skip to NEXT: if you want to ignore much that you might have heard before. :) skip to SUMMARY: if you want the real quick version. if i repeat myself, it's been a long day and i'm not going to edit this any more.
RATIONALE, HISTORY & DESCRIPTION:
started in solid clay as a project to see how clay can be improved. it has been some kind of tree farm, left bare or roughly planted and weeded, but not formally kept after much at all. the area is roughly rectangular and about 7m x 20m. it gets full sun most of the day. the north and east edges are bordered by some bushes and ditches that run all year.
as a garden/field it provides: snake, frog and toad habitat, bee and butterfly food, worm food for the bins, green manure for the gardens and overall decorative appeal from the flowers and greens. the icing is erosion control (i snuck that in there :) ).
it is now about the end of the first year since it was replanted.
it was planted with alfalfa and birdsfoot trefoil in a spiral pattern. the width of the stripes was about 50cm (more on this later) and a pathway was left bare.
to prepare the area i first knocked it back with glyphosate. there was a lot of sow thistle running through it and i also wanted the grasses out of there. i took advantage of having the whole area back to bare dirt to also level it out and eliminate a gully that was forming. i did till it, but it was so dry the soil was like a brick and the worms were either dead or down deep.
i haven't used any more glyphosate on this patch since then (even though i wanted to at one point this spring when it looked to be getting overrun by mouse-eared chickweed -- i'm glad i didn't it looks beautiful now :) ). instead i spent a fair amount of time going through the west and south edges by hand pulling up the chickweed. the spiral pathway became the place to pile the weeds. i wanted to be able to scrape or dig up anything that grew again without damaging the rest of the garden, that aspect worked out ok. as the patch gets nicer and i have to weed less the pathway is filling in with plants from the seeds that are being dropped. there will be a lot more sprouts from some weed seeds i'll have to keep after in the pathway, but i'll take that work in trade for the hundreds of pounds of weeds that were piled there. i'm hoping a lot of the weed seeds were eaten by worms, but as of yet i have not found any literature or studies on the topic (i haven't had much time to look yet either, that's likely to be a winter item).
ok, so back to today, finally i could get out there and do some nosing about and see how the soil was changing. in areas like the pathway (where i was stacking weeds to dry and rot for the worms) the soil was doing very well. the top few cm were showing signs of improvement. it was darker and easier to get a rake through and there were even worms about (we've had rain enough lately).
in other spots that were more bare it was hard to get the rake in the soil at all. i broke the surface a little with the rake and reseeded with trefoil to get them covered again. one nice thing about working in clay and plants that have a good tap root is that you can rake it pretty deeply to get a lot of the small weeds and sprouts and still leave the desireable plants in place.
a few weeks ago i'd chopped the whole patch back to simulate it being grazed and scattered most of the trimmings back on the surface. queen anne's lace was getting ready to set seed and Ma had done me a favor by pulling many of the seed bearing mustards. the alfalfa had just ripened enough that there was viable seed in the pods. out came the hedge trimmers (i mooed a few times too). it looked pretty nice but barren in comparison to the edge of trefoil i'd managed to weed all along.
the trimmings are now reduced to mostly dried stems. the worms probably feasted. the alfalfa has rapidly bounced back -- over 25cm high and looking nice. the queen anne's lace and some of the other tap rooted plants are much easier to pull. the roots are shrunken and some show rot. this is a good thing as i've pulled thousands of queen anne's lace over the years and most of them are tough cookies to get out (waiting until after a good soaking rain also helps a lot). hollyhocks also, by the thousands (we have a lot of hollyhocks here).
both the alfalfa and trefoil have deep tap roots. in hard packed clay within the first year the roots have gone down between 40 - 60cm (for those i've been pulling). they are between between 4-12mm in diameter. i.e. don't let these plants go if you want to pull them later. :) glyphosate resistant alfalfa will be a horrible weed of the future.
the trefoil within the spiral was mostly crowded out by the chickweed and other weeds, i was sidetracked by another project before i could finish weeding the whole garden. today i reseeded the larger bare spots and hope that will do and if it doesn't i can transplant some smaller plants and they'll fill it in. a single plant can cover about a quarter of a square meter and i like to keep them smaller by trimming. these plants will also grow in a lawn. let them grow a little long once in a while and you'll get plenty of flowers all season (for this you want a lower growing variety than the common viking agriculural kind. often you can find them growing along the side of the road. the seeds are fairly large (about the same size as alfalfa seeds) and brown in contrast to the alfalfa seeds (which are yellow -- funny how the dark flowered alfalfa has the lighter seed color).
the frogs and toads are doing better this season. Ma and i were just talking about this as she mowed and noticed plenty of them hopping around -- appearing in numbers we haven't seen in a long-long time. i'm quite surprised since it has been so dry. they use the spiral garden as a jumping off point from the Drain (where they get a chance to breed). i've not seen many snakes out there, but i likely wouldn't. they are much more visible in the fenced garden pathways (we have a lot of large rocks in various places and piles, they like those).
i haven't seen a turtle around in a long time, but we don't have any large puddles/ponds within a few hundred yards of us. the turtles would have to survive a long open field journey and then cross the Drain to get where we would see them. if we had sandier soil along the ditch i'd expect to see more of them as then they could have a nesting site. still, with more frogs and toads i'm hoping that turtles might wander through more often too.
deer and bunnies are not raiding the garden yet, but a tough winter and that could change. the bunnies i try to discourage. the deer in the winter it won't matter what i do short of going out there and standing there as when they are hungry and they know food is here they will keep coming back. this past fall the hunters must have finally taken out the ring leaders who knew our place as a food source because we had no tree damage for the first time in a long time. we hope they continue this trend for next year. it's nice to have the bottoms of the cedars covered again. i'm hoping if they do come back they'll eat the alfalfa and trefoil and leave the trees alone... we'll see what happens.
the garlic i had mixed in was mostly overgrown. while i was hoping it would turn out as well as any other garlic it was about half sized. with the dry spell we had and the soil being solid clay i wasn't hugely surprised by this result. i did not have enough garlic growing in the trefoil (grows shorter) to do an accurate comparison. that will have to be the test of another season. in the meantime i'm going to have a lot of garlic to weed out there this fall and next spring. :) yum yum.
i'll continue to harvest some of the greens until the frosts knock it back. the trefoil is nicer if kept more compact. i like the alfalfa to get taller (in contrast) and it would actually be tough to keep them the same height. alfalfa grows faster once it is established. the woody stems of both are looking to be a good longer term material to break down, taking months to years before they are gone. the leaves are digested quickly after they hit the ground. the more i can let the plants grow before chopping it back the more layers of stems i might be able to pile on top of the clay and that will start setting up an even nicer soil habitat for the worms and other soil creatures. it is an interesting tradeoff. i doubt most farmers of alfalfa even care as they grow it for cattle feed and not for worm food or soil amending (and i never see trefoil grown for cattle in anyplace other than a pasture since it supplies less nitrogen and grows lower than alfalfa -- i like that it grows differently and flowers so brightly).
the soil is gradually improving. the garden is gradually looking nicer as i can get back to weeding it and filling in the bare spots. frogs and toads are coming back. the flowers are getting a lot of attention from the bees and butterflies. the worms are there when it is wet enough. i'm still harvesting greens and weeds from the garden to feed to the worms out there and also the worm bins here inside (eventually this gets digested and is being returned to various gardens). erosion control seems to be going well too as the hard rains we've had are not forming the gully again. i think i have the drainage back there finally able to capture most of the water from the rains so it can soak in. the overflow is set up so that it is broad enough that no channels are being formed. garlic grown was heavily crowded by weeds, so it was smaller. i could not do a good comparison between the alfalfa and trefoil. alfalfa and trefoil grown as a green manure or soil amendment show some promise for adding woody stem type materials in layers on top of the soil. this would be a big help to many creatures that we are interested in that do greatly improve the soil and perhaps even create a new habitat (for the redworm/compost worm the organic dwelling worm that doesn't need dirt to live). eventually i'll hope to see more signs that night crawlers are returning and increasing too out there, but as of yet i'm not seeing signs of their burrows. it's tough to be a worm when the top of your world is as hard as a brick and there's not much food.