zmanor
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Location: Northern VA (zone 6/7)

what soil is this?

In my new garden area, I have soil which I cannot identify as sand or clay.

When I first cleared the weeds, the soil was hard and medium brown, and seemed like clay. Having tilled for the first time, it turned into yellowish-brown, very fine powder. When I water it, the top layer (about 1/8" maybe) gets wet and becomes impenetrable by additional water. So the water just runs off or puddles. No matter how much I water, if I stick my finger in the ground, its dry powder just below the surface.

I added a fair amount of peat moss and manure (in some part, I added about 4 cu ft of peat moss and two bags of manure to a ~45 sq ft area) and it doesn't change the water absorption behavior.

Surprisingly enough, the watermelon seeds, which I had planted in a rush in part of that garden before I realized the severity of the problem, have sprouted and look quite happy!

The question (besides "what kind of soil is this?") is what is the best way to amend it. Should I add sand? I have 12 acres of woods, so I have ample supply of oak and maple leaves, but I am impatient, and don't want to wait to compost the leaves before I proceed with my gardening. I believe that I can also get a lot of horse manure from neighboring farms, but I've read warnings about using it before letting it compost for a long time.

Thanks for any insights!

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Jess
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Hi zmanor :D
It sounds like your soil has a high silt content. This is very nutritious but is made up of very fine irregular particles which do not allow water or air to penetrate hence the crusting on the top and the powder when dry. I'm afraid the only way to improve this is organic matter. Adding sand will open it up more (make sure it is coarse not fine) but organic matter is really the only solution to making it workable. You should also avoid overworking it as this will just compact it even more. When digging in organic matter just loosen the soil enough to work it in to the top layer and/or apply a mulch of organic mattter all over the top in Autumn and again in Spring and let nature break it down.

The farmers with the horse manure should have several heaps if they are composting correctly. You want manure with little or no smell. That means it has decomposed sufficiently to be used. You should also start raking up those leaves asap as they will take a long time to rot down but you can dig them in fresh to areas you don't intend to plant straight away and let the worms do the work.

Check this site to test your soil and see if I am correct. It also explains soil structure in more detail.
https://www.gardeners.com/Building-Healthy-Soil/default/5060.page

zmanor
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Thanks, Jess!

Both your answer and the article you referenced were very helpful. I'm off to the woods to collect leaves! :)

z.

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Jess
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You are very welcome. :D
Let me know what the results are if you do the test.

zmanor
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Jess wrote:You are very welcome. :D
Let me know what the results are if you do the test.
I am not 100% sure how to interpret the results. In the garden area, I can see only two layers:
[img]https://lh6.google.com/shmuel.tomer/RprPNyXs1mI/AAAAAAAAAK4/RFjClcxUyrg/100_0420.jpg?imgmax=512[/img]
About 2/3 sand and stones, and 1/3 either silt or clay.

In an adjacent area (which has been covered with wood chips for several years, but this may not be relevant) I do see three layers:
[img]https://lh3.google.com/shmuel.tomer/RprPVCXs1nI/AAAAAAAAAK8/zwOTsdtDrX8/100_0421.jpg?imgmax=512[/img]
Looks like about 80% sand and stones, 15% silt and 5% clay.

From the comparison, I tend to say the top layer in the garden area (first sample) is clay, rather than silt, which is somewhat confusing.

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Jess
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Haha! Just shows that soil doesn't necessarily read the rule book.
Clay on top of sand I suppose would have the same affect with the capping on the top and the run off underneath through the sand and stones. Whatever, you need to add bucket loads of organic matter.
Hows the leaf collecting going? :D

zmanor
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Although I have lots of leaves, collecting them in the woods turns out to be very labor intensive. On the other hand, I got a truck load of partially composted horse manure from a neighboring farm, and can get as much more as I want, and this is much more efficient.

The manure already looks and smells more like soil than like fresh manure, but is still somewhat warm. It seems to have been mixed with a fair amount of "browns" (sawdust/wood chips, maybe straw). Is there any risk in using it in my beds right away? Is there a well defined criterion of when manure becomes garden worthy?

I also got some Starbucks shops to agree to collect their coffee grounds for me, but we are talking bags, not truckloads. Again, can they be used without first composting them?

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Jess
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If it smells more like soil and less like sh.. pooh then you should be alright.
It normally takes about 6 months for a good manure pile to heat up enough to get rid of the nasty bugs. I would be a little cautious using it too near anything with soft growth just to be on the safe side. It may scorch the roots if it is still a bit undercooked. You should be fine around trees, shrubs or anything with a woody stem.
As for coffee grounds I will have to let someone else answer that as I only use a small quantity every now and again as a slug killer. No Starbucks near me. We tend to drink more tea! :lol:

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