Saving the Topsoil

One of the first things I learned when reading about land clearing is that the quick and easy way (getting large equipment to just bulldoze it all into piles and cart it away), will not only get rid of every scrap of plant matter whether you want it or not, but will also get rid of a good deal of topsoil. And depending on where you live, you may not feel like you have much to give. Here in southwestern British Columbia we don’t have deep topsoil: glacier activity left behind a terrain strewn with rocks of all sizes, and it is over this layer that our precious topsoil forms. Luckily we live in a region of wet, temperate forests where there is a whole lot of rotting going on. Trees that fall soon break down, needles that shed form a soft carpet, and this results in a rich layer of humus. But it’s not deep. Scrape off a few inches of that good stuff and you hit rocks pretty quickly.

We decided right away that we didn’t want to cart away our topsoil just to spend years building it all back up again. So we resolved early on to use methods that preserved the topsoil as much as possible, and allowed us to recycle any organic material we removed. Bulldozers and excavators were ruled out (at least for now). Husband suggested we just get a chainsaw and start at it, while I was thinking that perhaps more books should be read, more homesteading forums should be perused, and some professionals be called in. Frankly, doing it his way has been heaps of fun (though hard work, too) and I feel we are learning a lot by just jumping in with both feet.

We have various micro-regions around our property with different vegetation types dominating, and the strategies are different because of that. The photo below shows an area which was densely covered with salmonberry bushes.

That’s Husband with our Industrial Weed Whacker (it has a circular saw instead of a plastic cord) cutting the stuff down. Yours truly hauled it away into debris piles and raked up the excess. This has left us with what I call “stubble” – stiff little trunks of what used to be bushes that we now often trip over.

I was concerned that it would just grow right back, making all our hard work for naught. We thought of hiring a guy with a mulcher device that works sort of like a huge lawnmower but it occurred to us that this still won’t deal with the roots. In other areas of the property where trees and shrubs block the sunlight, the ground is covered with dense patches of salal interspersed with large ferns as well as many fallen branches in various stages of rot. We’ve cut down the bushes and small trees, hauled away fallen logs, and by exposing the ferns to sunlight we should impede their growth and even cause them to die back. But still the groundcover is far removed from being pasture. The mulching option was considered here too, but because of the rotting logs and uneven terrain the tractor can’t manoeuver around without scraping out a path for itself first, in which case mulching would be redundant.

Which brings me to another challenge: in our kind of forests the rotting logs and falling trees create a very uneven terrain full of little mounds and pits, hard obstacles (freshly fallen wood) and ground that falls out from underneath you (rotting wood). It’s hard to navigate whether on foot or in a machine, and it is far removed from the even level you want in a pasture.

So…we were left with this question: how can we clear out all the ferns, salal and small plants, even out the terrain, all while preserving the topsoil and keeping the organic matter contained on the land? We have found what we hope will be the answer. We’re hiring these guys:

We have secured an order for two Berkshire cross piglets (who will look something like the photo above) from Sloping Hills Farm, which is about a 1.5 hour drive from here. Apparently, these little buggers will not only eat every scrap of vegetation they can find, including – so we are told – the Stubble, but they will then root around in the soil, fluffing it up and leaving it in perfect condition to be seeded. Weeding and tilling…and when they are done they will provide us with home-grown, pasture-fed, ethically-raised, nutritious pork!

I’ll write more about the pigs soon. They will be ready for pickup in 4 weeks. We’re so excited!


5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Ally on April 13, 2010 at 8:43 pm

    We have eaten some of their pork. Yum! What great farm hands to have around…


  2. What a great idea! Wow, you are jumping in with both feet indeed!


  3. Posted by Erin & the boys on April 15, 2010 at 11:11 pm

    I am hoping that one day you write a book chronicling this amazing journey, complete with all of the afore-blog-mentioned how-to’s. Seriously!! Your writing of all of this is delightful to read.

    I can’t wait to meet the piglets one day πŸ˜‰ Are you still getting chicks? Maybe we could hatch some for you and ferry them over to you for a visit and chick drop-off! Dreaming a little hatching dream, I am πŸ™‚


  4. Hi! Just found you on Cold Antler Farm and will look forward to reading more later when I have time. For now, just wanted to say what a CUTE idea! Perfect little helpers… My husband has been clearing pasture land here. Wonder if I could talk him into a trio of these. Hmmm…he’d probably just say they’d be cougar food here. Oh, well…


  5. […] feeling a bit blue about the burning part, and being a bit concerned about the topsoil situation when this area is graded, the changes it will make are going to be so huge and significant that […]


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