[Market-farming] Hard soil inside the High tunnels

wiediger at msn.com wiediger at msn.com
Tue Nov 23 17:00:43 EST 2004

Marlin,  After growing in our high tunnels for 10 years now,  we have seen a steady progression towards poorer soils also.  I think it's a number of reasons, most of which have been commented on already.  I know here where we run one crop behind another for 42 weeks, if not 52, we are just "mining" the soil.  However, I think the worst thing we do to the soil in our high tunnels is not providing them with adequate (actually, too often, no) water during the summer months.  I find that in the fall, if I put an oscillating sprinkler in them before working up the soil, the soil reacts much better.  Proper soil moisture at tillage will alleviate a lot of the problem you encountered.  Personally, I would not incorporate any sand into the soil you have, or I think you be working with concrete.  I think I'm suppose to add "in my humble opinion", but those who know me, know that my opinions are never humble! 

I often wonder what the lack of moisture during the summer months does to the soil food web in the soil in the high tunnels.  In the tunnels that produce winter squash and melons during the summer, the soil is always easier to work up in the fall.

Paul and Alison Wiediger
Au Naturel Farm
  ----- Original Message ----- 
  From: Marlin Burkholder 
  To: Market Farming 
  Sent: Monday, November 22, 2004 9:17 PM
  Subject: [Market-farming] Hard soil inside the High tunnels

    While this "High Tunnels" thread is going strong, I have yet another question I would like to insert.  In 2000 I built my first permanent hoophouse.  I chose the site primarily because of it's proximity to the house and water supply and because it fit well into the building landscape.  The soil on the site was of high sticky clay content, not my best soil.  I reasoned that because of the high cation exchange content of dominantly clay soils, I would eventually be able to build it into a highly productive soil by the diligent application of compost.

    It is now four years later, and despite what I thought was a valiant attempt to improve the soil by yearly deep digging in of compost and earthworm castings, I am still a little underwhelmed by the quality of the soil inside that hoophouse.  Rather than acquiring a soft crumbly structuture, the soil has gravitated more towards an aggregate of hard gravel sized clay lumps mixed with a dark brown dusty, almost gritty residue which I presume to be the remains of the compost applications.   When I began to dig up the beds this fall,  I found the soil to be tight, and it dug up as head sized mottled red and brown clods that were difficult to break apart.  I ended up loading up most of these clods into a wheelbarrow and dumping them outside the hoophouse.   There they will be exposed to freezing temperatures this winter which I hope will soften them up.  I then replaced this soil with an equal volumne (about 15 wheelbarrow loads in 220 square feet) of fresh compost and worked it in once again.  Despite all my efforts, I still feel like I am working with dirty gravel instead of real soil.

    Could it be that the lack of normal freezing and thawing of the soil inside the hoophouse during the winter, and the baking effect of summer's heat be the cause of the hard soil?  I have had some kind of mulch (old hay or cardboard) on the soil during the summer, and usually a pretty good gound cover of salad greens during much of the winter.  I walk on the beds as little as possible.   I wonder if this isn't a common problem for hoophouse growers.

    Marlin Burkholder
    Virginia Shenandoah Valley

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