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Planting in Rocky Soil

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I used to garden with my parents, but haven't since I was a kid. I recently moved into a house with a little garden area and am working on getting it ready to plant. It looks like the average frost date here (Santa Fe, NM) is November 1st, so I should still have time to do a few veggies before things get too cold. The majority of the yard is made up of that red, sandy soil that seems to be everywhere in New Mexico. The garden area, however, has darker, richer soil that leads me to believe that it has indeed been used as a garden in the past.

I dug the whole thing up about 3/4 foot down, turning the soil and loosening it up. I plan on filling it out with a bunch of compost. Everything's looking more or less as I remember from when I was little, except that the back half of the garden is positively filled with rocks. I pulled out the big, shovel-stopping ones when I was digging up the garden, and a number of small rocks and large pebbles, but the soil is still filled with smaller rocks. Not so many that they prevent me from digging or pushing the soil around, but quite a few nonetheless. I'm wondering if this is going to cause any problems when it comes to planting and growing. I'm planning on making a screen to filter my compost and could probably shovel out and screen all of the soil as well. It would be a major PITA, however, and I don't want to go to the trouble if the rocks aren't going to make much of a difference. Anyone have any experience dealing with rocky soil (or any other tips -- it's been a long time since I've worked in a garden).

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  1. The soil here is very rocky. I've pulled many truckloads out of a relatively ('50x50')small spot. Just keep taking the larger rocks out as they come to the top and amending your soil and the garden should get better every year.

    2 Replies
    1. re: kengk

      Great! Thanks for the advice! I'll keep taking out the big ones and not worrying too much about the smaller ones. Am I right in thinking I should keep the root-type veggies to the less rocky part of the garden? In my mind, planting potatoes and carrots among the rocks will result in weirdly-shaped potatoes and carrots. But that could just be in my mind.

      1. re: BananaBirkLarsen

        I made raised beds filled with a compost/peat/vermiculite mix for root veggies like beets and carrots. Covered with arched chickenwire to keep out the chipmunks. Found out I had to take out all the soil and line the bottom with mesh as well as use netting around the lower part of the chicken wire cover to discourage them from tunneling under or wiggling through the wire!

    2. Connecticut is native american for "rocky soil". Well, it seems that way. I built a frame of 2x4's and stapled hardware cloth to it, and sieved the rocks out of each planting bed, adding peat and soil from a supplier to make up the difference. Only problem was the weeds that came with the soil, but eventually got that under control. One tip- don't make the frame larger than about 2'x3'. That will fit over a wheelbarrow nicely, and won't give you a hernia when you lift off the rocks.

      I used the larger rocks to outline the beds, and the smaller ones to create a dry "riverbed" winding through the lawn.

      1 Reply
      1. re: DonShirer

        This is a really good point about building a frame that fits over the wheelbarrow! Whether I'm sifting rocks or just compost, this could make a huge difference. I really would like to avoid a hernia. :) Thanks!

      2. I have seen pictures on the internet of people piling up fairly good sized chunks of rocks & broken concrete & then pouring dirt over the whole thing & then planting in "pockets" that form here & there. Find a pocket, plant a few seeds or a plant, add more dirt, water & keep working that way.

        Also, please consider those small rocks you have contain many minerals that are good for your plants & veggies. Mother Nature works all these things out - everything has a purpose.

        I don't see a need to filter your compost & do all those other things you mentioned. Look for ways to let your garden work with you instead of against you. Do some google searches for "gardening in rocky soils". Don't stick with your specific zone that you are in. Consider that within your yard are many "zones" & micro climates. Your "climate" on the west side of your house is much different than the area on the east side.

        I too have rocky soil & am now making use of those rocks plus getting more every day from my creek bottom. Often times I gather some small rocks & circle the new shrub or whatever with them. When I water, the rocks absorb some of the water, shades the new root system in the summer or helps keep the ground warm in winter.

        Just tossing out some things to you. Good luck & work less & have more fun.

        1. Some plants, many herbs in particular, really thrive on rocky and gravely soil. If the soil is deficient in nutrients, I'd recommend finding some native legumes or other nitrogen fixers, and planting these, because it can be one of the quickest ways to enrich the soil in an environmentally-friendly way.

          If you have otherwise rich soil that happens to be filled with scattered rocks, I wouldn't worry about that. It makes digging a nuisance, but most plant roots will just work around the rocks. Smaller rocks and gravel can make soil drain better, in some cases, so they can be an asset so long as there's enough organic matter to give the plants you want the nutrients they need.