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Transforming Precambrian-Shield Soil into Rich Garden Loam

When we first began work on our remote lake front homestead in the Precambrian Shield, we knew gardening would be a challenge. Being above the 56th parallel, we are in Zone 0, the harshest zone per Ag Canada.

We're faced with a short, fickle growing season where frost can occur at any time during the summer months. Because this was virgin wilderness, our first course of action was to clear all garden and orchard areas of trees and roots (read a previous post about that here.)

Next, we were faced with the daunting task of improving the poor boreal-forest soil. Actually it's more accurate to say we “made soil” as the layer of topsoil was very thin as shown in the photo. The following paragraph from my book, Off Grid and Free: My Path to the Wilderness, gives you an idea of what we were up against.

One of the characteristics of the Precambrian Shield is poor, thin soils, and our sandy knoll was no exception. As soon as I started rototilling, it was evident that a thin layer of moss and decaying organic matter was all that covered our new garden spots. At most, 2 inches of top soil existed.

I can clearly recall one of the bush pilots saying to me when he first saw us establishing garden areas, “So you think you're going to have a garden here?” To which I replied, “yes.”

Clearly he was skeptical and not without reason. But that pilot was out during the following summer and he remarked with genuine sincerity what a great garden we had going. I think we earned his respect at that moment.

To begin the arduous soil building process, we scraped up all organic matter and topsoil from the future sites of the house, storage shed and woodshed prior to building. Transporting this material by wheelbarrow, we dumped the contents onto the garden areas and tilled it in.

This process has continued every year, except material is now collected from the surrounding forest. Here again I refer to my book.

    Two Inches of Top Soil

Two inches of poor topsoil

With a pH of 4 to 4.5, the soil in its natural state is perfect for blueberries, cranberries and potatoes, but much too acidic for most vegetables. This has been easily corrected with the application of ash from our wood stoves.

Because we are constantly adding acidic organic matter each year, we spread wood ashes each year, too. During the growing season, if we notice any plants that are pale and not thriving, a dusting of wood ash at their base quickly rectifies the problem. They become a vibrant green and resume growing properly.

Soil fertility was also a big issue. The soil was deficient in everything. Here's what we did initially until we learned a hard lesson.

Early on, we wanted to increase the soil fertility. To do this we opted to use manure, a traditional choice. We made the mistake of flying in a large quantity of store-bought, bagged manure.

In hindsight, this was a big error because the product was never composted properly and, as a result, we imported many non-native weed species. We have been weeding the garden of these pests ever since. Unfortunately, they are a prolific bunch.

To avoid the introduction of more weed seeds we stopped using the bagged manure and switched to bone and blood meal. And, of course, we make and use compost. The end result of all these efforts is a thick layer of rich topsoil visible in the photo.

Nine Inches of Top Soil

Nine inches of dark, loamy soil

We employed the same soil building methods in the greenhouse beds, herb garden and asparagus/strawberry patch.

To illustrate how successful our soil-building program has been, I'll share the sad saga of our asparagus with you. We love asparagus. We were eager to get a big patch established when we first settled here. We dug trenches and worked in organic matter, planted the roots and watched them die.

After ordering plants for the second time and having them winter kill, we decided to give it one more shot, but only after intensive soil improvement. I double dug the entire area, about 10 feet by 60 feet, and Johanna kept me supplied with innumerable wheelbarrows of organic matter from the woods which I worked in by hand. I am happy to say all the effort was worthwhile as we now have an established asparagus patch which gives us enough for fresh eating.

Turning the poor soil of the Precambrian Shield into viable garden soil has been a strenuous task, but it has been worth it as the gardens provide us with year-round sustenance.

To learn more about our off-grid homesteading life, I invite you to participate in our free E-book download this coming weekend July 23 and 24th, 2016.

Ron Melchiore and his wife Johanna currently live alone 100 miles in the wilderness of Northern Saskatchewan. Ron is the author of Off Grid and Free: My Path to the Wilderness published bMoon Willow Press and is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Connect with Ron at In the Wilderness and on Facebook and Pinterest. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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