August 27, 2018

Carbon and Soil Building: Designing a Plan

So how are we going to apply the knowledge we've collected in "Carbon: What I Didn't Know?" How are we going to increase soil carbon and build our soils?

Soil building is a biological process which requires a symbiotic relationship between living plant roots and soil microorganisms. Some of these organisms break down organic matter, and others secrete a sticky substance called glomalin. Glomalin binds soil particles (sand, clay, and silt) with carbon-containing organic matter to make soil. In addition, carbon is what feeds these microorganisms, so by adding plenty of carbon to the soil, we build the soil.

The soil in the southeastern U.S. is extremely poor, so we have our work cut out for us. I've been researching various methods of building soil and have learned that how we're going to approach it will depend on how we want to use the land. To visualize that, I mapped it out.

We have three goals in regards to land usage: gardens (green in the map above), pasture (lavender), and areas for producing field crops such as wheat, hay and other winter feedstuffs. Those areas are blue. All of these are the areas for which we need to develop soil building strategies.

Gardens. I have a kitchen and canning garden ("the garden") for annual vegetables, a slowly expanding perennial herb garden, and a couple of permaculture hedgerows. These are our smallest areas and so easiest to work with. For the most part, we're already on the right track, because we compost,  mulch, and don't use synthetic fertilizers or weed or pest killers. The plan is to continue building my huglekultur swale beds and get back to more diverse companion planting.

Pastures. Another area in which we've done some things right is pasture. For these, I've had some success with my Modified Fukuoka Method. I broadcast seed on the bare ground and cover it soiled straw and wasted hay from the goat barn.

Mixture of pasture forage seeds growing through barn cleanings.

I've only been able to spot seed with this method, however, so progress is very slow. We need to address the entire pasture rather than small areas in it. Cattle people do this with intensive rotational grazing. Our situation presents a few challenges for their method, but this is the direction we're headed. The first step will be to further subdivide our pastures. I'll have more on that later.

Field crops. In farming lingo, these would be called "cash crops." But since we're using these crops ourselves instead of trading them for cash, I prefer to call them production crops. Production areas are similar to a garden in that the crop changes seasonally, but they are much larger than a garden and so need different methods for managing.

Sam walking through last summer's corn seedlings.

Large producers like Gabe Brown build soil on large acreage with cover crops and no-till planting. However, they have large equipment to do so. The smallest no-till seed drills for small tractors run about $7000 - $8000 on up, which is out of the question for us. However, we're not the only ones trying to figure this out. I've been reading and researching and have come up with some ideas to try. I'll blog more about that soon.

I feel like we've been trying to figure out a huge puzzle for the last several years, except that some of the pieces have been missing. Finally, those missing pieces seem to be falling into place. It will still require a lot of work and experimentation on our part, but at least I know we're headed in the right direction.

Next in this series, "Soil Building Experiment #1."


Ed said...

For smaller scale building of soil, many farmsteads use livestock. I've seen a handful of pigs turn an acre of weeds eight feet tall into manure and soil in a matter of weeks. It is quite impressive to watch.

Leigh said...

Ed, we've had first hand experience in how well pigs work. Someday we will have them again and put them to work!

Goatldi said...


I need to read both post again so I can say something intelligent or at least that sounds intelligent. And after reading your amazing post I read an article in Acres USA August issue called Urban Homesteading Permaculture Principles Produce Natural Bounty. I know different but also of interest and right now my sad brain is still working on your potential map for the soil building. How did you generate your map ? You know my limited computer knowledge how but would love to do that for my land. You keep digging up the best stuff lady!

Mike Yukon said...

Carbon, brand new to me. Thanks so much for your time and effort to bring this information to us.

I've done a little research tonite and four questions came come up I didn't find a quick, solid answer to.

1. It is expensive when buying carbon granules?
2. It's not a topical application but needs to be added 4-8 inches below the surface?
3. Is this carbon a one-time application that will get the dirt going while you plant appropriate cover crops that should keep adding carbon?
4. For raised beds, it sounds like it would require annual applications?

J.L. Murphey said...

Carbon or carbon source is often overlooked. Good soil building creates a balance of nitrogen and carbon.

Leigh said...

Goatldi, I hope I didn't make it too complicated! I always aim to write clearly but am not too certain I do that. I made the map from a copy of our survey. It has the buildings outlined on it and all the markers indicated. The easiest thing would have been to print out an enlargement of that and then just sketch in ideas with a pencil. It only needs to be like a photo graphic to put on the computer. Email me if you'd like some help.

Mike, the videos we watched made it even easier than that. The easiest way to get carbon into the soil is simply to apply mulch: leaves, straw, wood chips, etc. The soil organisms will do the rest for free. Because of that I wouldn't buy granules or any other carbon additive, nor worry about a maintenance schedule other than when I'd ordinarily apply mulch. Some people make (or buy) biochar to speed up the process, but it can be done without.

Leigh said...

Jo, so very true. It is very much overlooked! Seems researchers just assumed carbon was the extent of carbon use and no one looked any further until recently. The science of soil biology is so fascinating. And really? I think it solves so many of the things I've struggled with in my garden. Such a blessing.

Cozy Thyme Cottage said...

I guess I will just keep on keeping on in my little courtyard by buying organic soil and getting free compost from the compost site. Nancy

Leigh said...

Nancy, you can't go wrong with that!

Toirdhealbheach Beucail said...

Thanks for sharing Leigh. Makes me ponder how to apply it even in my own little yard.

Goatldi said...

Your presentation is flawless. I am so visual in my learning I find myself while reading needing to insert mental pictures until I get the "awe"
moment. It is not unusual for me to read and dissect the information a couple of times. Continue on your hard work is appreciated !

Donna OShaughnessy said...

We are so fortunate here to have the variety of animals do, hogs, cattle, horse, chickens which all add to our compost pile. When coupled with rotten hay, old bedding, leaves and plain cardboard we end up with big well broken down piles of nitrogen and carbon to add to our gardens. But like you've mentioned, its a long process and takes years to build and rebuild soil. Still, in the end the work is worth it. I think :)

Leigh said...

TB, the answer is always the same - mulch and compost! :)

Goatldi, thank you! Feedback always welcome. It takes me a long time to write anything because I want to make it as comprehensible as possible, as concisely as possible. On the other hand, I'm still learning here too, so much of my motive for blogging about it is to put it in my own words so I can better own the information.

Donna, I've always thought animals were important, but for soil building, they are vital. I agree it's worth it! The alternative is going the other direction!

Rain said...

Leigh, I'm really looking forward to seeing how things progress with this new idea about carbon...have you ever considered the "Back To Eden" garden? I've been doing lots of YouTube watching and reading different styles of gardening...I'm trying to gather information because as you know, I'm (hopefully!!!) buying my property next spring...I won't be able to set up the permanent garden immediately but within a few years, it's happening. I guess each style depends on the person, the soil, the's really a learning curve isn't it? I hope that you have great results!

Chris said...

I remember seeing Gabe a while back, when he first started experimenting with turning his conventional farmland, into a more organic operation. He did an interview, with a bunch of other conventional farmers, who all wanted to see if they could transition their farms without losing money. I remember Gabe saying, he was actually increasing his profit margin because he wasn't buying in as many inputs. Which was surprising to him at the time, but not any more.

So it was good to catch up with Gabe again. I think you'll do well to implement some of his suggestions. It's applicable to the US, and I"m sure, in other parts of the world too - although you have to "tweak" it a bit more. In Australia we have Peter Andrews, who was once a conventional farmer. He didn't grow crops, just racehorses, but he had to raise quality pasture by the thousands of acres. Now in Australia we don't have the rich soils, the US has - nor the regular precipitation. So he recommended letting the weeds grow up together, slash them down, then let that feed the soil.

So when planting crops, think polyculture, to ensure the ground is covered for most of the time, with a variety of different plants. If you're not deliberately planting, think wilderness crop of whatever emerges, and let that be the ground cover for most of the time. Then slash it back and let the residue be consumed by the ground. I remember something Geoff Lawton once said in a talk (permaculture teacher) and that was the largest mouth on earth, was the soil. As soon as something touches the ground, it immediately begins being consumed by microscopic lifeforms.

Anyway, I always find discussions on how to grow food in different ways, endlessly fascinating. I look forward to seeing your plan develop.

Leigh said...

Rain, it's really exciting that you are looking to property of your own next year. Seems like it was a long time coming and now it's here! It's such a good idea to start collecting ideas and information beforehand, just like you are doing. What I've found especially challenging, is trying to figure out what will work for us. Things that work well for others haven't always lived up to our expectations here, which can be discouraging, but also very informative. I think it takes several years to get a feel for your land, your soil, your weather patterns, etc., and get it working for you and your goals. Until then, everything is an experiment!

My garden is pretty much a "Back to Eden" garden this year, but only because we've had the wood chips. And we've only had the wood chips because we got a chipper earlier this year. What a blessing that has been, because I never seem to have enough mulch. We've gotten the tree people to deliver a couple of loads, but they don't seem to be willing to do it on a regular basis. :(

Chris, you got to see Gabe on one of his visits to Australia? How neat. He frequently mentions several Australian colleagues, all practicing the same regenerative agriculture. Australia really is on the forefront of so many sustainable practices.

Chris said...

Apologies Leigh, it was an interview in a mini-documentary, Gabe was taking part in, when I first saw him. I can relate to a lot of what he's saying though. Because it has a similar theme to Peter Andrews' work, for Australian conditions. In that, to make better soil you need to keep it covered, with a multitude of plants. Slash it down after it's had a chance to set seed (for a farmer, they harvest the crop) and don't till it back in.

I love seeing how all the different methodologies cross over, and share similar fundamental principles. The challenging part for every gardener though, is to find what local plants (or crop guilds) work for them.

Leigh said...

Chris, yes, Gabe is adamant about keeping "armor" on the soil as he says and no-till. I find it fascinating too, how so many people are coming up with the same questions, all looking to nature for the answers, and then using what they learn for successful growing in their own geographical areas. My area is more like Australia than North Dakota, so I will definitely have to take a look at Peter too.

The biggest challenge we're facing is finding small scale equipment that we can afford. It's easier to do that in a garden than on an acre. We have our work cut out for us to be sure.

Chris said...

As far as I understand Leigh, Peter Andrews just used a tractor to (a) slash down weeds once they set seed, and (b) to move soil, logs or boulders, to create a leaky weir. It works somewhat like a beaver dam, clogging up a waterway, forcing the water to back up and spread outwards.

I reckon whatever equipment you need, Dan can make from scraps he's got laying around, and fit it to your tractor. I've found Youtube invaluable lately for looking at making your own tools. So maybe some ideas can be had on there for you guys, too. :)

G. Robison said...

Dr. Elaine Ingham, a renowned soil microbiologist, also has some great ideas about improving soil/carbon/fungi. Full disclosure: I knew back in the late 70s at Colorado State Univ when she was a post-doctoral researcher and I was an undergraduate in microbiology.

Leigh said...

Dr. Robison, Gabe Brown mentions her in one of his videos as a foremost soil scientist, but I've never looked her up myself. Thanks for pointing me in that direction! Interesting that you knew her. I should have gone into microbiology instead of nursing.