Soil Secrets

ive learned that my clay soil has all the nutrients but needs to be improved for drainage so i lay lots of woodchips and let the dandelions do their thing. its slowly getting better. the worms are dragging the organic material down with them and also aerating the soil but there’s still room for improvement. ive only got 8 yrs working on it so its not quite there yet


I’ve been here 10 years now on “silty loam” (according to the extension office). I’ve put down about average 2 inches of wood chip each year, plus all the pine needles you can imagine (we have two huge ponderosa that shed), plus our own house compost, plus alpaca, rabbit, and aged horse poop, plus straw, wood shavings, and stone gypsum, minerals, vitamins and the stabbers fish fertilizers in spring and summer

I get two inches down and it’s dry, silt. I tilled a bit down the first few years then started with layering on top. some areas are better than others.

I’m not sure what exactly it needs; nitrogen is a given. it’s dry here. high P, low N and K. I just keep shoveling chips at it and pine needle mulch.


The why of this, IMO, is that vigorous growth after the fruit forms on the tree leads to more watered down fruit, maybe bigger but less sweet. However, if you live where it doesn’t rain much during the ripening of the fruit you can have very deep, rich soil full of OM and all the very active bio-orgy it contains and still get up the brix.

In the humid regions this is something that we cannot control. Vigorous growth in spring is great, that is when fruit is expanding via cell division but when fruit is finishing off and developing its main sugar, such vigor leads to larger cells and not more of them and those larger cells are filled with water.

High organic matter leads to more available water which means the trees have a lot more of it between rains. In the west your can use deficit irrigation to prevent this.- although climate change seems to be encouraging more summer rain in many western states.

This is my opinion, but the real science of it is complicated and may vary from species to species and even variety to variety. The humid region is wetter but that also means it gets fewer sunny days and I believe both factors affect fruit quality (brix levels) in varying degrees related to variety and species.


On the subject of improving soil…

Clearing some land for a new home build… mostly oaks, hickory, sourwood…which I am processing into firewood… but all the very small wood gets tossed into a pile and burnt.

That pic above shows the after burn results for one huge pile off brush.

I have been wondering what to do with that ash pile… thought I might just spread it around in the location that will be my new veggie garden at the new place.

My PH in my fields and woods normally runs in the 5.5 range.

Would there be some benefit to giving each fruit tree a shovel full of that ash. Just sprinkle it around like adding fertilizer?

It was burned clean… used old news papers to get it started. I have one more huge brush pile i will try to get burnt soon… so will have another nice pile of ash after burning it too.

What do you do with nice clean pile of wood ash… in your garden or orchard ?




My opinion is i would use the gray ash in the garden and black charcoal in the orchard. The charcoal is easy to make in an old barrell burned with abscense of oxygen in the brush fire flames.

Biochar = orchard
Ash = garden

Full disclosure as shown below many experts dont think it matters. They are both very high in nutrients. Your trees would get a huge bump of nutrients from ash. I.know peaches and apples love it! I used to get the ash out of the ash trays in my childhood and grow fruit trees from seed using ash. Trash burn barrel ash was used as well. We burned paper and such things.

Biochar is what i used to convert land on my property that wouldnt grow grass into land that now grows heavy bearing fruit trees.


That ARS article says "The ornamentals also grew just as well in the pine bark as in the two alternatives.” That was over a 3 year period. The others where clean chip residue, and “Whole Tree,” a product made from the entire tree.
The article doesn’t say anything about long term benefits of the soil mixes.

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@clarkinks I have used biochar for years. It helps in many ways. The orchard probably wants a slightly more acidic soil, say 6, than the vegies, which prefer on average a neutral soil, or 7. Some trees dramatically improved with biochar: AMerican persimmon and pie cherries. Others improved but less dramatically. It not only makes housing for the right microbes, it also absorbs 6 times its volume in water and stores it at the root level, where it is most useful.
JohN S


Cornell has always recommended 7 for apples, but I am suspicious that it wasn’t based on science so much as logical leap. The idea was that high calcium in the soil would help prevent rots without having to spray so much foliar calcium on the leaves. I think it was all the speculation of a fruit guru named Warren Childs.

I don’t think pH between about 5.8 and 7 is bad for most vegetables or fruit. There are certainly exceptions we all know about, such as with blueberries. That said, there’s more involved than pH that is determining the nutrients available to trees, even with iron.

I’ve noticed that with some soils with about a 5.5 pH fruit trees do better with liming but in other soils with the same pH they do just fine. I suspect a decent amount of OM may increase the pH range where fruit trees perform well. However, the whole dance is about achieving the goldilocks affect and moderate, healthy growth.

Biochar has been a thing for a long time. Does anyone have any research that backs up their positive anecdotes? I’d like to think the stuff is magic because my firewood ashes always include a lot of charcoal. In my experience the main deal is to have reasonably loose, well drained soil without competition from either tall forest trees or unmowed meadow. I believe a lot of grasses and herbaceous perennials go to chemical warfare against many tree species and the taller you let them grow the greater their chemical arsenals. Carl Whitcomb has demonstrated in controlled research that competition from grasses exceeds the quest for water and nutrients and involves allelopathy against trees.

How funny- I tried to spell it allopathy. What a difference a couple of letters can make.

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I don’t have any personal experience but I did have a chance to walkthrough a large biochar trial on Peaches that was performed at the NCSU Sandhills research farm where popular peaches like WInblo, Contender and others were developed and tested.

I was very surprised that over several years of the trials, the trees with the biochar did no better than the trees without the biochar.


So at least we can be pretty sure that biochar is not magical fairy dust in at least one soil type. Of course, I suspect it indicates more than that.

I want to know if things really work and after that I want to know why.

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I think many people have good soil and dont see benefits from using biochar. Here in Kansas the soil was bad i used many things to improve it like biochar. If you need soil nutrients we know the improvements can be seen right away. Like i said if you have a camp fire here and partially burn it down the wet it down and leave biochar and ash behind that area will be the greenest best growing area in that field for the next 20+ years. I can show someone where i camped as a kid and dig up biochar and ash in that spot from 45 years ago. Thats a big difference. It doesnt make a big difference on everything and some things no.difference at all.


We had some spots where we burned big piles and the fire was too hot and did the opposite. It cooked the beneficials in the soil for years. This was on high ph soil. The spots were very negatively impacted while the areas around still had productive soil.

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Just one field trial that used replicated plots and statistics to draw conclusions.

I did not see anything with my own eyes to suggest their conclusions were wrong but they were only valid for the Peach trees on that particular plot of land. I’m guessing that other plots of land in different areas or crops could show improved yields. Some type of commercial biochar was used in the test but I’m not sure of the brand.

“Slash and Burn” agriculture was common in parts of the US during the colonial period and is still common in certain underdeveloped countries now. Not exactly Biochar but pretty close.

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I know gardeners who use it today (without the slashing) but it’s mostly used to burn forest land when converting it to agriculture, so it went on in this country probably right up until most of the forest suitable for agriculture was burned. I’m guessing the prairies were burned as well.

I just read about it but couldn’t find any clear info about its history in this country, but common sense leads me to the above conclusion. Now it’s primarily used to convert rain forest into farm land. Needless to say, there is concern about this because these thin soils can sustain agriculture for only a few short years, but the process destroys them for forest for a very long time, I gather.


The only way capillary rise can be different that just plain capillary pull as a force is if is different in some way, maybe by being less. But even then it would be capillary pull affected by gravity, Or is capillary rise a term that applies only to water derived from the water table? It would be the same force in that case.

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I burnt a lot of brush and old lumber from a torn down building over the winter. The lumber had a lot of nails in it and the burn pile was in an area that is often driven over in the summer.

I didn’t want my tires punctured, so I scraped off all the ash and a bit of the topsoil in the burning area. I dug a fair sized hole near the septic field that is never driven over. I filled it with the ash and dirt and nails from the burning area. I dug a smaller hole to bury a later burn that also had nails. I spread a light layer of topsoil over this entire area that I wanted to reseed with grass. The newly seeded area was probably 30’ x 50’ or so in size that I wanted to grow a nice new patch of lawn.

I seeded this area with grass seed a couple of months ago. I watered it regularly when it wasn’t raining and the grass came in quite well. As the grass grew, there were 2 areas where the grass was extra thick and lush and far greener than the rest of the seeded area. My memory not being the best, I simply put it down to spreading extra seed in those 2 areas. After a while though it became evident there was something else going on here. The grass in 2 areas was a foot tall when all the rest of the seeded area was only a couple of inches. Then I remembered these areas with super thick fast growing grass was in the exact places and the same shape as the holes I dug and filled with the fire ash. The difference in the growth rate was truly unbelievable.

If I was to take a picture now the difference would be less striking, as the area has been mowed. Still it is obvious that these 2 areas are far greener, with thicker grass, that grows quicker than the rest of the seeded area. The entire area recieved exactly the same type of seed and watering, so it’s pretty obvious to me that the ashes and char from the fires made a huge difference. With the hot weather now the rest of the grass in the seeded area is starting to yellow, but the 2 areas where I buried the ash are still lush, green, and taller than the rest.


Fireplace ash has been quite helpful for me.

Helps counteract the acidity of my compost pile if nothing else. Plus, the roots of a tree, deeper than almost anything else, bring up all kinds of good things I imagine. Ash concentrates it.


Good discussion. It’s a little complicated, because biochar helps some places more than others. If you have an alkaline soil in a cold area, I would think it would help less. If you have rainy, acidic clay in a warmer area, I would think it would help more.

The Native Americans in my area burned the valley every year. Scientists have been finding evidence of biochar like processes all over the world, and wondering if they came to the same conclusions as those in Brazil. The original terra preta in Brazil is still 3 feet thick, whereas the rest of the soil in the tropical rainforest is 1/2" thick. This is 500 years after the people who made it died. If you remove that soil from Brazil and put it here in the temperate US, it will make your soil much more productive.

I don’t think it’s magic fairy dust but it has made a big difference in my orchard, particularly with certain types of plants. I live in a rainy, clay soil area with very naturally acidic soil. That’s partially why I experimented with it in the first place.

John S

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My experience exactly. Part of what it does for Clay soil is that it allows it to breathe and for water to easily penetrate it and then hold it. Sometimes when we plant a new tree we throw some newspaper in the hole just to hold water and encourage worms. .


i made up a bunch of bio char with natural chunk charcoal for BBQing. i put it in a 50gal plastic drum and crushed with a 3in. 5ft long piece of beaver wood. got it into 1/2 - 1in pieces then added some blood and bone meal with some water. plan to add it to my raised beds this fall. also to till some in between my rows of raspberries next spring.