How to Amend the MOST HORRIBLE Soil in the World! (5 Tips to Help You Improve Your Soil)
NOTE: This article on amending terrible soil has been updated. It was first written when we lived in hot, arid climate with sandy, rocky soil, so parts will reflect this. We have since moved to N. Idaho, where the soil is wet clay—-completely different. BUT the concepts are pretty much the same for amending horrible soil into rich, fertile loam.
Life in the Mojave Desert is a challenge in all ways. There's little water available, barely any rainfall, and it's an extreme, savage environment whether you are down on the valley floor or up higher, like we are. I've heard more than one person describe the lower desert area around Las Vegas as "the moon" due to its rocky, dry, and gray appearance and soil.
The Mojave Desert is a place you can grow to appreciate, and it's beautiful in its own harsh way, but anything that survives here naturally is a special life form, that's for sure!
It's truly the worst growing environment I've ever seen....but you CAN improve the worst soil in the world!
I figure if I can grow things here, I can grow things ANY where! Here's what we did to improve our hard, rocky soil.
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How We Amended the WORST Soil in the World!
1) Breaking the Ground
In the first year, we had to till up the soil as best we could. It was pretty backbreaking because of how rocky and hard it was! Mr. V. did most of that hard work, I have to admit.
We tried to use our neighbor's tiller, but it broke. That's how hard this soil is. We removed TONS of rocks by hand, including a couple of small boulders. This work is not for the faint of heart, that's for sure.
I could probably use that tiller on our garden now, since our soil is better and softer. However, we are moving to more of a no-till method of gardening, which means we are disturbing the top layer as little as possible.
That first year we just moved in in September, so we broke the ground for the North garden in the Fall, before the ground froze. We basically just broke it up as much as possible, about one and a half feet down, using a pick axe, shovels, and a large heavy rake for the rocks.
After the first snow, we just let it be until Spring. Whew! I look back on that time and am amazed at how darn hard that was!
2) Mulch! Mulch! and More Mulch! (Organic of Course)
Our last frost is the first week of June, so we added a thick layer of organic wood mulch in March of that first year and turned it into the soil. That first summer was kind of a rough year for our veggies in that poor soil, and I hate to admit this, but I used Miracle Grow fertilizer (chemicals) because we didn't have lots of manure close by or a compost heap yet.
Last summer was our third garden season. We laid that same organic mulch on the soil in thick layers each spring after that first March. As it has broken down over the past couple years, the soil has become richer and darker. You can really see and feel the difference in the quality. Adding mulch like this doesn't create big changes right away. It takes time and patience.
There are a variety of different types of mulch you can use. We chose to use mulch from small wood particles, organic of course, that would condition the soil as it broke down. We used a brand from our local nursery, but the link above is a similar type.
We also added another garden area we call the South garden, so now we have two large garden areas. The North garden is the first one, and now the soil is dark, crumbly and filled with organic matter. The South garden is a year younger, and even though we've mulched that one at the same rate, you can see the difference one year makes!
3) WORMS! Lots and Lots of Worms!
One of our neighbors blessed us with a huge can of red wigglers the second summer we gardened up here! And what a blessing that was! Those little red worms have done absolutely amazing things with the soil! They oxygenate the soil, fertilize it with their waste, and help break down organic matter quickly. I. LOVE. Worms!!!
I love worms so much, that now I'm thinking about adding a worm bin to our other creatures living out here with us! That would mean keeping them inside during the freezing winters! Yep! That's where we're headed. Vermiculture bins! Those little creatures are possibly the best thing to have happened to our garden.....except for, possibly.....
4) Chickens! Lots and Lots of Chickens!
:-) Chickens are wonderful helpers in the garden! You can't believe what they'll do to help improve your soil!
By harvest time of the first year, we also had about twelve chickens we had added to our place. After the harvest was over, we opened up a hole in the fencing between the north garden and the chicken run, giving them access to both gardens.
They went crazy!
We let them in that first fall in order for the chickens to take advantage of the leftover greens. What we didn't realize at that time, is that the chickens turned the top layer of the soil for us in their digging efforts! How wonderful! :-)
By giving the chickens access to the gardens throughout the late Fall, Winter, and early Spring, they completely managed to get the soil ready for us to plant! Well, pretty much! All we have had to do in the Spring is create our rows or squares or whichever plan we are experimenting with at the time.
Chickens aerate the soil, keep it from becoming compacted, eat little critters (which is great for the taste of the eggs and the health of the chickens), and help fertilize it naturally. Chickens are a winner for everyone all around!
5) Compost and Manure
About two years ago, we started composting everything we could, except for old veggies we fed to the chickens. I keep three kitchen composters available in the kitchen, and I just LOVE these things! You just toss in your egg shells, coffee grounds, and any old/unused veggies/fruits.
There's a filter at the top with a charcoal lining that keeps the mix from smelling---so whenever you're ready you just take it out and dump it onto the compost heap, give it a little turn and maybe some water---that's it!
There are different styles of kitchen compost bins, and some of them are really cute! I could not manage composting without my little kitchen helpers!
As for manure: There are lots of wild horses around here, and I know a neighbor who goes out every Spring and fills a couple of 5 gallon buckets with their manure, fills it up with water, and creates Poop Soup. His garden is fabulous!
We've never done that with the wild horse poop, but now that we have two horses and therefore LOTS of available manure right in our yard---well, we have begun adding manure to the garden for the last few months, as long as there was no snow on the ground (which isn't often up here in the Winter).
We just added a final layer about two weeks ago and gave the chickens a week to get everything turned in. Perfect!
Final Thoughts on Amending Soil for a Great Garden
So....it takes a lot of time and some different ways of managing your soil to amend it. You can add other things, if you want or need--for instance, sand for clay type soils, etc. The best thing to do is get to know your own special soil in your area and amend it accordingly.
The above things we did, however, could be done to any soil with success! I'm super pleased to say that we haven't used any chemicals at all on our garden after that first summer we stooped to using Miracle Grow out of desperation. All organic, including pest control.
EDITED NOTE: Now that we are in Idaho, I don’t expect it to quite as hard to amend our soil here as it was in Southern Nevada, to be honest. For clay soil, we will be adding sand and more compost! Plus—-worms. I love worms. They help just about any kind of soil become healthy and fertile.
How do you amend your soil? I'd love to hear your experiences! Gardening is definitely a learning journey, and if you have some ideas I didn't mention, please let me know! :-)
Hugs, Health, and Self-Reliance!
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