Aztext Press

Life Off-the-Grid

Soil Rehabilitation the Hard Way

By Cam Mather

Michelle and I worked from dawn ‘til dusk on Sunday enjoying a normal spring day. After last weekend’s bizarre Easter Heat Wave I was afraid I’d missed my window of opportunity to do spring work. I love cutting firewood in the winter because it’s cold and I can do strenuous work much better when I’m not dealing with heat. Spring is the time I do most of the heavy work around the property because it’s still cool. Last weekend we beat the previous high temperature record by 12°C (24°F) above the normal high. It was a heat wave. It convinced me climate change is a reality. I could only work for a couple of hours in the morning before it got too hot.

So on Sunday among our many cool weather tasks was what I call soil rehabilitation. We have a very sandy soil, which needs to be built up. As we continue to grow more of our own food and consider selling our organic vegetables too,  I need to expand my growing area. I use as much manure as I can get my hands on but I like to add a variety of materials to help build up the humus or organic matter in the soil. For this I use rotted hay. Once hay sits too long it loses its value for horses and cattle, and it can become moldy which isn’t healthy for the animals, so farmers often have older hay they are willing to part with for a reasonable price.

I like to spread it on fields to help build up the topsoil. It means that the soil is supplemented with this great biomass that absorbed the sun’s energy to build up this organic matter that can rot and decompose in my soil. It helps add nutrients but it also helps condition the soil by adding organic matter that is crucial for good plant growth. As it rots the worms will pull some of it down lower in the soil. As it becomes more broken down and becomes part of the soil it also helps with water retention. When it rains the plant material will absorb water, then release it slowly back to the soil. Any roots from neighboring plants can use that moisture as it’s needed.

The challenge is that we get round bales, which are usually moved with tractors. We don’t have a tractor so we roll them off the trailer by hand, and then we have to disassemble them. We use a 4-pronged cultivator and just keep hacking off chunks and spreading them around. If you can get the bail rolling (unlike “getting the ball rolling”) sometimes they will come apart as they move, like a cat playing with a ball of yarn. The difference is that this ball of yarn weighs about 1,000 pounds. Since these round bales are old and have been left out in the elements for years they are heavy. It makes for a great workout though and we both slept extremely well that night.

I like to do this in the spring before the grass and plants have really got going. This way I’m not crushing them, and since it’s early in the spring they can grow up through the clumps of hay and help begin the decomposition process.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. For me, one of the most beautiful sights that I can think of is a field of rotten hay waiting for it to decompose and build up my soil so I can grow healthy organic food to provide human bodies with energy.

A field of grass with rotten hay spread on it



  1. Joan Massey

    Good Morning, Cam!
    I have a question: We have a very heavy, but amazingly fertile soil in our garden area where I live. It has been let go for years and grows weeds better than our veggies, though! I was wondering if your trick with the hay would be good way to improve the general soil quality? It is anything but light and fluffy…. and holds onto water very well. I am thinking it must have lots of clay. I am wanting to increase the organic matter content to improve it, and thought your method with the hay might work for us as well. Do you just leave the hay on top of the soil on the garden area until you are ready to cultivate and plant? Or do you let it sit for awhile, then work it in…sit for awhile, then cultivate and plant? We have access to hay and lots of manure!
    Thanks for your advice – love the articles!

    • aztextpress

      Hi Joan
      Yes, hay is an excellent soil enhancer anyway you use it. It will definitely help break up clay. You can also use sand or peat moss to help break it up as well. If the hay is starting to decompose you can work it into the soil, with a shovel or rototiller. You could also use it as mulch around plants. This helps maintain moisture, keeps the weeds down, and after a season of watering it will be well broken down by the fall. Then the following spring as you’re working the soil with your hoe or rototiller, the hay will get worked in well.

      I like horse manure but be careful with cow manure. Make sure it composts a good six months and gets very hot to kill e-coli or other pathogens before you use it anywhere you might grow food.

      You also might want to try the Ruth Stout mulch method I discuss in the books for some potatoes this year. This is a double whammy in terms of getting a double dose of organic matter decomposing into your clay.

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