Gardening in clay soil

Discussion in 'Gardening & Plant Propagation' started by kikibumba, Oct 20, 2004.

  1. kikibumba

    kikibumba New Member

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    I recently moved into a country house in Zone 4 (upstate New York). I was looking forward to doing some gardening there; however, the soil in my yard is mostly clay and quite heavily compacted. Does anyone have any recommendations about what would grow in this soil? Also, does anyone know how I would go about "improving" the soil? It's so compacted that it's hard to dig -- almost like cement.

    Thanks.
     
  2. southerngurl

    southerngurl le person Supporter

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    Organic material, mulch, compost. Mulch, mulch, mulch. :) If you lay a thick layer of mulch on it right now, and it sits all winter, it should be much nicer come spring. Also, mulch brings in earthworms, which aerate the soil with their tunnels and fertilize with poo.
     

  3. Cyngbaeld

    Cyngbaeld In Remembrance Supporter

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    Yes, what she said. Pile all your leaves, grass clippings and all your neighbors leaves and grass clippings on it. Wood chips, manure, any organic matter you can lay hands on. Don't dig. You'll hurt your back and it is not necessary.
     
  4. moonwolf

    moonwolf Well-Known Member

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    I'm in zone 2b. Soil types can range from sandy nearer the river to fairly good loam, like the first garden just outside of town. Where I am now it's clay, which is the most dominant soil type...and Acid. What I the first year is cover the area where I wanted to plant the garden. I convered this with clear plastic to thermonucleate :haha: (heat kill weeds). Once that happened, I had not enough amendments such as manure or compost, but at least it was easier to till in with the dead weeds. On top of that I sowed buckwheat. When it germinated and grew about 4" high, I tilled that in. By this time the soil loosened enough, and another seeding of buckwheat until it was about 6" high. That was tilled in by July. I still managed to plant hills of squash with manure near those plants. This cut down on need to broadcast a lot of fertilizer, which I didn't have, but the green manure from the tilled in buckwheat did the number to add nutrients for the squash which was a banner crop by October. By fall, there was a good amount of poultry manure produced through the summer to add over the garden and broadcast, till in, and cover cropped with annual rye which winterkilled. The next spring was much easier to till. Just keep adding amendments to the soil, you'll break the back of clay. Round root crops like potatoes and beets also help, and help give some maneuvering room for earthworms that you want to encourage.

    What I would do different now, if I had plenty of layering material is the lasagne or stout mulch method to save on the tilling time and fuel.

    Rich
     
  5. dla

    dla Well-Known Member

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    Hey, Kikibumba, I noticed that you just joined this month! Welcome!

    Everyone has said a bunch of great stuff. Ditto.

    I guess If I were you, I'd *pick a small area to start with. **Find out what kind of materials I could get easily ***Have a long term plan and Decide to be very patient ****Try a square foot garden (see book by same title)

    The only way to ammend clay is to decrease its proportions by overwhelming it with other good stuff. Figure you want an inch of composted maure and an inch of sand over your entire garden area (get sharp sand).

    As far as locating materials, you just have to be creative and look around. A neighbor who breeds rabbits used to take two large trash cans full of (used) wood chips to a local orchard - you could use that kind of thing. Or horse manure and leaves. Or if you are starting small, you could get bags or a "scoop" or a truckload (depending on your definition of small) of sand and composted manure and off you go!

    http://ohioline.osu.edu/hyg-fact/1000/1189.html
     
  6. amwitched

    amwitched Well-Known Member

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    You could always build raised beds, too.
     
  7. landlord

    landlord Well-Known Member

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    In my little garden, I placed large rocks in a square and surrounded the rhubarb too. I filled the area with decomposted manure and dirt scraped from the grove where the it is rich due to the leaves which have fed the ground for over a century. The soil is loose and produces great vegies. The height of the garden is probably a foot or so. I used a skidloader to fill the rock garden. I have also heard of using a wooden cattle feed bunk for a raised garden. They are usually 3'x16'. They do make a great strawberry bed. I have 2 unused ones but plans are not for a garden.
     
  8. diane

    diane Well-Known Member

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    Lots of good advice here. We have done the lasagna method in raised beds on some of our worse clay. Grab every bit of mulch you can get your hands on. It will take a bit of doing, but than you will be able to grow most everything you would ever want to grow.
     
  9. jackie c

    jackie c Well-Known Member

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    The clay soil I have is the reason I started with animals, lots of good poop. Sand and old dog house straw really helped as well. If the straw is old there won't be too many viable seeds left, and it will break down sooner.
     
  10. BeckyW

    BeckyW Well-Known Member

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    Moonwolf is right -- follow that procedure. My suggestion would be do it double -- by that I mean work another plot as well with the same method.
    If you will intensively green manure for FOUR years, you will change your soil. That's why I tell you to work the same magic on a second garden area. I know you're impatient to put in a garden -- ok, so plant one plot probably sooner than you should, but work the four year plan on the second. By the end of four years, you'll have perfect rotation gardens and the original plot that you couldn't wait to plant will eventually catch up to the fantastic soil you created in the second plot.

    I have seen clay soil turn to beautiful loam after intensive cover cropping and leaf covering for winter -- it took four years. (Location was Maryland).

    And remember, after you plant your orchard, cover crop and turn under between the rows until the trees become too large.

    BW
     
  11. Mid Tn Mama

    Mid Tn Mama Well-Known Member Supporter

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    I've been amending our soil for two years and already see a difference. I heavily mulch and use all paper products under the grass and weeds (without seedheads) I put there to keep the paper from blowing away.

    I cover cropped with beans from a huge bag bought from the dollar store in areas where I didn't have a fall crop. They will be left there and I'll plant next springs crops in the remains. I plant beans after or before most veggies to replenish and break up the soil. This has worked. I leave plants intact until I need the space. This way they displace weeds and made seeds. A lot of our food comes from volunteers.

    In the beginning I dug a hole and added compost or bagged soil for the plants I planted (used few seeds the first season). Now I can see a difference and am able to plant seeds.

    BTW I follow a modified Ruth Stout, no-till method.
     
  12. treeguy

    treeguy Active Member

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    southern said it exactly. I to live in upstate ny,land of the seneca's. I tried adding 5 bales of peat per year to my garden, which is 24' by 32'. I tried raised beds with soaker hoses, planting buckwheat as a green manure, gypsum to loosen the soil. the best thing I did was I asked a farmer and he just said manure. so he brought me a load with his manure spreader which was 24' long.that was quite a load. now I can grow anything and my soil is great. clay soil is not only compacted but totally lacking in air and nutrients.
     
  13. southerngurl

    southerngurl le person Supporter

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    Actually clay soil is typically high in nutrients, but yes, it is lacking in air, and has poor drainage.
     
  14. gobug

    gobug Well-Known Member Supporter

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    My yard was so hard that a 7 horse power rototiller dragged two of us around and barely got an inch deep. I dug 18 inch deep holes using a tractor the shape and size of boxes that I built. I filled one box with water and it didn't drain for weeks, so I rented a post hole auger with a 1 foot bit and dug 80 post holes in the ground before it finally drained. Then I added a bunch of sand and bought 20 yards of good quality garden soil. After years of gardening with mixed results, I got a book and diagnosed the plants - poor drainage. I dug a drainage ditch and placed a plastic drainage tile in all the boxes.

    You can enrich and improve your soil as those above have suggested, but don't forget about drainage. It's far easier to plan it at the start.
     
  15. Jimmy Mack

    Jimmy Mack Well-Known Member

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    double digging, and tilling in general, also works great for loosening up clay soils

    Bear in mind too much humus can also adversly affect soil structure by not allowing the soil to drain.

    unless the clay soil is whitish in color, clay soils actually hold a lot of nutrients

    perlite also improves soil structure and drainage. And is a practicle soil ammendment for smaller garden areas. Rocky Mountain Seed Co. sells a 4 cubic foot bag for 14.99. Its the same type that's used for insulation

    happy cultivating! James
     
  16. moonwolf

    moonwolf Well-Known Member

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    gobug,
    good advice about drainage.

    First garden area I got excited after getting my first 8N tractor and a 2 furrow plow. Well, I just 'HAD' to try that out on the existing hardpan clay soil of a plot. I think I did more damage by tilling that down about a foot it created nearly a permanent hardpan that would take years to become penetrable again.
    The idea about drainage is very important and raised beds can make a lot of sense. Of course, there is also a large commercial vegetable grower who has tiled drainage on their fields and are able to move the flow of excess water down hill eventually. It's expensive and takes a good study of the lay of the land to make that successful, but it can be permanent solution to an otherwise 'ungrowable' area. The tile drained field of this grower is where they harvest high yield in anything from sweet corn to cucumbers without ever worry about heavy soil possibly rotting a wet standing crop.
     
  17. treeguy

    treeguy Active Member

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    without air in the soil, the soil will sour...hence lower ph
    clay soils are either too wet, or too dry like rock. nutrients won't be produced or last in a clay soil without the addition of organic material
    organic material won't benefit clay soils long unless you can keep an even moisture and soil temp for more than a few seasons. nitrogen is an extremely unstable element. it is most abundant in a gas form. The majority of the atmosphere that we breathe is actually nitrogen. On earth it is rarely found in a solid or liquid form. when you open a bag of fertilizer for example, you can smell nitrogen because it is reverting back to a gas form, so it is very important to water it in right away and close up the bag to keep as much of it as you can.
    Generally clay soils are close to being dead. Heated up by the summer sun and soaked from the winter, spring and fall. without being able to support life in plant form or animal form, (insects, worms),clay soils are pretty much devoid of nutrients. mulch on top the ground will begin to reverse the process, and addition of manure will add organic material and NUTRIENTS.
     
  18. treeguy

    treeguy Active Member

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    Another trick that farmers use in the north with clay is to plow it up in the fall and leave it rough.....no harrowing.....That allows the ice and snow to break up the heavy clods and it is easier to get a seed bed in the spring.