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Another post about what to fill raised beds with...

Posted by prairiemoon2 zone 6a/MA (My Page) on
Mon, Apr 14, 14 at 20:43

We're building new raised beds to replace and enlarge our old beds. They should be finished and ready to fill in the next couple of weeks. I have almost tripled my square footage of growing space, so I won't have enough soil from the old beds to fill all the new ones. I have five large beds and I may be able to fill 2.5 of them. So that is a lot of fill.

Our lot is flat and small, so I have no way of taking native soil from anywhere. We do grow organic, so I have some old compost that is about 2 years old and hasn't been covered, so it's probably leached out all the nutrients by this time. I also have a plastic bin full of kitchen scraps we've been collecting all winter, cardboard, a little old shredded bark mulch, fall leaves and that's about it. I have been thinking I should fill the bottom half of all the beds with layers of raw materials and then use the old healthy organic soil to fill in the top half of all of them, on top of the sheet composting more or less. I was thinking I should be able to plant in them this spring.

So, what do you think? Is this the best approach or is there something different I should try?


Follow-Up Postings:

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RE: Another post about what to fill raised beds with...

You will need a mixture that is between 92 and 95 percent mineral soil and 5 to 8 percent organic matter, compost or other vegetative waste.


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RE: Another post about what to fill raised beds with...

By mineral soil, do you mean my native soil? Because that is what I am short of. What do you do if you don't have enough native soil? I didn't want to purchase topsoil in the bag, because I've been told, it's not really soil despite being labeled that. I don't want to take Cubic Yards of topsoil delivered from somewhere that might have bugs or disease or weed seeds, or debris or have come from somewhere that has been treated with chemicals, because I garden organically. So what is a substitute for the native soil?


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RE: Another post about what to fill raised beds with...

I would fill the beds with woods ( any kind which is available) and last year leaves and straw. After that, I would probably have enough old soil to cover all 5 new beds. What could be more organic?


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Of course, there is mineral soil and then there is mineral soil.

That is why some landscapes have thick jungle-like undergrowth and lusty trees whilst others have a light scruffy cover of plants, no matter how many years pass.


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RE: Another post about what to fill raised beds with...

By woods, I imagine you mean, shredded bark mulch or wood chips, Avgusta. I do have some of last year's leaves but it's already mulching the perennial and shrub beds and I will take as much as I can from there.

So the solution is to perhaps layer or mix together organic materials in the bottom half of the beds and use the old vegetable bed soil for the top half. I guess I will see how many beds I can fill that way and just forget about finding a substitute for more native soil. I do think I can go around the yard and take a shovelful from behind the shrubs and along the fence line and that will give me a little. I'll see how many beds I can fill that way and maybe if one bed is short, I could experiment with some other kind of fill.

PnBrown, I am planning on mixing in some greensand and granite meal, which I hope will add some minerals to the soil.


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RE: Another post about what to fill raised beds with...

You could try the lasagna gardening method for your additional beds. I mention this because it's possible to add layers of material throughout the growing season, so you don't need to get it all at this same time.

But if you can fill it up all at this time, then it will allow you to grow in it this year but better growth should come next year.

This would also allow you to mix and match from your old raised beds in case you wanted to spread out what you had before.


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RE: Another post about what to fill raised beds with...

By woods, I mean any woods- fresh or old logs, stumps, roots, branches, twigs.... All of them will take a lot of room in your beds and in the same time bring you nutrients and moist and earth worms and good fungi... read about " hugelkultur".


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Okay, thanks, Avgusta. I'm sure this time of year we have a good amount of that around. We're surrounded by Silver Maples that drop branches a lot. But wouldn't that take a lot of time to break down? I don't have access to a chipper.

Gardenper, I have been thinking of lasagna layering if I end up with a bed I can't fill. As soon as the grass starts getting cut I'll have more of that, but probably short on browns.

Does anyone have an estimate of how deep a layer the top layer of good soil from the old beds should be?


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RE: Another post about what to fill raised beds with...

You do not have to chip any of them, microbes and worms will do it for you.

This post was edited by avgusta on Tue, Apr 15, 14 at 11:33


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RE: Another post about what to fill raised beds with...

another


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RE: Another post about what to fill raised beds with...

another


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PM, those things won't go amiss, to be sure. What I meant though was that if one has coarse sand as one's finest mineral fraction, then Kimm's figures don't work well, the OM content should be higher. What happens is eventually you get whoppingly high OM in the quest to gain enough moisture retention and fertility, and then you start running into problems with severe drying out of the OM fraction unless well-mulched, and often too much fungal activity compared to bacterial.

The best plan is to leave sandy gravelly sites behind. If only.


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Avgusta, you really have a lot of wood! And a great way to use them up and recycle them. Have you been doing this long and do you have any idea how long it takes for that bottom layer to break down? Is there potential of attracting termites at all?

PNBrown, if I'm following what you are saying, you don't agree that adding sand would be beneficial? Because of the size of the particle that sand is? OM is organic matter?

My native soil is loamy clay. It is definitely clay, but not sticky and not all that hard to dig. I've read some people have suggested adding sand to loosen up clay, but many more people say if you add sand to clay it becomes like concrete. So not having a clear answer I've stayed away from adding any sand in my beds.

The one thing I feel confident about is adding organic matter. Everyone seems to agree on that.

I've had raised vegetable beds for many years, this is a rebuild. They've always drained very well and so far have only added compost and organic materials and I cover crop sometimes too.


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RE: Another post about what to fill raised beds with...

Sorry, double post.

This post was edited by prairiemoon2 on Tue, Apr 15, 14 at 14:03


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Those are not my pics. I load them from internet. Google "hugelkultur" word and images. You will find all answers and more.

I've surprised that having raised beds for years you never use the benefits of that or at least heard about it.


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RE: Another post about what to fill raised beds with...

I skimmed this thread pretty fast, but what I got is that you want raised beds, you recognize they need the mineral fraction of soil and not just OM, you don't have access to soil from your property, and you don't want to buy bagged or bulk soil. It sounds like an insoluble puzzle.

I think you need bulk soil based on the volume required. I don't agree that bagged soil is not soil. What is it then? Granted it is often of low quality, but if you have a lot of compost to add to it, it's OK. Actually bagged soil and compost vary quite a bit regionally, so what's at your store will not be the same as mine. Even big box stores buy their stuff locally or regionally so as to minimize shipping cost. Always pays to find a torn bag and evaluate the contents. I have clay too so I look for silty soil rather than clay.


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RE: Another post about what to fill raised beds with...

Toxcrusadr, yes, it sounds insoluble, but I guess I thought there had to be a 'second best' choice. Many people do use a large percentage of organic material, from what I read around the forums, some people even use straight compost, or Mel's mix which is really a soilless mix. [not a choice I would make] I guess I was wanting some experienced growers who had an opinion on those options.

When I said I didn't think bagged soil was really soil, I thought they don't have to even label the bags correctly. That a lot of times it's not much different than potting soil, with predominantly peat moss.

So, do you think I will end up with poor growing results if I layer or mix organic materials on the bottom half of the beds and cover the top half of the bed with my own soil from the old vegetable beds?

Avgusta, I will look up that term, no I haven't heard of using wood filling in beds. Lasagna methods, with other organic materials, or Sheet composting which is about the same thing. That's about it.


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I know you are committed to high raised beds, but it seems like this whole problem would go away if you settled for slightly raised planting areas.

Regarding the mineral fraction question, a loamy clay is a nice starting point. I agree with those who say not to add sand to clay, I think there is too much chance of a bad result. And I agree that it will stand almost any amount of OM addition, unlike a very coarse sand soil. A friend has a garden on coarse sandy gravel, it has been a constant battle against droughtiness and low fertility. Now, after immense importations of truckloads of different composts, "topsoils", mulch, etc, the OM fraction is too high. The top foot is almost pure OM in various stages of breakdown, with nothing but coarse sand below. A deep ripping would probably help, to work some OM deeper in, but there is no scope for a tractor. Double-digging might be indicated, but that is getting to be a lot of labor for people who 50-ish. Although a lot can get done an itty-bit at a time.


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PNBrown, We were planning on double digging the bottom of the beds before starting to fill them. I agree doing it a little bit at a time is very doable. Are you meaning to add a layer of OM and then do the double digging? And will the extra step of double digging allow me to add a lot of OM without having a negative effect?


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PM Have you tried your landfill? We are very lucky to have a compost place at our dump that has certified organic compost and garden soils for a really good price!
Another thought, since you already have quite a bit of compost ready, is to look at craigslist or freecycle for "clean fill".
And to Avgusta....What do you fill into your wood to plant in for the first year, or do you fill the beds and let it rot for a year or 2???? Nancy


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I fill everything what is available - old leaves, unfinished compost, native soil , and mulch it with pine straw on top.

Then I plant everything as I would do on a regular bed- peas, onion, tomatoes, raspberry, roses, apple trees, .. just anything. With time, soil gets better and better for the plants. They love it.


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I think that with a heavy loam soil you can add almost any amount and kind of OM and be fine in the long run, more than fine. Heavy soils are ideal for hugelkulture, especially in cool climates.


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Nancy, our community sells the yard waste they collect to fill the town coffers, it's not available to residents. Community compost though, is for the most part, not organic here. Everyone's yard waste is collected and used.

Okay, I guess that is about what I'm going to do then is fill the bottom half with as much organic matter as I have and the top with the dark finished soil from the old vegetable beds after double digging the bottom of the beds.

Thanks, all, for the clarification and other suggestions. :-)


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I thought lasagne was alternating layers of organic material and soil. I think your half and half idea is fine, but if I was doing it I would make 1-2" layers of each. I did it once for a new bed and it worked great.

One thing about using most or all organic matter is that it will continue to decompose and your bed will sink. If the goal is to have it raised it will be a yearly project to refill.

"Community compost though, is for the most part, not organic here. Everyone's yard waste is collected and used." There is no standard for 'Organic' compost in the sense of 'chemical-free' (which I assume you meant). I would just point out that if you buy compost in a bag, or potting soil, it has a variety of materials from various sources that will be no more or less exposed to pesticides than your neighbor's yards. One has to be careful of using fresh grass clippings treated with weed killers, but except in rare cases, pesticides do not survive composting in sufficient quantity to have any effect whatsoever on your garden.


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I believe lasagna layering is organic materials, one layer of greens then one layer of browns. More or less a compost pile or sheet composting.

Layering OM with my old dirt could produce a good composition, but if I want to grow in it this year, the top layer has to be deep enough to plant in and I wouldn't want the plants to be trying to grow in the uncomposted OM while it is breaking down and taking up the nitrogen while it is doing it, right?

Yes, I realize without enough actual dirt, the beds will sink and have to be replenished.

The only grass clippings that I add to my garden are my own or my only neighbor who puts nothing on his lawn. Yes, I meant chemical free. I'm sure there are products that you do have to consider that they are not certified organic or chemical free. I am very careful about any product I purchase and then it is used in containers for annuals. I haven't added bagged compost to my vegetable beds.

I'm not sure what your statement means, that pesticides don't survive composting in sufficient amounts… If composting could eliminate any trace of any pesticide, or fungicide or herbicide, then why would we need organic practices and products? Something doesn't add up about that statement to me.


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If pesticides didn't decompose, there would be more and more of them all the time, and this is not happening. At least since the banning of persistent pesticides like DDT, chlordane, etc.

People prefer organic practices and products mainly to keep chemicals off their food, and also to protect birds and bees. In other words, direct application and its immediate effects on living organisms *before* the chemical has a chance to decompose. After composting, the degradation and dilution factors pile on top of one another to the point where it would be difficult or impossible to even detect them in the following year's crop. We don't eat the compost!

In other words, your exposure to pesticides is much much higher from eating food treated with them than it is from growing food in soil amended with compost made from materials that were treated with them.

Everyone gets to make their own choices, but for me, as an environmental chemist working on the cleanup of contaminated sites, I am not concerned about pesticide residues in compost.

This post was edited by toxcrusadr on Wed, Apr 16, 14 at 16:17


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Tox, that is more or less what I believe as well. However, regarding herbicides and it's most common type these days - glyphosate, there is evidence that does not degrade as well or as quickly as claimed.


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All soil is composed of the mineral portion, the sand, silt, and clay, and maybe some organic matter. "Topsoil" is the top 4 to 7 inches of soil from someplace and in conversations with many people over many years I have found that most people think :topsoil: is loam, a specific type of soil that may or may not be what is "topsoil". Some people that sell something they call "topsoil" sometimes add organic matter to what they sell, for example near me is a company that dredges the accumulated leaves form the bottom of a lake, mixes that with sand and some lime and has it tested for pH and sells it as state tested soil. They do not label what they sell as "topsoil" although some others that sell that soil do label it as "topsoil". We also have a nursery that mixes soil, a mixture of 45 percent sand, 45 percent clay (even around here silt is hard to come by), and 10 percent organic matter.
My major point about buying soil is know what you are getting and get what you want. Do not accept what the person selling soil tells you about what they are selling and know that loam is only available in limited areas. People that tell you to buy "topsoil", without defining what they mean, really have no idea what they are talking about.\ because what passes as "topsoil" varies from place to place.
I have seen in the bagged soil sold in stores everything from some very good soil to junk that looked like spent foundry sand.
These simple soil tests can be used to assess soils, including those you might be thinking of purchasing.
1) Soil test for organic matter. From that soil sample put enough of the rest to make a 4 inch level in a clear 1 quart jar, with a tight fitting lid. Fill that jar with water and replace the lid, tightly. Shake the jar vigorously and then let it stand for 24 hours. Your soil will settle out according to soil particle size and weight. For example, a good loam will have about 1-3/4 inch (about 45%) of sand on the bottom. about 1 inch (about 25%) of silt next, about 1 inch (25%) of clay above that, and about 1/4 inch (about 5%) of organic matter on the top.

2) Drainage. Dig a hole 1 foot square and 1 foot deep and fill that with water. After that water drains away refill the hole with more water and time how long it takes that to drain away. Anything less than 2 hours and your soil drains’ too quickly and needs more organic matter to slow that drainage down. Anything over 6 hours and the soil drains too slowly and needs lots of organic matter to speed it up.

3) Tilth. Take a handful of your slightly damp soil and squeeze it tightly. When the pressure is released the soil should hold together in that clump, but when poked with a finger that clump should fall apart.

4) Smell. What does your soil smell like? A pleasant, rich earthy odor? Putrid, offensive, repugnant odor? The more organic matter in your soil the more active the soil bacteria will be and the nicer your soil will smell.

5) Life. How many earthworms per shovel full were there? 5 or more indicates a pretty healthy soil. Fewer than 5, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, indicates a soil that is not healthy.

This post was edited by kimmsr on Thu, Apr 17, 14 at 6:10


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RE: Another post about what to fill raised beds with...

Kimm, don't you suppose since PM has been around these forums for some years that she/he has seen your above bit of rhetoric about a dozen times at least? Maybe you should get to know your audience and save some preaching to the choir.

Regarding this constant assertion that all soil has silt and clay in it, I can say that is effectively untrue. In two regions of the country I deal with soils that have so little silt and clay in them that for horticultural purposes there is none.


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Toxcrusadr, Well it seems you have spent not only time studying these issues, but also have experience in trying to correct problems. I appreciate very much, what you do.

Well, I agree about the biggest reason that people prefer organic practices and products, but for me it is not the only one. I would like to see us do away with toxic chemicals eventually.

I garden organically and feel it is a better way of gardening and makes me happy to do it that way. I also would like to vote with my dollars and not purchase products that continue the culture of using toxic chemicals around the home and garden. Or use the compost that is an end result from those who do. And growing a garden successfully without using these products, I think is also an encouragement to others that they can do the same and it's not that hard. And I don't want to blur the lines at all, which is another reason that I like to use my own materials and organic processes to accomplish what I need unless I can find products that are as clear about what their ingredients and processes are and that is really not easy to find.

Kim, I’m always happy to have a reminder on these subjects. Especially the soil tests that you can do yourself. I think it is an important basic truth that all gardeners need, to understand their own property in order to get the most out of it.

PNBrown, I do see that Kim has been here since 2004 and I’ve been here as long. I’m happy that she is so committed to sharing the results of her own study and experience. You may disagree about a point or two and saying so is great, but no need to be unfriendly about it. We’re all gardening friends here, aren’t we? :-)


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I think your approach is well thought out, and 'more power to ya!" :-] I too would like to see an eventual end to the use of toxic chemicals. It will take some time, and I certainly encourage everyone I talk to to use as little as possible, and consider alternatives. If you can find enough compostables from known chemical-free places, your system can work, and I hope it influences others you meet. I share what I know about the chemistry just so people understand current state of the science of toxic risk. You've drawn a philosophical line in the sand on chemicals, and I totally get that.

BTW as I found out once upon a time, kimmsr is not a lady. Easy to make that assumption from the username. :-]

Happy composting!


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LOL….thank you toxcrusadr, All this time, I thought 'Kim' might be a first name and oh well….sorry about that Kimmsr!

And thanks for your input toxcrusadr. I would have liked to spend more time on the forum over the winter but was not able to and now it's spring and focused on just getting the gardening season under way. One of these days, I'll have a chance to catch up on all the great info on the forum.


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Happy gardening.


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  • Posted by babera 5a (Montana) (My Page) on
    Thu, Apr 17, 14 at 22:41

I like the idea of the lasagna bed. . . I have done them for several years and they are the way to go. . . I layer with 1st cardboard (no tilling/ground prep) then a layer of FREE sawdust you can get this from a mill or wood working shop, the next layer is leaf mulch, then a layer of grass clippings, then a layer of compost (I use manure) and lastly is the top soil. . . as soon as the last layer is on you can plant in it, either seeds or plants. Each layer is 4-5" deep and it does shrink down as it seeps into the soil but you just repeat next year if you want raised beds. . . I have done vegetables, perennials, annuals. . . some of my beds are 5 years old and the nicest soil. . . no grass growing in them either, due to the cardboard. . .


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Yup, kimmsr is a he, not a she, and it is kimm not kim. In this area of the world I am one of eight male Kim's or Kimm's including a former NBA Basketball player, Kimm Griffin.
I have been around these forums for much longer than 2004, that was when I had to sign in again for some reason.
Lasagna gardening is one way to grow things using a planting bed composed of organic matter. As time passes that bed will "shrink" as the organic matter is digested by the bacteria that do that kind of thing and will need to be rebuilt every year, just as those of us that do not do that need to add organic matter to our soil every year. There are a number of skeptics here about Lasagna Gardening because they have not studied this "new" way of growing and apparently do not want to learn new stuff.

Here is a link that might be useful: Lasagna Gardening 101


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I don't think I mean to be unfriendly any more than Kimm means to be pedantic, but perhaps the end result is the same. If so, my apologies to all.

My experience in dealing with soils deficient or devoid of silt and clay is that it is pretty close to impossible to overcome geology. Those who start out with favorable geology tend to be blissfully unaware of it :-)


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Babera, I’ve talked to a lot of people who are very enthusiastic about the Lasagna method. I’ve done one in the past. I love using cardboard because the worms seem to love it. I never have enough leaves. I have a small property. And now that I’ve removed some more lawn for a larger vegetable plot, I’m going to have fewer grass clippings. I don’t always find the materials I need. It becomes a search. [g] This spring I’m in good shape with enough materials to get a couple of beds filled at least. I’ll have to wait to see how far my materials stretch.

Kimm, I remember having to sign up a second time too. It was a very big problem with GW that everyone had to sign up again.

I didn’t realize there were skeptics about lasagna gardening. I don’t understand what there is to be doubtful about. It’s pretty much sheet composting that has been around for a long, long time. And don’t you layer organic matter in your compost bins, alternating browns and greens, same thing. Having tried it, and loved the results, I guess that is why I’m happy with the method. I also like the fact that it’s like composting in place and you don’t lose any of the nutrients that you might if you get a lot of rain on a compost pile and it leaches into the ground around the compost pile. Plus you save a lot of carting to and fro. I have heard some people suggest you should mix all the ingredients instead of layering. Which also makes sense, because although you do start out with layers in the compost pile, you do end up mixing it later on. And isn’t there another new version of this where you cap off the top with wet burlap? A method that has actually had some testing done that shows it has more biological activity than the usual compost pile.

Thanks for the link Kimm!

PnBrown, thanks. So what you are saying is that my clay soil is something to appreciate. :-)


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Many long years ago I learned that soils were composed of a mineral portion, the sand, silt, and clay, and some organic matter. This was reinforced in the Master Gardening classes when I received my certification as a Master Gardener and later as an Advanced Master Gardener in 2003 and 2005.
Not all soils will contain all 3 of those mineral components, some being all sand, others all clay, and a few in river deltas that might be primarily silt. The sand particles are the largest of the three with silt just a bit larger then clay and clay the smallest and flattest of them which allows those clay particles to fit tightly together and keep water from easily flowing through.
To keep water, and nutrients, from flowing straight through sandy soils you need something to fill in the pore spaces between the particles. That could be clay but as a rule organic matter is much more readily available (and less expensive) and easier to work into the soil. To allow water, and nutrients, to flow more easily through clay soils you need to separate the particles and that is most easily done with organic matter, usually more readily available and less expensive then sand, and you would need much les OM than sand to do what needs to be done.
I hope this very simple explanation of soil helps some.


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I like that explanation. It does keep it simple. Organic Matter. It also provided an explanation that I found helpful too. Thanks Kimm


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Kimm, your above little essay is one I can sign onto, as it is balanced and does not attempt to force absolute statements onto all situations.


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We just came back from the beach with a couple of bags of seaweed. I haven't added that to the garden before. You're supposed to wash off the salt, right?


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Some sources suggest washing seaweed from salty environments before spreading it on the garden while others report observing no problems following spreading the material without rinsing.


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Thanks Kimm, It looked like a lot more when we were at the beach, but in the garden it's really a minor amount. I need to put a couple of garbage bag in the car for the next time we go. [g] So I guess it won't make much difference, but I'll just rinse it off first.


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So we finished our new raised vegetable beds and thought I would update this thread. We ended up having only enough soil from our old beds to fill two of the new raised beds. We also used all of our store of organic matter, which wasn't a lot and compost dug out of a passive compost pile that had been there for over a year which we used to fill the bottom half of those two beds with the soil from the old vegetable beds for the top half.

Then we had three beds still to fill! I seriously considered making up a mix using pine bark fines etc., but reading along, what jumped out at me was the percentage of organic matter that is recommended in your native soil. In our old vegetable beds, I added a lot more organic matter, maybe up to 50% and the soil would shrink back and I'd have to keep adding more every year.

So, in the end I decided to at least check to see if I could find some 'organic' native soil to purchase. I called around for recommendations and someone did direct me to someone who might have what I needed. And they did. They also added a small percentage of organic compost and had amended the soil with organic amendments, like alfalfa meal and worm castings etc. It sounded like just what I wanted. So we had them deliver it and filled the remaining beds.

I will be interested to see how the produce does this year and compare the old soil we had, with the new soil. The new soil is also clay soil, and it doesn't drain as well as my own soil or the soil from the old vegetable beds with all the organic matter, that water just runs through. This new soil, the water puddles on the top for a little bit, but a layer of mulch slows it down enough. I hope to amend the new soil, either with cover crops or mixed lawn clippings and chopped leaves in the fall.

So that's the end of that story. Thank you all for all the help and answering so many questions. :-)

The last bed filled with new soil.


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And the finished product! Everything is planted and now waiting for ripe tomatoes!


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very nice prairiemoon! ;)


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