New Garden, Clay Soil, Ugh!!!

Discussion in 'Gardening & Plant Propagation' started by Salmonberry, Jul 20, 2006.

  1. Salmonberry

    Salmonberry Registered Nut

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    Oh Gardening Gurus: :bow: :bow: :bow:

    I have a challenge. I have a raw 30x60 garden area. We cleared the trees last year and with it the overburden of moss. I thought, before we cleared it that it was loam, just by digging down a bit. Unfortunately that was a very shallow layer that was cleared away with the overburden. What is left is an ugly red clay that very few self respecting weeds have chosen to grow in this year.

    I am planning the garden for next year. It will be raised beds, and I have my compost pile cooking with mixed manure and household scraps. I imagine I will lay out the beds, loosen up the clay, add the manure and let it rest over winter. Next spring I will build the beds,bring in decent topsoil to fill them, add more compost. That all sounds to me like it will work, but please give me your comments.

    The challenge is this: The clay between the beds took forever to dry out this spring and gets muddy enough to sink down a couple inches every time it rains. What can I do to the pathways and the access path to make them walkable. Everything I can think of seems like it would just sink into the muddy clay. :rolleyes:

    Please tell me there is a solution. :help: :help: :help:

    Thank you

    Salmonberry
     
  2. Salmonberry

    Salmonberry Registered Nut

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    Please help me or I'll be:

    "Slip sliding away. . ." come spring :banana02: :banana02: :banana02:

    :rolleyes:
    Salmonberry
     

  3. Mid Tn Mama

    Mid Tn Mama Well-Known Member Supporter

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    I started with the same situation and yes, I know what it is to sink to mid-calve in red clay that dries up harder than titanium.

    The first few seasons in our garden my DH would have to dig the holes because I wasn't strong enough to (that is, if I could catch him...). I posted the following on the tightwad tips thread previously:

    How I started my intensively planted, organic, no-till garden on hard clay soil with weeds:

    I started by laying cardboard down and then throwing all kinds of leaves, grass clippings etc. on top. After a few months, I cut holes in the cardboard, dug a hole and planted a plant with some good compost (spread the poor soil over the compost on the cardboard). The first year I didn't attempt planting seeds.

    Thereafter I just kept adding leaves, paper, cardboard to keep the weeds out. We don't have trash pickup so all paper products, boxes, etc. go to the garden. Great way to get rid of junk mail.

    I no longer have even a compost pile, I just dump on top of the compost and things compost in place. No turning, no watering, no building compost containers. Cover with grass clippings if you don't want to see carrot peelings and such. If a weed comes through, I pull it and throw it on top of the compost/mulch. If it has seed heads, it goes to the chickens.

    I use a deep composting method in my chicken coop so I drop composted chicken manure near the base of the plants for extra fertilizer.

    The first year I didn't garden at all in the winter. I just laid cardboard down so it would be easy to plant (no weeds) in the spring. Then I pulled it aside to my paths. I kept the boxes from blowing around by weighing them down with uncomposted cow manure or chicken manure (whatever you have on hand). You don't want to put uncomposted manure on plants, it will "burn" them.

    This reminds me why I don't like raised beds in boxes--it's a pain to pull the weeds at the outside and inside edges of the boxes. I can easily put newspaper to the edge of what is growing. Plus, I'm too cheap and lazy to build boxes. And to impatient:)

    I started with rows, but have now made wide beds that the middle can be reached from each side easily. When I plant spinach for instance, I fill the entire bed for a foot or so. Then put something else next to it. I try to confuse the bugs. It is far easier for them to traverse a straight row of something they love to eat. They get confused if they have to jump over garlic, say to get to something they love.

    I use all manner of boxes for my paths. Just stick your thumb on the seam of a cereal box and you will split it. I put the colored side up on the paths--last longer.

    I sprinkle egg shells around my tender seedlings especially to protect them from slugs and cutworms. I dump my coffee grounds around the base of the plants once they are strong and this fertilizes them and keeps the weeds down at the base where it's hard to pull weeds.

    The first year I started with easy things to grow: beans, squash, garlic. At the beginning I was not strong enough to dig the holes--I had to rely on my DH! Now the soil is very workable and almost black.

    When planting, I look for a big weed that needs to be pulled. I just plant in that hole. A twofer! When you plant intensively, the good plants crowd out the bad weeds. You don't want ANY exposed soil. So plant lettuce between your cabbages and brocolli in the spring. Until cabbage and brocolli gets big (and it gets too hot for lettuce) your lettuce will be something to eat while keeping that space from getting weedy. By the time it's too hot for lettuce, the cabbage and brocolli leaves have filled in the space.
     
  4. Cyngbaeld

    Cyngbaeld In Remembrance Supporter

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    I would suggest you go cut all the braken fern, grass and other weeds you can find and pile it high. Wet it down as best you can while the weather is warm. Throw anything you can find that is 'Hot' on the pile as you build it (manure of any kind, offal from butchering, dead fish, just anything you can get.) Make raised beds or just pile it thick in the garden area, not worrying about making beds. Once it is on pretty thick, put a piece of clear plastic on it if you can. This will help it to heat and begin to break down some. I would not bother to turn it or till at all. Just pile it on and plant in it come spring.

    ETA: I had my first real garden in Anchorage in the seventies. Long time since! LOL
     
  5. rocket

    rocket Well-Known Member

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    Is it possible for you to till some sand into that red clay? With that and compost you might make it into good enough soil that you don't need to completely rely on building new soil above it. And is the plot graded well enough that water can run off of it? I would also dig a hole and test your current drainage.
     
  6. BeckyW

    BeckyW Well-Known Member

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    Ditto the advice on layering your compost now -- the more cut up it is, the faster it will decay. If you can sow any buckwheat into the soil, I'd do it. Buckwheat will break up the soil with its roots - it is a fabulous green manure. Till it under in late September.

    The lasagna style garden is going to be your best bet. You might select a second garden site and begin working on that soil. Four years of intensive cover cropping/green manure and you will change the composition of that soil into a loam.

    Sadly, tilling in sand doesn't have much effect. Compost is king when it comes to clay soil. Raised beds will let all dry out quicker next spring. Make the beds in the fall, as much as you can.

    Please keep us updated on how the garden does next spring & summer.
    BW
     
  7. rocket

    rocket Well-Known Member

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    I think I have to disagree with you on a couple of points, Becky. First, while cover cropping/green manure/compost can turn clay into nice soil, it will never turn it into loam. Loam by definition must have some sand.

    Second, a little sand has had a very nice effect on my clay soil. Adding compost alone to clay creates nice soil to begin with, but by the end of the season it has decomposed, been used up by crops, and soaked away with watering. The clay, for me, then ended up being almost as heavy and difficult to work as it was to start with. The addition of some sand left the soil with a much lighter texture. I, of course, still add compost in spring and fall. But it's MUCH easier to work it in now.
     
  8. mistletoad

    mistletoad Well-Known Member Supporter

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    I love our clay soil, but I always was contrary! lol
    I wouldn't bother adding topsoil to clay, if you want to bring in ammendments get compost or sand. Chicken poo is great because it has the grit built in.
    For paths we dug down to the hardpan, adding the removed soil to the raised beds, and covered with cardboard and wood chips. After a couple of years the woodchips break down and get scooped off and added to the beds before the paths are relined with cardboard and woodchips. Slowly the path soil improves and that improves drainage from the paths. In massive rains the woodchips float, but the raised beds drain well and the 4yr old paths are walkable, this years paths take a day or two to drain. For comparison, the field beds take over a week to drain and you still risk sinking.
     
  9. Salmonberry

    Salmonberry Registered Nut

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    Thanks for all your replies,

    MTnM--So, cardboard for the pathways. Do you slip on it or is it irregular enough that you have traction?

    Cyngbaeld--I do have an area of wild grasses I can mow plus the beginning of my compost pile. I can look in town for grass clippings. The brakens are tiny up here, maybe 4-6 in and not a ton of them. Wood chips? Its hard to know whether they would compost enough for next year.

    Rocket--the plot tilts down and is at the edge of a shallow down-grade, but it still has standing water in the rain. I thought it was just the clay. I know the drainage is poor. What is your method for doing a drain hole?

    I was thinking about adding some sand, at least to the pathways to break the soil up a bit and allow it to drain better. I understand the controversy about adding sand vs soil building, I wonder if the sand would break it up enough to allow drainage?

    BeckyW--Specifically buckwheat? I was thinking vetch or clover. If buckwheat has better roots, I'll look for that.

    Thanks again

    Salmonberry
     
  10. rocket

    rocket Well-Known Member

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    Salmonberry,

    The hole I suggested wasn't a drain hole, but a test hole. Dig about 18 inches down and fill it with water. See how fast it drains out. That will tell you a lot about whether your soil is draining well. Mine, for instance, held water in a hole for over a week before I finally just scooped the water out. I think my only water loss was from evaporation! LOL. Hopefully yours will drain more quickly.

    And yes, if you till in some sand with the compost the soil should drain better. The water should flow down at least as deep as you have tilled. You just need enough of a grade that the water has somewhere to flow from there. It should eliminate your problem with standing water. I personally have to build up instead of tilling down because my plot is so flat that I would just create a "bathtub" in the clay with nowhere to drain.
     
  11. Cyngbaeld

    Cyngbaeld In Remembrance Supporter

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    Wood chips are great if you can get them. Pile em on deep. Don't worry about them composting, you plant right in them.

    Guess I was thinking you were closer to Talkeetna. I had 5 acres up there, just north of Talkeetna and it was thick in tall bracken.
     
  12. Pony

    Pony STILL not Alice Supporter

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    I agree with the sand, don't know about the chicken manure (but would love to personally find out!)

    I am wondering (out loud to myself) if piling all the amendments on top will block all the lovely minerals and such in the clay? It really does have a lot to offer, so it seems a shame to bury it completely.

    Just my rambling while enjoying a glass of wine... :D

    Pony!
     
  13. rwinsouthla

    rwinsouthla Well-Known Member Supporter

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    Notice I'm in south Louisiana and there are still lots of broken trees everywhere that are getting chopped up from Katrina. I literally chase the tree service guys down the highway, catch up with them, and ask for the shavings. They landfill most of it (what a waste) and gladly take down my address. I even know a few of them by name now and they call my cell phone and ask if I need any more. I have stacked that stuff on my clay about 6" deep and it has overwintered once and is not super rich underneath about 2" of dry mulch now. Works great. Thought about a DR chipper myself about 5 years ago but don't need it now.
     
  14. Salmonberry

    Salmonberry Registered Nut

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    Cyngbaeld,

    We are 20 miles south of Talkeetna. There is so much more rain/snow north of Trapper Creek that it makes a huge difference in flora. We have a trail 20 miles or so north of Trapper Creek that we go to to pick currants and other berries. Watermelon Berry shoots come up crisp and juicy in the spring up there. They are kind of wimpy down here.

    So, we have a ton of branches to chip. I'll plan to put those chips over cardboard in the pathways. THAT IS A GREAT SOLUTION. I can see that working.

    (No more slip sliding away!)
    Salmonberry
     
  15. Salmonberry

    Salmonberry Registered Nut

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    Okay, so I'm a little slow. :rolleyes: I should pile the wood chips on the beds too? Remember that this is the Great White North. Those wood chips won't be composted by spring and will lock up nitrogen. Still a good idea?

    Pony, I'm thinking now of loosening up the clay layer and adding some sand for drainage. Then I would build my bed on top of that. I won't have any chicken manure until spring but I'll be deep composting all winter (if I get my friends chickens that is).

    Hats off to you all :cowboy:

    Salmonberry
     
  16. Cyngbaeld

    Cyngbaeld In Remembrance Supporter

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    Yes, pile the wood chips on the beds. Dump any source of nitrogen you have on there too. The chips will absorb excess nitrogen and release it slowly as they break down over the years. Even dog or human manure can be dumped on the ground and covered with wood chips. Just don't grow root crops there.

    My place was up on Lane Creek. I have frequently wondered if I did the right thing letting my brother have the property. But at the time it seemed the best thing to do.
     
  17. Red Devil TN

    Red Devil TN Well-Known Member

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    I'm on my third property with clay soil.

    The first was my parents place (MA) when I was younger (thick heavy grey clay). A bunch of horse manure and some coarse sand did wonders for the workability. There after we always composted our grass clippings on top of the soil and then turned that and our leaves at the end of the year for the first five or six years. After that it was just the grass/shredded leaves on top. We started that one in the late 70's. It's such a deep brown/black now that I think that soil would grow anything at this point.

    After learning all that good stuff I bought my first house (in MA) and had the same problem as my parents' (I was a couple miles away). This time I did it the hard/easy way. Coarse sand and as much cut grass I could get along with some peat moss was tilled in then covered in more grass clippings. I'd say I was probably at an even 1/3 with each. That soil was ready in a month and a half with little watering and only one more tilling. There after it was the same as before with the grass/leaves topping throughout the year. I'd say half the time I mulched the clippings and leaves back into the lawn, the other half went into the garden. I also used the lawn as a buffer feeding that the fertilizer and then feeding the grass to the garden.

    Now I'm trying something a little different. I sifted some of the soil (red clay here) and mixed in grass clippings and such and some peat into a barrel (I need to grade a few areas). A week later I have some nice rich dark soil. The clay here seems to be a heavy rich clay (much richer than in MA), but does have some finer sand/particulate in it so I think a little organic help is all I need to fix it. We shall see.
     
  18. Salmonberry

    Salmonberry Registered Nut

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    Thanks Red Devil TN. Sounds like I should be able to handle this.

    Cyngbaeld, Wow, thats north of Chase and almost into Denali State Park. Yeah, you guys get the precip up there. The map I looked at showed a cabin close to the Big Su. Would that be yours? Nice area. Those people in Chase, though, very antisocial.

    Salmonberry
     
  19. susieM

    susieM Well-Known Member

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    Ruth Stout....cardboard, clippings, corncobs, sawdust, leaves, straw, hay, bracken, compost, maure....don't bother digging.