Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Digging holes

Because I like to garden, (O.K.; because I am compelled to garden by some mysterious power) I am often in intimate contact with dirt, or as real gardeners call it, soil.  Also because I am compelled to garden, my husband is compelled to garden.  The only mysterious power that compels him is me.  His projects involving dirt are sometimes different from my gardening projects that involve dirt.  I dig holes and put in perennials.  He digs holes and puts in septic systems.   Same process, different sized holes.

Shortly after we moved out here, we discovered that our septic system emptied right into our creek across the road.  When we mentioned this to the former owners, they didn't understand why that could possibly be a problem.  After all, didn't everyone's empty into the creek?

We immediately began to dig a septic system.  Eric got a license from our county and discovered that it was only within the past year or so that our county had any waste water disposal regulations at all, and that was because the state had refused to give the county money if they didn't adopt existing state waste water regulations.  Ah, the power of the mighty dollar.  So, our county instituted waste water regulations and specific guidelines for septic systems.  That is not to say that anyone actually enforces them.

One of the things we had to do was have someone come out and test the soil in the area where we wanted to put the system.  Now, we had done enough digging to know that we already had clay.   Eric, who has a degree in Environmental Sciences, was not allowed legally to do this.  We actually had to PAY someone a lot of money to come out and take a soil sample and say, yep, you got a lot of clay and silt. 

They came and took a soil sample to the depth of five feet, I think.  As they removed the sample, they laid it in a half piece of PVC cut lengthwise.  It was very interesting to see the layers of different types of soils.  Actually, we really had only three layers:  Topsoil, clay/silt, and damp clay/silt.  Since there was enough slope to the area, but not too much and since we were digging a septic system big enough for a hotel, we had no problem getting approval and installing the new system.

The dirt in this part of Indiana varies.  Rumor has it that this is because the glaciers melted right about here.  The hills on our property are large rocks with leaf mould based soil.  The hills on my parents property, which is just a few miles away, are all sand.  Wonderful orange sand.  We have sand in a narrow strip right around the creek that comes down from the northwest corner of our property.  The rest of our dirt is what many people around here call clay, but what is in fact mostly very fine silt, which when dry and chiseled out in clumps, might as well be rock. 

Clay is wonderful dirt if one wants to dig it up to make water storage vessels.  Clay is horrifying dirt if one wants to dig it up to plant flowers.  Silt is wonderful dirt if one wants to dust (i.e. MAKE dust) with it.  Silt is horrifying dirt if one wants to do anything else with it.  You see our problem.

A decade or so ago, we expanded our main flower/vegetable garden area yet again, only, this time we decided to do it right, the way the books tell you to.   

The books tell you that when one is beginning a planting bed, one should amend the soil with whatever it is lacking:  humus, sand, peat, etc.  One first digs out all the dirt in the bed to a depth of eighteen inches or so and sets that aside.  Then one tills up or digs up the next layer to loosen the soil and amend it.   Then, one puts back the first stuff that had been set aside, tills it up and amends it.  Then one has a beautifully prepared, well drained, amended and slightly raised garden bed all ready to plant.  Voila!  The whole process is called double digging.

When we decided to add six more planting areas, Eric told me that we should double dig the new beds and tailor each bed to the needs of what we wanted to plant in it.  For example, we could have a really sandy bed for things like larkspur and root vegetables.  We could also raise all of the beds since flash flooding had saturated the west half of that garden area.

Eric started out with a song in his heart and a shovel in his hand.  In no time at all, he had dug out and set aside the first layer of dirt in the first bed.  Then it rained.  Instead of a garden bed, we now had a lovely swimming pool.  The birds thought so; the frogs thought so; my dad thought so.  My dad didn't actually swim in it, he just teased us mercilessly about it.

As the water in our pool would dry up, it would rain again and fill right up.  The dirt around that thing was practically impenetrable and the water stayed there until it evaporated.  A few weeks later we were able to finish the job.  We amended with lots of sand to improve the drainage.   Then we realized that what we might have done was to create a delightful little container that would collect and fill up easily and then be impossible to empty.  This was a problem.   We wanted to plant carrots, not cattails.  We're still perfecting a drainage system.

When we built the studio, we decided to put the electric underground.    Sigh.  This meant completely reworking how the electric came off the power line to the house.    We had to dig huge trenches from the power line around where the veg garden was going to be, to the back of the studio, then from there down the side of the studio to the back of the house.

At the same time, we had to lay in the water lines to the studio from the house and the waste water pipes from the studio to the septic field.   More big deep trenches.  

It was August.    Clay + August = brick.  After a couple of hours of trying to dig by hand, we gave up and  I hired a local guy with a backhoe to come out and dig for us.   In just a couple of hours, he had all the trenches dug.   It was fabulous.    Except that our backyard looked like the Grand Canyon.   Deep trenches with big piles of dirt next to them everywhere.  

We hustled and got the electric, water and sewer laid in, covered it all with whatever gravel was needed, if any and then covered the trenches back in by hand.    And foot.   When I was too tired to keep shoveling,  I just sat down next to the hole and pushed the dirt in with my feet.   It worked and the kids thought it was a game.   They helped. 

When we put the veg garden in, we put drainage in, too.   By then it was spring and wet.   I literally carved shallow trenches just deep enough in the clay to direct the water where we wanted it.   Then I laid landscape fabric in the trenches and filled them full of gravel.   It works like a charm. 

We didn't even try double digging the veg beds.   I built raised beds [8'x10'; 12" or so high] and set them right on top of the clay, then filled them full of sand and manure.   More on them later.

These days I'm kind of over the whole digging holes thing.   The only holes I dig now are just big enough for a plant.    There may be more construction events in our future, but I'm saving my pennies so that someone else can move all that dirt. 

1 comment:

  1. Excellent new plan.
    Crazy land-wrangling, girl. I'm amazed at the work you've put into your place.

    Here's something for your gee-whiz file that I learned on our trip in April:
    In western Ireland when the Irish first started trying to plant the hills above the Atlantic, they started digging and discovered they had 7 feet of peat moss they had to remove first. (That's 7 vertical feet, not horizontal) So they did. Then they found they had tons of rocks. So they cleared the fields of them, and since they now had piles of rocks, they used them to build stone walls around the fields (hence all those walled fields you see in pictures of Ireland. It's a rocky little island). Then they looked at the soil and it was all clay. So they tramped down to the beach and hauled sand and seaweed up the mountains (without tractors or modern equipment) to amend it. Thousands and thousands of acres. They got it going fabulously. Then in 1845 the blight hit, the crops rotted in the ground, and the Irish either starved or left.

    I figure that's why joking and singing are huge there. They'd kill something if they didn't.


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