Wild Men on the North Fork

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Soils...welcome to clayworld

Our soils are geologically 'young'. That means they don't have the humus that older soils have, like in the midwest.

Close to Casper Mountain you will encounter heavy clay soils that come from the sedimentary shales that form the foothills. The shallow seas that existed in the Casper area in earlier geological times, and which produce a lot of clam fossils, had muddy bottoms. Shale, before it formed into rock, was clay. Close to the North Platte River and north of the river you will find sand that has been deposited by water and wind.

So, what's so great about humus? Humus adds nutrients to the soil in small amounts that are readily available to roots. Humus also keeps soil loose, and that makes it easier for roots to get water. In addition, humus cuts evaporation. It increases the ability of soil to hold moisture, keeping water available to plants for longer periods of time. Humus provides a place for microbes to live, and microbes are essential to the health and life of your plants. The decaying process that happens when humus is in the soil provides vital nitrogen to roots in a natural way that will not "burn" the plant. Chemical fertilizers burn plants when applied in amounts large enough to overload the plants' abilities to deal with them. Finally, humus helps soil resist compaction.

Clay soils, in particular, will compact through the process of watering. So even if you never trod on tilled soil you can be compacting it every time you water. Always take the opportunity to mix some humus in as you till, and to mix it into the soil surrounding trees and bushes. Humus is available in the forms of peat moss, manure, and compost. Peat can be purchased by the bag, or by the bale. It comes to us mostly from Canada It is dug there from old lake beds, and contains the plant remains of hundreds, even thousands of years of lake-plant growth. Peat moss provides great humus that is slightly acidic. That acidity will neutralize some of the alkali in our soils.

Manures have different degrees of "hotness," or concentrations of nitrogen. Sheep manure is the hottest available to Casper residents. To obtain some you may have to drive out into the countryside to ranches that feed herds of sheep over the winter. Never use fresh sheep manure. Use only aged sheep manure, and use it sparingly. Even aged sheep manure can burn plants if it is too concentrated.

Horse manure is "hotter" than cow manure, and has fewer active seeds. Use manure that has aged in a pile for a least a year, as that composting tends to kill a lot of seeds in the manure.

Tiny grains of clay in freshly tilled soil are widely separated. During compaction there is less and less space between them. Because they are very thin they orient horizontally during compaction, forming a barrier that is virtually impossible for roots to penetrate.

Clay is what we have, for the most part, here in Wyoming. It is pretty awful stuff to be planting anything in. It is slippery, it absorbs water and then swells. It packs into impenetrable layers.

Our clays erode from a particular kind of sedimentary rock: shale. Before shale became rock it was......you guessed it......clay! Certain Wyoming soils are mined for use in the oil patch. Through some simple grinding and heating they become 'gel' which is: slippery, absorbs water, and swells. Bentonite is another ash - clay product that is used to seal off pits of all kinds. When water hits it, it swells and forms an impenetrable barrier. Where have we heard all this before? Bentonite is that gray soil in which nothing grows. Do not try to drive on that stuff after a rain. It is like trying to drive on gelatin.

Rocks and sand:

Not too long ago I planted my garden in soil that was about half pea gravel, little rocks all about the size of a pea. In some ways it was pretty good. But, I found that by the end of a growing season, I could water my tomatoes for as long as I wanted, and the water never puddled. The soil absorbed all the water I wanted to pour on it, and it still wanted more. There was not enough 'soil' left between the gravel to hold any water at all.

Pea gravel is just sand writ large. Sand will do the same thing for your garden soil as pea gravel did for mine. It will provide great drainage, if that is what you desire. It also leaves great channels for aeriation for plants like peas that need that to the 'nth degree'.

Sand and clay mixes, without anything else added, should be avoided in the garden. The results can be a mixture that has the temperment of concrete. Sand and clay with humus and possibly some animal droppings, in the right proportions, is the ideal garden soil.

Humus:

Humus is the third, and probably most important soil ingredient. Humus is rotted, decayed, or composted plant or animal material. It is the organic portion of your soil. The most common mistake made in Wyoming is not having enough humus in the soil. The obvious source for humus is grass clipping and fall leaves. These need to be composted before being added to your soil. The reason for this is that left uncomposted, they will try to draw Nitrogen from your soil as they decay there, thus competing with your growing plants for the available Nitrogen. Another souce is bagged Spagnum Moss. One of the purposes of adding humus to your soil is to keep it loose and broken up, allowing water and air to reach the plant roots in the propper amounts. Very small beads of styrofoam or vermiculite will aide this effort. But do not mix in more than 3 percent of styrofoam beads because they tend to swell a bit with water.

Droppings:

Animal droppings are a form of humus and are particularly rich in nitrogen. The best stuff is from birds. Sheep droppings are 'hotter' than cow or horse. Fresh droppings can chemically burn plant roots, causing permanent damage to the plant. Droppings are best after being aged for a year or two. Some gardeners use fresh dropping below a layer of soil in a cold frame to heat the soil the plants are growing in. Decaying droppings can give off considerable heat. After a couple of years you may want to add more droppings to your soil mix because the plant roots will have used up much of the Nitrogen in the droppings.

I caution the gardener about using horse manure. Horses have the most inefficient digestive system of any four-legged animal. Their systems just don't process seeds very well. So their manure is loaded with weed seeds. Using horse manure may require letting it 'rest' for up to 5 years to allow the weed seeds to die. A garndening friend passed on this old saying about the use of manure:

Sheep in the Spring
Cow in the Fall
Horse never,
Never at all.

Soil Mixes:

Below I include a chart of soil mixes and what plants do well with those mixes. Please bear in mind that the chart is just a guide. There really are no hard and fast rules for this. For instance, lettuce prefers to grow in a medium mix, but will do just fine in a loose mix. Onion prefers a loose mix, but will grow in just about any kind of soil. This past year (2001) we had very heavy crops of peppers that were planted in a mix of half clay and half humus.

Note that I still recomend you use some clay in your soil. Some plants prefer the alkalinity of our clay, and clay does help to hold moisture in the soil for the roots to use. But do get used to the idea that more than half of the clay that occurs naturally will have to be removed from your garden.

Soil Mixes

Nitrogen Rich
  • Clay: 1 bucket
  • Sand: 1 bucket
  • Humus: 1 bucket
  • Droppings: 1 bucket
  • Broccoli (side dress with bone meal at planting)
  • Cabbage
  • Cauliflower
  • Corn
  • Cucumber
  • Squash
  • Sunflower
  • Watermelon
Medium Mix
  • Clay: 2 buckets
  • Sand: 2 buckets
  • Humus: 3 buckets
  • Droppings: 1 bucket
  • Beans (not too much potash, potassium, or alkaline soil)
  • Beets
  • Brussel Sprouts (Like potash, potassium, magnesium)
  • Musk Melon
  • Pumpkin
  • Tomato (side dress with bone meal at planting)
Loose Mix
  • Clay: 1 bucket
  • Sand: 1 bucket
  • Humus: 3 buckets
  • Droppings: None
  • Carrot
  • Chard
  • Lettuce (likes slightly alkaline soils)
  • Onion (likes potassium, and phosphorus)
  • Pepper (likes magnesium)
  • Potato ( likes potash, potassium)
  • Radish (likes potash, potassium, alkaline soil)
  • Watermelon
Sand
  • Peas

The quick and dirty method:

While trying to get a garden going this Spring (2001) I also was moving from one house to another and engaged in several other projects. Building boxes for the beds took time. Yet we wanted to get plants in ASAP. So we mixed some soils in the boxes as we filled them. But in other boxes we did not mix all the soil. We dug pits in the loose soil where we were going to put tomatoes. We dug trenches in the soil where we were going to plant cucumbers, squash, melons, and pumpkins. Then we filled the pits and trenches with a super rich mulch and planted. Done. Now, in the Fall, we will have to go back to those beds where we used this shortcut method and mix the soils correctly. This shortcut method will get you by for a season, but that is about all.

Soil additives including Fertilizer:

Please see my page of Other Ideas for a discussion on this topic.

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