When we moved to our farm, one of many problems and challenges we faced was soil quality. The soil was solid clay with a thin veneer of sod on top. I sometimes thought there was more organic matter in the rocks around the farm than in the ground. Then I discovered that in some places the rock wasn’t that far below the sod—giant limestone floaters, some as small as footballs, some as large as fire trucks.  They sat sometimes as little as a few inches under the clay, making it difficult to put in fencing of any sort. In some places, the rock was fully exposed, the thin veneer of sod and clay ripped asunder by nature’s fury.

Still an agricultural novice, I tried to till a garden the very first year. It was a great failure. So, Jessica and I started reading books and watching videos about sustainable and organic gardening and farming. The book Lasagna Gardening, the internet video “Back to Eden,” and many others passed through our hands and house. I talked with a lot of farmers and growers and gleaned a lot of good ideas.

Soil-building with compost
It may not look pretty but John’s composting method builds soil rapidly. He fences off an area that he wants to kick-start, and uses all the composting tools he has. Chickens, leftover produce in cardboard boxes from his buying club, wood chips and worm castings work together. The color of the soil is markedly better than that of the clay beneath it.

Beating Father Time

We tried many methods to help the soil, but the biggest realization and motivator to me was time. Many farmers were talking about building soil over a decade. A decade? I would be in my forties! My kids would be approaching college age. I wanted good soil far sooner. I suspected there were ways to accelerate nature wisely and winsomely to accomplish it.

I also wanted to build soil in an affordable and eco-friendly manner. Some methods seemed promising but were impossible given our financial opportunities. Families with a new farm and four kids, all seven and under, generally don’t have a lot of extra income floating around.

I knew that most cities had massive waste streams just waiting to be converted back into good earth. I knew that there were a variety of tools available for those wanting to build soil—mulches, cover crops, composting, and more. I just had to figure out how to put the pieces together.

One of the problems beginning and even intermediate growers face is how to take the various parts of soil building and turn them into a system that works over time and seasons to build and maintain good soil. Most soil books and approaches are generally one dimensional and seasonal. Some tackle above the ground, building soil on top with little attention to addressing the soil and subsoil (such as lasagna-style gardening, raised beds, or composting in place). Some address the subsoil with only minimal impact above ground (tillage, cover cropping). Few, if any, incorporate animals into their approach.

I have learned that rapid soil building depends on the application of multiple techniques, at the right time, in the right way and with the right tools. When it all comes together, it is impressive in its results and enjoyable to watch in action.

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soil-building with mulch
The Moody boys help to maintain the family’s mulch pile.

Soil-Builder’s Tool Box

There are a host of tools available to growers for growing soil. Here is a brief overview.

COMPOST IN PLACE: Most growers compost, but why compost in one place and then try to move all that fertility to another spot? Save yourself some work and compost where you need it. Realize that by moving compost, a good portion of the benefits are lost into the ground underneath the compost area. Avoid this loss by composting in place and moving the place of composting, rather than the compost as needed.

The materials that can be used in a compost system to build soil are almost endless—food residuals, animal manures and bedding, coffee grounds, cardboard, egg shells and so much else. Realize that for every few inches of soil you want to create, you need multiple times that amount in input materials. Want 2 inches of soil? You will need 6 to 8 inches of compost to start.

MULCHES: Mulches such as straw and wood chips break down into soil over time while also encouraging all sorts of soil-building activity below the surface. Mulches also make a garden tidier and cleaner, protect against erosion and reduce the need for weeding.

COVER CROPS: Cover crops are one of two non-tillage-based means to break up the deeper layers of soil. In a sense, cover crops are nature’s tiller. Plants have been tilling since time immemorial. Drive by the walls of rocky cliffs and you will see the power of plants to crack and break stone, let alone hard clay. Many soil-building systems focus primarily on building soil on top of existing subpar spaces. Cover cropping helps take what is happening above the soil line and works it in below at the same time.

LIVESTOCK HELP: One of the most under-utilized tools to build soil is small livestock, especially chickens and smaller breeds of hogs. One of our primary farming principles is to try and avoid doing physically or mechanically what nature or an animal or a microbe will do for us if conditions are right. Our job is just to create the right conditions. Chickens and hogs are tremendous at breaking up, mixing together and tilling in materials. Those chicken talons are not just for trimming. A hog’s innate desire to root puts a rototiller to shame.

You need to use both chickens and hogs prudently so they help rather than harm the land, but that know-how isn’t too difficult to master, and the increase in soil-building speed is impressive when these helpers are incorporated into the process.

Working Together

Remember that composting, cover cropping and small-scale livestock go hand in hand. A cover crop of clover or small grains can be tilled in by either chickens or hogs, and at the same time provide them with high-quality, free food to forage, thus reducing your feed bill while improving your growing spaces. A compost pile attracts many bugs, whose populations can be kept in check by a flock of chickens, again providing free food for the birds while adding fertility to the pile. Portable electric fencing and chicken and hog tractors make all this possible to do even in smaller spaces.

This article originally published in THE NEW PIONEER® Winter 2015 issue. Print and Digital Subscriptions to THE NEW PIONEER magazine are available here.

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