Today I was looking up the effects of wood ashes on soil, which led me to soil building in general. For most people, soil is just "dirt". It's not thought about too much and mostly to be tolerated. I think people do know there is "good soil" and "really good soil" and there are things we can do to it to help plants grow better, like buying a bag of steer manure at the big box store.
As a long-time organic gardener, Rodale inspired from the times of the old magazine "Organic Gardening and Farming", soil for me has a more complex and living character. It's almost spiritual. I know there are no gods. But there is soil.
There are a lot of ways to look at soil. Soil is physical structure, it's chemical constitution, it's history, it's a community of organisms, it's process.
I try to build all of those aspects to promote health of the garden plants and trees.
For structure, I'm using raised beds, and compost. Raised beds help structure by creating areas that are not walked on, and don't need tilling. Walking causes excessive compaction, especially when wet. Tilling causes compaction under the tilled area, and breaks up fungal fibers that support soil structure and transportation of nutrients through soil levels. It also breaks up tiny tunnels left by old roots, worms, and tunneling insects. Tilling has a place, but the raised bed method minimizes the need for tilling, and supports the soil structure. Compost makes the soil more spongy, allowing more water in when dry, and promoting better drainage when wet. I also mulch, which prevents formation of a hard crust on the soil surface.
For chemical constitution, again I'm adding compost. When you think about it, compost is the plant material that grew by removing nutrients from soil, so using compost adds it back. What's added back is exactly what plants need, because it the chemical part of what plants are. Plus compost contains beneficial bacteria and fungi, that may have been disrupted or depleted in the original soil. I also add crushed eggshell for calcium. That may not seem like much, but it adds up over a year's use of eggs. As for wood ash, care is needed. I haven't chemically tested my soil. I assume it's somewhat acid, given that blueberries do well here. Blueberries don't thrive in alkaline soils. Wood ashes alkalinize soil, so can be used in limited amounts to return nutrients to acid soils, but I wouldn't use in alkaline soil.
I don't know much of the history of my soil. There is volcanic contribution. This land is former Fir forest. It was logged, long ago. Part of it was orchard - there might be residual chemical residue. Given that is remote past, I hope not much. Most of the soil for the raised beds is coming from an artificial hill behind the house. I don't know the history of that hill - it's odd. I'm suspecting it's fill from the house, or from digging the septic tank and drainage field. Lots of mushrooms are coming up now that it's fall. That suggests an active fungal population. I avoided using soil from below the septic tank drainage field, assuming some household cleaners or other substances may have wound up there.
As for the community of organisms, all of that digging, moving, and mixing, must have caused tearing up of the fungal microfibers, but otherwise I think the compost supports bacterial, fungal, worm, and beneficial insect community. I'll try to give the soil a chance to recover it's communities. I bought some mycorrhizal inoculant to promote plant-fungal interaction. There is no proof that helps so I don't know. The local fungal spores might be all that's needed. When I plant beans and peas, I'll add rhizobium inoculant too. Rhizobium enables legumes to convert atmospheric nitrogen to forms plants use, promoting growth and enriching soil. Rhizobium can be specific to the type of legume, so most likely there isn't the right type, if any, in my soil. There were earthworms in the compost and in the soil added to the beds, so I think I'm good there.
Most likely, I think too much about these things. Ramble while having morning coffee. The grounds of which, will go into the raised beds too. Coffee grounds are an excellent addition to soil or compost.
Embedding links isn't working, so here are some sources. I'm not promoting any particular product, but a couple of these are sources I've used.



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Replies to This Discussion

Thanks for all that information.

Sentient, thanks for the reminders and new information.  I didn't know, or forgot that tilling causes compaction, breaks up fungal fibers that support soil structure and transportation of nutrients through soil levels, and breaks up tiny tunnels left by old roots, worms, and tunneling insects.

I've tried to use non-tilling methods most of the time since I read a couple of books by Ruth Stout about the year-round mulch system of gardening.  An interesting title of one of them is "How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back".  She used about 8 inches of straw on her garden year-round and put vegetative kitchen waste under the straw instead of going to the work of composting.

I was very impressed with her books as well as amused, as she is a good story-teller.  However, I don't have personal experience with the totality of her method because I just started using her system when I moved from the country to the city.  Since moving, I've been reticent to use a large quantity of straw because I'm afraid someone on the sidewalk could easily throw a burning match into it and create a large fire.

Here's one gardeners thoughts on her method with a list of her books:

Spud, I like Ruth Stout's method and I also like the "lasagna method for building a raised bed". Don't forget to create a healthy environment for worms; they save hours of tilling and do a better job. If you don't have very many, garden worms can be found through mail order. My garden store sometimes carry them, not often.


thanks for the comments!  For some reason my prior reply did not "take" except for the link.  Strange....

Your comment about Ruth Stout and "How to have a green thumb..." really took me back!  I read that book when I was in junior high school!  I bought a copy - my parents thought I was very odd!  (They were right).  I must have read that book 5 times!  

You are right to be cautious about passersby with matches or cigarettes.  I have the same worry about 4th of july rockets and fireworks.  Most of my garden in town has bark mulch partly for that reason.  It's not as inexpensive or as soil-friendly as straw and similar, but is safer.

I read that Ruth Stout's method might not work in the Maritime NW because it is so wet here in the winter.  I don't know.  During the summer, at least, a thick mulch layer should keep in moisture and keep out weeds.

Sentient, I love the fact that you were interested in gardening at such a young age.  One of the best ways to be odd!

4th of july rockets and fireworks:  They worry me also.  I find illegal ones on my property every 5th, but I can't be too mad at the kids.  After all, I put my neighbors in danger when I was young also.

Sentient, thanks for this excellent articles, especially information about mycorrhizal-inoculants. I have written them for more information.  Everything you describe fits my experiences and I think the novice gardener will quickly realize why some soils grow healthy crops and others do not. Your description of a pile of dirt of unknown origin is interesting, and probably excavation soils. In your case in Vancouver, that could be very good news. If your land had good drainage, it may be because of steeper elevations than the low lying ground that became collection bowls for silts, sands and light gravel. I am interested what you find in that pile. 

Did you get any of Mt. St. Helen's ash? We probably got more than you, but it depends on wind flows. 

As you realize, the volcanic from coastal mountain building contributed a great deal to your soil composition. In addition to that, glacial floods brought soils and gravels from Canada and deposited them in the Portland/Vancouver area, greatly influencing your soil composition, unusually high in minerals from glacial dust. You live on one of the greatest aquifers in the world because of all the deposited soils from glacial floods. 

USGS/Cascades Volcano Observatory, Vancouver, Washington

DESCRIPTION:  Glacial Lake Missoula and the Missoula Floods

Even though this report comes out of Vancouver, WA, it does not seem to describe the soils of your area, at least not on a quick look. You and I are both effected by volcanic, glaciation and flooding, but in very different ways. You are at the point of outflow of massive flood waters into the ocean, and settling of soils into your whole area as I am at a place where fast moving water tore soils to bedrock and left deep holes where water gathered in small ponds and left surface rock scraped bare. 

Joan, thanks for the information!

I was not living here at the time St. Helens erupted.  I've heard there was some ash but maybe not much.  

About 1/3 of the little "hill" is gone now.  There is enough left for about 2 more raised beds, 1 ft deep, 4 by 8 feet.  It's a lot of wheelbarrow hauling and digging and moving.  Good for the "soul" whatever the soul is.  Weeds and grass are growing fast on the remains of that "hill" so I guess it's OK.  

The first raised beds contain allium species - garlic, multiplier onions etc.  They all germinated and are about 6 inches tall.  Should be OK for the freeze, that's about how big they were this time last year.  The beds are about 1/5 compost to 4/5 soil, maybe 1/4 to 3/4, and now have a compost mulch.

I don't know what to make of mycorhizal inoculants.  I'm adding them but I don't know if they really help.  There are claims both ways.  The soil for my first 2 raised beds was really parched and powdered.  Most of it was from  innumerable mole hills.  Granular, dusty.  Seems like not a lit of life in that.  I mixed in a lot of compost.  I don't think the inoculant will hurt anything and it might replace or supplement what survived as spores or dessicated forms.  I've also added it to the roots of trees that I plant.  Not scientific, just try and see.  It will be mulched in summer, so once there the various life forms should persist.

I should also add a little soil from my old garden.  That might give a boost of soil life, from 10 years of organic care, compost, and mulches.

Weeds are a good sign. My granddad told me when I was a little kid to look for ground with weeds and to watch for what weeds because they tell you what grows well in that soil. I love old farmers knowledge. Putting some of your old soil in with the new will act as yeast in flour, good plan. 

I like your idea of an allium bed! Growing them in a raised bed allows water to drain away leaving moisture but not water. Grandma used to put straw from the chicken pen on onions; it seems they are nitrogen lovers. Allium varieties all have such pretty and often unusual features. And such great flavors come from them. 

I sent a request to WSU Extension for information about mycorhizal inoculants, and found a site with information from the supplier. It seems their product was developed 1996, so I want to see some studies before I do anything. It seems liquid fertilizer should not be used with the product: 
"Never apply liquid fertilizers of any kind at planting time or during growing season. This will disrupt the biological activity in the soil and make the plants depend on you for more and more frequent applications."

We are going to have another wet winter and that spells problems for my garden. I am so thankful I have the four raised beds. Almost all my borders have been raised at least six inches when I put in the paths. As you know, my neighbor kids are not allowed to step on the soil and must use stepping stones that we placed for their leg spans. 

Happy gardening!

Thanks for the lesson, Sentient, I enjoyed it! And learned some new things too!

You're welcome Chris!

Here's a nice video about plant interactions with microorganisms in the soil.  It gets a little technical in places.  It's nice to see there is scientific basis for these concepts.  The association between plants and soil microorganisms is more than just being close to each other - it's at a genetic level, in the chromosome.  



I have lots of mushrooms around.  I guess that's a good thing. These pics are from tuesday. Fall rains brought out zillions of them. My hand is there for size. I have big hands, so some of these mushrooms are very big.


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