Should You Plant on Mounds in Sandy Soil?

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Calen asks about planting on mounds in fast-draining, sandy soil:

“I’m a native Cracker from [coastal Florida]. I’ve been homesteading on ancestral farmland with a survivalist and traditionalist mindset for three years now. All heirloom and organic, etc. I own all of your books, and they, along with your blog and videos, have been the most helpful gardening advice that I’ve ever found anywhere. Last year I grew tons of Seminole pumpkins with great success using your “melon pits.” I passed that along to many friends who did likewise. I also plant the pumpkins in many “guerrilla gardens” in the swamp and backwoods on public land, and that’s worked out great as well. I never revisit them until harvest time, and they normally do better than my tended ones. Anyways, this year I want to give the three sisters a try. My plan is to use Jimmy Red corn, Cherokee black pole beans, and Seminole pumpkins. Pretty much everything I read says to plant on mounds. However, my place is high, dry, east-bank-of-Lake George sugar sand. Is mounding the way I should go? We didn’t even have standing water during the past two hurricanes. My thought was to maybe do these in slight pits like the melons and pumpkins but wanted to see if you had any advice on the subject? Thanks for your time.”

Fantastic. It’s good to hear from a fellow Floridian.

Mounds are what you always hear about. It’s even on the back of the seed packets. Calen is right to question the practice in his soil conditions.

For people who haven’t planted in “sugar sand,” it’s hard to explain how very hot, dry, and fast-draining the stuff is. It contains almost no humus and needier crops planted in sugar sand need almost constant watering.

Scrubland Sandy Soil

My old homestead in North Florida had large patches of almost sandy loam with smaller granules which would hold water for longer. There, I would double-dig and loosen the ground to plant, which would mound it up somewhat.


Those loose raised beds did very well, so it would be easy to say, “Oh yes, Calen, go ahead and plant in mounds—it works in Florida!”

But sugar sand isn’t the same as the soil above. Just because something works in one area of a state doesn’t mean it will work in another. And in his area, I would try to stay as flat as possible.

When you raise the height of the soil in one area, the water will drain out of it faster as it finds its level. You really can’t afford to let that happen. If he’s not holding onto water even after a hurricane, raised beds and mounds, unless amended with extra compost before every planting, are not the way to go.

You might want to go even further and grow in sunken beds, as is sometimes done in the Southwestern U.S.

Even across my old homestead, the backyard was loamy and the front yard was sandier.

This is how I used to plant melons and pumpkins in my fast-draining front yard:

Melon Pit

Those are sprouting legumes, by the way. In the winter I would plant melon pits with cool-season legumes like lentils, chickpeas, peas, and fava beans to feed the soil and pave the way for the curcurbits I planted in the spring.

Read More: “No Bare Soil! Vegetable Garden Cover Crops”

I would try planting in sunken beds, Calen, and see how it works. If you really want to see if it makes a difference, plant one area flat, one area in sunken beds, and one area on mounds, then compare how they did over the season. That would be a really good way to gain a bunch of data from one growing season.

I planted corn in flat ground when I had a sandy area:

Corn in Sandy Soil

And on mounds in clay:


You’re right to think outside the mound, and you get serious extra points for guerilla gardening Seminole pumpkins. The melon pit method is one of my favorite discoveries.

If you’re reading this and don’t know what Calen is talking about, here’s how to make a melon pit:

In sand, dig deeper and go for an indentation instead of a mound.

What about you? Have you had success planting on mounds in sandy soil? What about with using melon pits? Let me know in the comments below!

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The post Should You Plant on Mounds in Sandy Soil? appeared first on The Grow Network.

Why You Should Add Clay to Your Compost Pile

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My friend Steve Solomon (who is the #1 gardening author you should read) recommends you add clay to your compost pile, especially if you have sandy soils.

I’ve seen applications of compost disappear in a couple of months in hot, sandy soil. It just doesn’t stick. Unless you put a little clay in it.

Putting Clay in Your Compost Pile

Since I pretty much do everything Steve Solomon tells me to do, I started putting clay in compost piles some time back … but now I’m really getting serious. You can see me adding clay to the compost layers in this video:

I really didn’t need to add that much, but heygo big or go home!

An article at The Food Garden Group in Tasmania reports good results from adding clay to a compost pile:

The heaps made with clay, so long as they contain a reasonable amount of coarse material to enable some air movement, do not need to be turned. The ingredients all get to soak and mix in a thick clay soup before stacking (putting a pile of food and drinks in every pantry) and the heaps seem to stay moist for a very long time. I recently opened up a heap I hadn’t touched for three months and it was still moist and generating warmth. A reasonable compost can be made by simply wetting the materials with clay slurry as the heap is built, but remember that only the material which decomposes in association with clay particles is going to become durable humus/clay complex. A heap built this way will probably need to be turned and rewatered, too. Think of the difference between a dish that’s been marinated compared to one that’s only been sprinkled with a dressing.

Clay is made up of very fine particles, so the combined surface area of all the particles in a peanut-sized clod might be equal to a tennis court or three Clive Palmer skins or some such mind boggling factoid. No wonder, then, that it can hold so much water. Also these particles carry a negative charge, so each one is capable of forming bonds with positively charged particles (ions) like many of the essential plant nutrients. They gradually fill up with waste, sticking fast and firm to walls, floors, and ceilings as the food in the pantries is consumed.

The resultant compost is packed with nutrients that are more or less available depending on how complex the chemical bonding with the clay is. What we have here is humus in close association with clay, a long-lasting, water-retentive material in which plant roots and soil organisms can find all the nutrition they are looking for. A material which will keep carbon not only locked up, but also doing a great job for years to come.”

Putting Clay in Your Compost Pile Is Good for Sandy Soils

In sandy soils, organic matter burns up a lot quicker than it does in clay soils. Clay hangs on to the good stuff for longer, binding with organic material and increasing its persistence.

If you make compost in an area where clay is not part of the soil, it’s easy to put clay in compost via bentonite.

Just sprinkle it in as you layer materialsyou really don’t need as much clay as I dumped in my pile.

According to Infogalactic:

“The application of clay technology by farmers in northeast Thailand, using bentonite clay, has dramatically reversed soil degradation and resulted in greater economic returns, with higher yields and higher output prices. Studies carried out by The International Water Management Institute and partners in 2002–2003 focused on the application of locally sourced bentonite clays to degraded soils in the region. These applications were carried out in structured field trials. Applying bentonite clays effectively improved yields of forage sorghum grown under rain-fed conditions.

Bentonite application also influenced the prices that farmers received for their crops. Production costs are higher, but due to more production and the quality of the food, clay farmers could afford to invest and grow more and better food, compared to nonclay-using farmers.”

Fortunately, bentonite is what cheap, non-scented cat litter is made from. If you can’t find powdered clay in sacks locally, just rob your kitty instead!

Make that compost stick around!


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Emergency Water Purification When You’re Desperate And Dehydrated (And Your Forgot Your Water Filter)

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Emergency Water Purification When You're Desperate And Dehydrated (And Your Forgot Your Water Filter)

Image source: Screen grab/Ultimate Survival Tips

If I had to choose from among the worst possible scenarios of being marooned in the wilderness, it would be one of these two predicaments …

  • First, I’m stuck in an area where there doesn’t seem to be any readily identifiable sources of water.
  • Second, I successfully found water, but since I wasn’t able to properly filter it before drinking, I’m now lost AND sick from those nasty waterborne parasites, known as cryptosporidia.

One of the reasons why the inability to hydrate with clean water is easily one of the worst possible killers in a survival scenario is because you really only have 72 hours (maximum) to come up with a solution — and if you drink the wrong stuff, then you’ll end up dehydrating yourself even faster than if you hadn’t even taken your first sip.

But perhaps the biggest problem is dealing with the symptoms leading up to terminal dehydration. Not only will you burn through your energy quickly, but it doesn’t take long before delirium and confusion sets in.

Emergency Water Purification When You're Desperate And Dehydrated (And Your Forgot Your Water Filter)

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That’s why it’s an absolutely critical skill — if not, THE MOST critical skill — for you to be able to find water and, as we’ll be discussing in this post, filter it. Now, keep in mind that the filtration system we’ll be constructing in this post is actually quite simple, as compared to the ones you’ll see in other survival tutorials. The reason why I’m keeping it simple is because …

  1. This should NOT be your primary method of procuring potable water, and should be used for emergencies. In other words, you already should have water filters in your survival kit. (The Paratrooper Filter is a great one to carry; it’s tiny, and you can fit several into a single survival kit.)
  2. Since this is for dire situations, it’s better to make it fast and simple, because you don’t know what state your body will be in at the point when you might need it.

Let’s get started …

No. 1 — Get a Small Fire Going

Let’s kill two birds with one stone on this step: Your first task is to collect water into a metal (or possibly glass) container. Also, DO NOT sip from this “no-drink-container” until it’s been sanitized, no matter how thirsty you feel.

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Next, you’ll want to get a small fire going. When the fire is finally up and running, this will give you an opportunity to boil the water that you collected into a non-plastic (for obvious reasons) container. The cool part about this is the fact if you were very desperate, then once the water is boiled, you could actually sip that water without any filtering.

It sure would taste nasty, and you’ll be chewing on heaven-knows-what, but at least you can rest assured that 100 percent of all present cryptosporidia have been wiped out, according to the folks at the CDC. The water will be dirty, but at least it’s a sanitary kinda’ dirty.

Once the water has reached a rolling boil for a good five minutes, then set aside the container and let the fire consume the wood and allow it to change into charcoal material. Once you have a small sandwich bag full equivalent of charcoal to work with, then smother the fire by spreading it out or throwing sand on it.

No. 2 — Set up Your DIY Filter

While you were waiting for the fire to die down, a great way to take advantage of that time would be to go out and find a plastic bottle (really, any size will do).

Use your best judgement on this one, but depending on the size of the bottle, you’ll need to acquire the appropriate quantities of the following items, including a rubber band, cordage or wire and a bandana or piece of cloth.

  • Charcoal
  • Sand
  • Tiny Pebbles
  • Small Stones
Emergency Water Purification When You're Desperate And Dehydrated (And Your Forgot Your Water Filter)

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Now, basically what makes the magic happen is the charcoal. In fact, even commercial-grade filters use carbon, which is what charcoal fundamentally is. Let’s put it together:

  1. Cut the bottom off of the plastic bottle, and hold it upside-down.
  2. Place a small swatch of cloth at the bottom (this will be where the water drips from).
  3. Add the charcoal.
  4. Add the sand.
  5. Add the tiny pebbles.
  6. Add the small stones.
  7. Place a larger swatch of cloth at the top, and then secure it in place with your cordage/rubber band/wire.

At this point, you now have a working filter and water in a “no-drink-container” that’s been completely sanitized of any living thing that would try to kill you from the inside. Lovely.

No. 3 – Use Filter, Repeat, and Then Hydrate at Your Leisure

Pour the water from your “no-drink-container” into your filter, which is situated to drip down into the container you plan on drinking from.

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The water will still appear very dirty on the first few times you run it through your filter; however, this isn’t a problem, for two reasons …

  • Since you were able to boil the water, all possible cryptosporidium are quite deceased at this point. All that’s left will be sediments and some traces of hard metals.
  • It will take 2-5 cycles through your filter in order for the water to start looking clearer (potable), but this is largely because your filter materials will initially have small dirt particles in there. Basically, your first few cups are going to be cleaning out the filter itself.

Also, remember that even with manufactured filters, you should cycle water through it a few times before drinking water from it.

Just keep in mind: It’s quite stellar that we are able to craft a DIY survival water filter in the boonies with nothing but litter and natural materials, but this should not be your go-to option. This DIY filtration system should be used in the event that you find yourself in a pinch and need to hydrate urgently.

What advice would you add on making an emergency water filter? Share your advice in the section below:

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The Low-Cost, Termite-Proof, Fireproof Home That Will Last Centuries

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The Low-Cost, Termite-Proof, Fireproof Home That Will Last Centuries

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Rammed earth homes made out of natural resources such as sand and clay have been around since before people had axes. In fact, the technique to build them has been used by nearly every culture on earth at one point or another, and now it’s making a great resurgence here in America.

There is no wonder as to why it’s surging in popularity. There are very few other building materials where you don’t have to cut something down, use chemicals or pollute your environment.

There are many reasons why you’d want to build a rammed earth home, but here are just a few.

1. They use perhaps the lowest cost building material around. In fact, over and above just a little bit of cement, you can build your walls for free if you don’t count your labor time to do it yourself.

2. There are some that have stood for many hundreds of years. Once you build it the right way, it’s here to stay.

3. You can get an R factor similar to, or even better than, log homes. They are super easy to cool in the summer and can retain heat well in the winter depending on your build (which we will discuss latter).

4. They are fireproof. Sure, your wood doors and window frames might burn, but that’s about it.

5. You won’t have termite problems, ever. You’ll never have to think about any type of bugs eating your home. If you have wooden doors, window frames and rafters, then you have the possibility there. But, other than that, no worries.

6. They’re energy-efficient. If you have a great seal around your doors and windows, then you have a very, very airtight home. This greatly decreases the heating and air conditioning requirements. It also is a blessing for any allergy sufferers, as these homes can maintain a more pollen-free environment.

There are no set formulas for your earth materials mixture. However, there are some guidelines that you need to follow or you’ll run into problems.

Guideline No. 1

Your earth material needs to be sandy, but not too sandy. Most builders recommend between 50 percent to 75 percent sand in your earthen mixture.

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When your sand level gets too high, you could end up with walls that can crumble. If your sand level is too low, you’d end up with mud that will shrink and crack as it dries.

Guideline No. 2

The Low-Cost, Termite-Proof, Fireproof Home That Will Last Centuries

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Don’t go too heavy on the clay. If you do, you’ll again end up with shrinkage and cracking as it dries. Clay being about 10 percent of your earthen material usually works well. Too much more and you’ll see it start to get a little soupy on you.

Guideline No. 3

Mix in fine-powdered cement at approximately 10 percent of your earthen mixture. This material was not available thousands of years ago. But, there is no reason you wouldn’t want to take advantage of it and create a home several times stronger than the ones they made that have stood the test of time.

Guideline No. 4

You don’t want your moisture level to be at anything more than 10 percent. If it is, you’ll be compacting mud instead of ramming earth.

One easy test is to make a squeezed ball of your material in your hand and drop it to the ground. If it breaks and shatters, then your mixture isn’t right. If it splats, it’s too wet.

What About Colors?

Varying the colors of the batches of your earthen mixture that you will lay down in layers can produce walls with an amazingly aesthetic appeal.

As an example, a Sedona Arizona red dirt layered with a slightly lighter, browner mixture has a really nice look that will give your walls far greater appeal. You can get colored earth from many locations or just stick with the local stuff so you blend in.

Wall Types

There are two basic wall types that you can use in the construction of your rammed earth home.

The first is to build walls that are 12 inches thick, which is the standard building thickness. You can (as some do), go 24 inches thick and end up with the really deep window and door wells that are prevalent in straw bale homes due to their wall thickness.

Either thickness will be more than strong enough. The strength of your walls won’t really be an issue.

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The second is to do two 8- to 12-inch walls with a layer of insulation sandwiched in between. This offers better insulation, which can pay dividends over the life of the home.

How to Build Your Rammed Earth Walls

The Low-Cost, Termite-Proof, Fireproof Home That Will Last Centuries

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Before you build your walls, you need a good foundation. There are many guides on building foundations, but here’s a tip: Be sure to check your local splash and frost lines for the height and depth at which you should set your foundation. This is one of those things where, later, you’ll be happy later you did.

Another tip: Build your forms/molds out of five-eighths inch marine plywood so they will be light enough for one man to handle if needed and an easy job for two guys.

Line the interiors of your forms with shoot steel so that your walls are super smooth when you pop off the forms. You’ll like the look a whole lot better than the rougher look wood will leave. Plus, at times you can see the wood grain in the walls with uncovered plywood forms. You may have seen that on concrete walls, where you can see the plywood marks in it. Shoot steel will solve that.

Ramming the Walls

Be sure to have half inch or one-fourth inch rebar stubbed up two inches tall, once every foot, where the center of your wall will go. This will help anchor the walls well.

Build your forms on both sides of the stubs and lay in four inches of your earthen mixture at 10 percent or a little less moisture.

There are many rams on the market, but at a minimum go with one that’s at least six-feet tall and at least 15 pounds. This size will likely use a one-inch pipe to attach to the hammer head.

Hammer that four inches down until it sounds (rings) like you’re hammering rock.

Lay down your next four inches and repeat the process of hammering until you hear that distinctive sound.

Be sure to tarp the walls at night to keep the rain off of them or it will seep between the walls and forms and you’ll have problems.

Removing the Forms

Rammed earth fully hardens as it dries. So, as soon as your wall is packed, you can remove the forms. This is a good time to smooth any rough spots if you’re going to leave the rammed earth exposed as the interior or exterior.

Windows and Doors

As you come to your windows and doors, you frame them. They MUST be well built as you’re going to be ramming earth on top of them.

Tip: When putting in your form frame for a window, drill two or three one-eighth or one-fourth inch holes into the rammed earth below the frame. Drop in a short piece of rebar into each hole with an inch or two stubbed up. Re-hammer the earth around them to set them.

You’ll now have pre-built window mounts that will be in those walls like they were poured in concrete.

Now, just build your walls right around those frames, hammering the material just like you would in any other part of the wall.

There you have it. Those are the basics of building your rammed earth home. Get a manual to learn more about the nitty gritty. But, the above is really the basics of how you get it done. The rest is just details and measuring tapes.

What advice would you add? Share it in the section below:

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