For those of us with heavy clay soil

Discussion in 'Gardening & Plant Propagation' started by Idahoe, May 14, 2006.

  1. Idahoe

    Idahoe Menagerie More~on

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    I am starting my first garden. We are in zone 4/5, at 3200 ft, and pretty much any ground that is not covered with evergreen trees is heavy medium brown clay.

    I am using raised beds made from tires and old cedar poles not good for anything else. DH brought home 1 ton of black compost, several bags of sphagnum moss and vermiculite. The latter we ran out of real fast, at it's too expensive up here, so I am trying to create a mix of soil that won't turn to concrete the minute I water it.

    I've dug at least a foot beneath all beds, removed the clay (oh my back), and in a wheel barrow, mixed 1/2 "topsoil" (perhaps top six inches of clay soil with organic material skimmed from various areas) with 1/2 black cured compost. Then, I pile on spagnum or peat moss, perhaps 1/4 - 1/3 total amount to it, mix it up with my hands in the wheel barrow, and dump it in.

    My poor plants . . . even though I enrich the original topsoil, it is still so heavy I can barely stick my fingers into it when damp. It breaks up and crumbles when mostly dry, but my tomatoes, just beginning to flower, look choked up, as if they are gasping for air. The leaves have greyish patches and are losing their moisture, although the soil is not dry or even soaking wet. They were started in potting soil, and transplanted with the same soil around their roots.

    How long, or how many years did it take those of you with clay soils to condition them? I've heard it takes more than one season.

    Did anyone use sulphur to acidify their soil? Or, did you just use compost?
     
  2. kbshorts

    kbshorts Well-Known Member

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    Get anything organic in there that you can! Find some manure or leaves, maybe grass clippings, whatever. It will take time to break that clay up, don't give up, just keep working on it. I deal with clay here and it has taken me three years and tons of stuff to get decent soil.
    KB
     

  3. Idahoe

    Idahoe Menagerie More~on

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    I just went out and worked more peat moss into the dirt around and under the plants. When I watered, the uptake was much better. We don't have "leaves" per se, just a lot of tamarack and pine needles. Not sure if they are useful.

    I have a lot of conditioning ahead of me, for sure. Now I have to figure out how to do this with the onions. . .
     
  4. MELOC

    MELOC Master Of My Domain

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    i may be doing the wrong thing but i have some patches of heavy clay loam. it is nice looking and dark but does tend to clump. i am adding just a small amount of sand in addition to compost and peat moss. my recent experience tells me that a little sand goes a long way. i do think it helps though.
     
  5. wyld thang

    wyld thang God Smacked Jesus Freak Supporter

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    I have a book "Growing Veggies West of the Cascades", we have clay here too. THey say(and it works) to work in a much lime as you can. You can't add too much and it will leach/work it's way down into the soil. Lime has some sort of chemical reaction that causes the clay to release nutrients(clay soil has a lot of nutrients), and break the chemical bonds that make clay so cement like. ALso, wood ashes have the same/similar action. Yes, compost will help with soil texture, but the lime is the "secret". I don't know when you planted your tomatoes, but perhaps you can dig them up and work in the lime.

    The best time to work in lime is in the fall or early spring, then it has time to work. I dump my ashes from the woodstove on the garden area, and have also burned slash for ashes to spread too. Keep doing it every year. I think the lime has a "life" of about 3-4 years. The lime also makes the soil more alkaline. The pine needles would make it acid, I think, ok for berries.

    Sand will just make cement. You can't physically mix up your soil enough to get the compost evenly distributed, the lime/ashes are needed to break down the soil(chemical bonds). I've had "virgin" ground be friable 6-7" down after a winter of a thick layer of ashes just laying there. ALso, corn roots are very strong and will "till" the soil, so they would make a good first crop for a bed.

    You need to be very careful what time of year you dig too, not too dry, not too wet. ANy stubborn clumps can be thrown in a pile and covered with lime/ashes and in a year it will be great dirt.
     
  6. swamp man

    swamp man Well-Known Member

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    Pine needles take forever to compost-just too much carbon.They do make great mulch,though.
     
  7. woodspirit

    woodspirit Well-Known Member

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    Be very careful adding lime. Raising the ph by adding lime is very cheap compared to lowering it with sulpher, iron sulphate, or aluminum sulphate. Some berries like very acid soils, and some prefer more alkaline or sweet soils. There is such a thing as too much lime. However most clay soils are sour to begin with. Calcium carbonate or gypsum is what you need to help make clay more friable. The clay will stick to the calcium and form little beads of soil. That in turn will allow water and air to fill the gaps in between the little beads or particles. Clay soil has no nutrient value at all. It is pretty much devoid of nutrients because there is no air in it. It is an anaerobic environment. Add as much cow manure as you can find, haul, buy, or beg from farmers nearby. The store bought composted cow manure is really just sterilized soil with no nutrient value to speak of. Bagged dehydrated cow manure is much, much better. It will weigh less than the composted, but by volume and fertilizer value, it is better. The real deal manure can't be beat. Chicken, cow, pig, or rabbit. Horse manure has alot of weed seeds in it. In New York it is against the law to sell horse manure. Goodwill "donations" are accepted instead of payment usually.
     
  8. moonwolf

    moonwolf Well-Known Member

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    My first large garden was plowed badly and the clay soil compacted below a foot into hardpan, so be careful with 'removing' clay and what is beneath that can be more clay that you don't want compacted even if you have some 'softer' or more porous soil above that.
    My best choices were to use green cover crop like buckwheat. When that grows before blossoming, till it in to the the top foot. This adds tilth and nutrients also inviting the 'natural rototillers' that are earthworms. Keeping an environment throughout the soil will seem to enhance further attraction of soil biota like in compost, and more worms to keep the soil worked loose.
    Clay soil can be amended well with constant addition of either green manure, compost, and deep rooting crops. Try some things like daikon radish and anything like that to really have roots to go down and aerate and break open the hard clay below. I usually would sew spring oats first thing and till that in, followed by buckwheat to till in before planting. After harvest, if you can till in as much of the plant residue followed by a seeding of annual rye that will winter kill to till in spring again followed by the green manure plantings. If you have poultry manure with the straw mixed in from cleaning the coop, that is great stuff to help further make fertile a soil inviting more tilth and overall garden health. Green manure was more helpful in my experiences with clay gardening than most other product or activity. Also, a dump load of rotted horse or cow manure with black dirt on one small garden hastened planting that year for good growth. Tilling that in after the season sure helped the clay soil as well.
     
  9. jersey girl

    jersey girl Well-Known Member Supporter

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    We have heavy clay here and we do lots of composted manure (cow and horse) I also agree with the lime. You cannot add too much and it will help your soil a lot.
    We also had one patch where we kept the sheep for about 3 years. They ate every weed so that none come up now. We just moved them and tilled the area up for garden. That hard clay soil became the most beautiful loose soil I have seen. We are planning a sheep rotation for the rest of the garden places.
     
  10. Paquebot

    Paquebot Well-Known Member

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    No it won't. Every grain of sand added is one more grain toward clay loam. There has never been any type of clay soil made worse by the addition of sand. Even if the clay is very close to pottery grade, the best starting recipe is: First year, 15% river sand and 10% organic matter. Every year thereafter, 10% organic matter. Cement does not appear anywhere in the soil structure triangle. www.oneplan.org/Water/soil-triangle.shtml

    Also, there are no nutrients in any of the 3 soil components but clay is usually the highest in minerals. Nutrients come from the humus or organic matter either tilled in, via dead root growth, or leached from decaying surface vegetation.

    Martin
     
  11. Idahoe

    Idahoe Menagerie More~on

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    My soil has a high pH, so adding lime would condition it nicely but I need more balance. I wish I could add something that would create a quicker conditioning like you describe. Instead, I'm adding more peat and compost to each planter.

    My tomatoes and peppers, transplanted over the last several days, have unhealthy looking roots, clumped in a ball, not seeking outward at all. Hopefully they all won't be a loss before I get the mixture right. Just now, I watered and it sunk in markedly faster. Tomorrow I have to see if I can do the same with the onions, which should be a joy as I must have 200 of them.
     
  12. Mid Tn Mama

    Mid Tn Mama Well-Known Member Supporter

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    Be patient. Here are some thoughts I had:

    --Clay soil is not bad soil, just difficult to work with. You removed the topsoil, which was the best of what you had to start with.

    --My red clay soil is hard as rock when dry. The first year, I dug holes for the plants (no seeds), and filled with compost and the plant. I threw all kitchen scraps onto the garden on top of newspaper. Each season the soil gets better and better. AFter three seasons, it's almost black and very workable. Why break your back digging it out? Just amend.

    --When you create a good organic situation, the worms will do your work for you. They will dig tunnels which carry water to roots and eat the newspaper and make worm compost--the most perfectly balanced fertilizer there is--it works for everything. This is in direct contrast to adding lime or acidic things. You never win with that as not every plant needs those conditions. It can backfire on you.

    --Make permanent paths and don't walk on the soil you plant in, that compacts it and makes it harder for worms to do their job, for water to get below the surface, etc...

    --Rotate your crops and let the roots of them do some of your soil building, tilling for you. For instance, cole crops will make deep holes in the soil as will sweet potatoes. SP don't need good soil anyway so they are perfect to start with. I leave my cole crops in after they are done producing. The worms love their roots, they crowd out weeds until I need the bed. and they go to flower attracting pollinators to my garden. Don't start with hard things to grow like carrots.
     
  13. rocket

    rocket Well-Known Member

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    I have pretty much pure clay in my yard. The soil in my garden is finally, in it's fourth season, looking like I want it to. Aside from lots of compost and manure, the addition of a little sand has been the most beneficial thing I've tried. It has really lightened the texture of the soil. Mulching with grass clippings has also helped to keep a hard, dry crust from forming.

    If you dug out the clay before adding your topsoil and ammendments, have you checked the drainage? My soil would hold water like a bathtub. I have to build raised beds up above the original soil.
     
  14. VALENT

    VALENT Well-Known Member

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    manure!!!!! It made my old garden in blackland heavy clay into a workable soil in one very heavy application. Additional applications just made it even better. Of course, I did have to pull the mixture into rows to still help with the drainage.
     
  15. Idahoe

    Idahoe Menagerie More~on

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    Yes, I have raised beds, old tires and cedar log beds. I dug them out so I could fill them with "top soil" scraped off (topsoil HA!). My first two beds are way too clayey, surface cracked, veggies gasping. By the time I got to the garlic, the water just soaks right in. I had to mix 1/3 (or less) "topsoil" with 1/3 peat and 1/3 cured compost.

    I appreciate all the replies. What I'm getting is that it takes years to get soil like this conditioned. I'm confused about adding lime, as the soil fizzes when I drop it in white vineagar, and I've heard sand plus clay makes portland cement (well, practically) yet many on here swear by sand. I have NO sand on the property to try a raised bed with it mixed in.

    My tomatoes, if I were still living in LA county, would have been above my waist by now! How I miss gardening in a zone 8!
     
  16. woodspirit

    woodspirit Well-Known Member

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    Covering those beds with mulch will keep the clay from cracking because your soil will stay evenly moist and cool throughout the year. It will improve the clay soil really well too. If you think about the water in the deserts of the southwest, then you'll know that animals and people can die from drinking very alkaline water. Alkalie is a salt and most poisons and poisonous plants are that way because of the alkyds in them. Too much lime can be really bad for plants. Broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and kohlrabi prefer soils that are nuetral (7) or even slightly above, (sweet), or more alkaline. Most plants though prefer slightly acidic soils, (6, or 6.5). The Japanese had an ancient tradition of eating a pound of salt to commit suicide, if they were so inclined. Lowering the ph can be time consuming and rather expensive, so don't just apply lime without knowing the Ph to begin with. Testing Ph is extremely cheap to check.
     
  17. MELOC

    MELOC Master Of My Domain

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    sand plus lime makes cement. try it sometime.
     
  18. SquashNut

    SquashNut Well-Known Member

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    It may be the peat moss that is your problem. It is acid. When you test your soil with the vinegar is it mixed with the peat moss or just soil. try testing the mix of peat compost and soil. You may find you do need the lime after all. if you have chickens some of their oyster shell will work for this.