Tennessee Soil

More specifically Northeast Tennessee, in the Appalachian Mountains. My ~half acre orchard area was mature forest, clear cut before we purchased the property. The weeds and saplings which had taken over can attest to how fertile the soil is. Apparently not so great as far as P and K though… Other than the obvious spreading of some low-high-high formulation fertilizer, any suggestions?

Growing apple/peach/plum/cherry/mulberry/raspberry/blackberry/blueberry/hazel/chinquapin/etc… Everything is doing well, blueberries aren’t complaining about the pH at least. Well nothing else seems to be either. But anything I can do to help keep the soil and plants/trees healthy…


Hi Wendell,
Your soil seems a near perfect fit for Blueberries as they prefer acid soils. My native soils here are of volcanic and glacial origin and are also very acidic like yours. For certain crops like tomatoes you may need some lime to provide calcium; for others that enjoy the low ph you can use gypsum to provide calcium while not changing the ph, so for your fruit trees that need calcium, gypsum is often the better choice. Wood ash also has a high calcium content as well as other trace elements essential to many fruit varieties. If you have access to a horse barn, a manure compost that works all winter is good to start now as it encourages a lot of earthworms . Here I create a large horse manure compost each winter where I have introduced both Canadian and European crawlers. By spring I till it several times to kill off any germinating weeds before using it to plant my potatoes and for most other mulching needs around trees or garden. Ultimately there is no better soil amendment than what horses create. The horse barn where I collect from feeds high quality alfalfa and Timothy hay so the manure makes a very hot compost bed where the worms can work year round. To assure my earthworms have adequate grit to grind away I add river sand from a local stream which also helps the compost eventually to retain high levels of moisture when applied in the garden or as a mulch. Over the past 20 years the fertility of my soils have dramatically improved, thanks to my excellent compost sources. This helps me to reduce watering in our dry summers here. Hope this is helpful. Aside from composting, you may find this article on CEC offers some tips on understanding why improving your CEC will ultimately be more beneficial to plant nutrient uptake that merely adding chemical fertilizers: CEC article for soil improvement: http://www.soilquality.org.au/factsheets/cation-exchange-capacity
For many years I was unaware of CEC, but learned from my nephew how he uses it to help farmers in W Tn to optimize their annual applications of fertilizers.
Kent, wa

1 Like

More important than available nutrients is texture. Nutrients can easily be added, highly acidic pH easily adjusted, but texture you can only modify so much without brining in new soil or tons of sand, clay or silt. Clay soils in particular are challenging to work with.

Test your soil using this method, or have it analyzed professionally. https://davesgarden.com/guides/articles/view/59

Or perhaps combining the above method with this is a better approach. How Is Your Soil Texture? - FineGardening

Any adjustment that benefits from thorough incorporation like adding lime or phosphorous should be done before trees are planted. Soil tests that indicated deficient P usually recommend adding it, but I wonder if this is even useful at this point. I have never observed a P deficiency in orchards I manage and have come to believe that mychorizal relationships make such deficiencies extremely rare.

Excessive P fertilization is much more common and problematic.

Dennis, hello… We thankfully have an abundance of earthworms. As long as the local population of house cats will continue to keep the mole population down. They’ve killed ~100 or more in the past year (from yard, orchard, woods). They carry them to the house and leave them as “presents” for us…

I’ve only in the past year spread much wood ash, around everything except for blueberries at least. I assume the small amount it might swing the pH meter back towards alkaline won’t be a problem. It’s something I have an abundance of (we heat with an outdoor wood stove) so am glad there’s value in it.

Cation Exchange Capacity, very interesting. I won’t claim to fully understand what I just quickly read about it, but it still “makes sense”. Hmm…

Anyway, thanks!

1 Like

If things are growing well as you say, I wouldn’t add much myself, besides mulching with wood chips. I’ve also become a big fan of cover crops to improve and maintain the soil, so I would consider what you might plant around/near the trees to help collect the available nutrients and make them more available to the trees. For instance, if you grow daikon radish from fall into winter they’ll dig deep into the soil and collect nutrients and then make them more available to your trees in the spring. They’ll either winter kill or you can just cut the tops off and let them rot in place in early spring if they survive the winter. If they survive you can let them flowe and they’ll be a good early attractor for pollinators as well.

Alan, thanks. I’ve not done anything to measure soil texture, but feel pretty good about it nonetheless. I’ve read descriptions on here of folks with thick/mucky clay, or sand with little organic matter, etc… I feel for them, and at the same time am happy with what I have to work with here. Planting out a new tree is a breeze, I can sink a shovel pretty deep without tremendous pressure. Soil is black and at least from a look and feel perspective, seems to be a very good “texture”. A bit over a foot down there starts to be some clay, but it doesn’t appear to be “bad” clay like I’ve seen described and photos of on here.

Other than that soil test indicating low P and K, I already knew it was very good. So was primarily interested in what I could (or should) do to raise those. I’m of course interested in suggestions to help everything grow better from other perspectives as well. Anyway, knowing that low P isn’t particularly concerning is good, thanks.

We have 3 large loads of wood chips, which my wife’s flower beds around the yard have appreciated. Not so much my fruit trees yet though… For the flowers we can transport chips via UTV. Not so much my orchard area though, it’s a bit “steep”. I’ve carried some up to the trees in 5gal buckets, but complete coverage would take forever :slight_smile:

There are lots of maple/poplar/beech and other trees in the nearby woods which drop leaves and wind deposits quite a few among my orchard trees. I have (dwarf size at least as far as apple) trees in rows, 4’ with no vegetation and some wood chips. Then red creeping fescue grass in the area between rows, with those leaves raked off of and onto the tree rows. The grass was more an effort at keeping down weeds than anything though…

A quick google search on “daikon radish cover crop” looks to provide some good reading material, thanks.

Yup, that’s actually pretty much how I test soil texture. Also, generally, when most other species thrive in a soil fruit trees will as well. Black Walnut grows against muck soil and native red cedars thrive in wet as well, but most forest trees need good drainage.

When you ball soil in your hand and it holds well upon opening it is also an indicator of high clay. Someone even devised a ribbon test where you roll soil into a kind of mud ribbon and you can gage the clay by how far you can get it out of your hands before it snaps off.

However, it is amazing to me how many pretty accomplished gardeners I run into that cannot identify soil texture. But if you don’t have experience with a lot of different soils it takes a bit of study, even if it involves only listening carefully.

1 Like

Hi Wendell
There are a number of articles that cover CEC of soils. I think the bottom line is the more organic matter you can add to you soil over the years, the more fertile it will be. Whether you add it with winter cover crops that get incorporated back into the soil in the spring by tilling the green manure into the soil, or whether you create compost to add does not matter. The more you add, the better.

How does Organic matter influence CEC of Soil?
It influences the soil’s ability to hold onto essential nutrients and provides a buffer against soil acidification. Soils with a higher clay fraction tend to have a higher CEC. Organic matter has a very high CEC. Sandy soils rely heavily on the high CEC of organic matter for the retention of nutrients in the topsoil.

Ashes from a woostove are a real blessing in the garden.
Other than obviously not getting much on the blueberries
and azaleas and sourwood and sassafrass trees, it’s good for most things.
At least in moderation, (don’t put a full wheelbarrow full on one apple tree for instance). Potatoes, beans squash cabbage…those kinds of veggies seem to love it, too.

1 Like

No. Soil fertility concerns a balance of mineral availability and soil texture. The spectrum of minerals and their effect on overall availability varies widely among different types and sources of organic matter.