctness---I'm hugely in favor of it.

This post was edited by annpat on Fri, Oct 18, 13 at 11:29

    Bookmark   October 18, 2013 at 11:24AM
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