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turning shady, wet, heavy clay garden into a little tomato field on the cheap

 
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hello everyone

i‘m a long time reader and finally admitted to myself that i do need to write here in order to get some help with my new garden, because it has just so many peculiarities, i‘m on a very tight budget this year and at the same time there are so many raw materials i could get my hands on for free, while i also got much more time than usual to get things started.

so first things first, i wanna give you as much information as possible. i live in a pretty much subtropical climate somewhat near the coast (150km is close for my standards) with a ginormous, slow moving (and polluted) river running nearby (a km or two away). winters are mild, it rarely even freezes at night and never ever stays below 0 during the day. it can be very windy throughout the year, sometimes even tropical storms visit us here. summers on the other hand are long and hot, luckily temperatures don‘t rise above 35°C though. weather is very humid, during the day usually around 70%, only rarely does it go lower in the afternoons. at sundown we get large amounts of morning dew within an hour due to the sheer amount of humidity. nights here generally arent much colder than days. more than 10 degrees difference within a day is rare.

now the most important part: i live in the countryside and have a little house and an even smaller capital „L“ shaped garden which is surrounded on all sides with 2m tall metal fences that the sun cant shine through and our brick house walls. my soil is heavy clay and my aim is to grow tomatoes (small or big or what kind i don’t care, as long as they are red and sweet) for my beloved wife. it is virtually the only vegetable she eats because the poor soul didn’t grow up in a family that promoted veggies and fruits to the kids. another aim of mine is to improve the soil not only for the tomatoes but also to grow a tough lawn on which people can walk.

next i want to tell you how i found the garden and what i achieved already, even if it isn’t much. this house used to belong to my wife‘s sister, who kept three large dogs in the garden for many years, while not caring the slightest bit about it, eventhough according to my wife her father put a whole bunch of rocks onto soil for her so hat she‘d have a nice patio in the future. i must admit, i have never heard anybody do this, but hey, maybe that is a legit way for something i just don’t know yet, he‘s a construction worker afterall, so who knows. anyway. so the old man put 10-20 cm of rocks and mostly garbage from building and deconstructing walls out of old school bricks on top of the new land and then it seems he topped it off with 10cm of more clay soil. as far as we know, nothing ever grew there except for bright, outright fluorescent green paperthin moss in winter, which stayed in the less sunny parts even over high summer.

what i did when i moved in was to immediately turn over the whole soil. (tilling, i believe? english isn’t my mother tongue) the soil was so hard and rocky that i had to borrow a pickaxe of the man and by ramming it into soil flat end first and the yanking it hard to make a whole slab of soil come out, which i could then loosen up by hand. i did this practically with the whole garden, but it wasn’t enough as i noticed soon after, so i took a junk shovel and dug up everything again, much deeper this time and tried to remove as much of the huge amount of rocks he dumped there as possible. the removal of the rocks happened stealthily, no need to anger anyone. then, since i was happy (for no reason, really) i bought a cheap tomato plant and planted it in the sunniest spot in the garden (where the two lines of the capital „L“ meet. i tried to do everything correctly but i failed. this was spring last year, so september or october or something. i even used mulch, but out of comfort i went for the recently removed rocks instead of compost or wood. what did work instead was planting some peppermint (i literally just stuck and old, droopy looking piece into the soil and a week or so later it grew and within a month i had a square meter of it. barely ever used it though, only i like it around here) and my granny‘s special grass that she got from a foreigner in whose garden she worked. it isn‘t really grass but you can still make an excellent lawn with it due to its sturdiness and willingness to grow in wet clay earth. i have no idea what its name is, it grows fairly large leaves if you let it, some even 20 cm tall. it has a pointy oval shaped look and is dark green. it grows fast and according to my granny it likes to be mown and watered multiple times a day. we don‘t own a lawn mower, so we just borrow one, whenever we see a neighbour using theirs once a month. also we only water once a day, but water for gardens is for free around here so we could technically use as much as we wanted to. the grass already grew over half the gardening area and we planted it after the tomato plant died and we brought it home in very bad shape from my granny because i have two left hands and ripped it out from the soil badly multiple times. i am pretty sure i couldn‘t get any roots out at all, but at some point i gave up and went home because i had things to do. but it grew out anyway, so who cares. so this lawn grass plant thing is amazing and perfect for me. but the tomato is a big question mark for me. so i started doing research. i never put this much effort into finding out something about anything, even less about something concerning gardening. since i planted the grass i dug multiple holes in the garden for composting, because my parents in law claim composts reek strongly and dont want that in our place
 
gardener
Posts: 6280
Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
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Would you mind giving me the country so I can give location specific suggestions?

Sounds like you might also need to learn how to properly make compost in the ground.

That grass sounds a lot like sudan grass which is a good item for chop and drop mulching (which will slowly build soil fertility and improve texture and friability).

Redhawk
 
pollinator
Posts: 754
Location: Southern Illinois
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Hi Joe,

Is there any chance you could post a picture or two of your garden efforts thus far?  It might help to get a better idea of what you have to work with.

Eric
 
joe jonson
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oh no, somehow what feels like half my text didn’t get sent

it looks like an even more incoherent mess than i usually write like.

can a mod help me maybe? i cant see the text either when i go back a few pages to when i edited it, i cant click edit in the post to see if it is still there but hidden due to length and eventhough i saved it via copy/paste, it doesn‘t show more than it does in the original post

hang on, i might need to rewrite everything
 
pollinator
Posts: 1099
Location: Victoria BC
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It didn't seem that bad to me.. you're in great hands with a Soil Master on the case already, hope we can get some pictures and a location!

My first question is what resources are available, since you mentioned there were some things you could acquire for free. Just about any sort of organic material not contaminated with pesticides/herbicides would be valuable formulch and to start building up some soil. What can you access?


 
pollinator
Posts: 376
Location: Boudamasa, Chad
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Hi Joe,

Your situation sounds a whole lot like one I had a few years ago: Heavy clay, either too wet or too dry, post construction, etc. I went to dig it up with a pick-ax and it only went in two centimeters! And that after we had had a couple rains. I got four centimeters down and it was bone dry. On the other side of the yard was where all the rain water sat--too water-logged to grow anything.

So I'll tell you what I did and maybe you can modify it for your purposes:

I had lots of leaves and chicken manure at my disposal. So in the part of the yard that was rock hard, I dug a long trench and back-filled it with sticks, leaves and a little chicken manure, and let it sit for a year. That first year the water had a hard time soaking into the ground and it sat a bit, but the second year I had great soil. Now I can grow whatever I want in there.

In the part that was water logged I dug up the clay with a pick-ax again. Wherever I wanted a garden bed I moved out the layer of dug up dirt and put it aside. Then I dug up the layer below it. I put a thick layer of leaves and chicken manure on top of that. Then I took the dirt I had removed and put it on top of the leaves and chicken manure. Then I put another layer of leaves on that. Then I dug out the dirt that would be in the pathway and put that on top of the leaves. Then I covered the whole thing with a nice layer of leaves for mulch. So I ended up with a raised bed layered with leaves, manure and dirt. I grew loads of cucumbers and okra that first year. And I've grown loads of other stuff ever since; just keep adding leaves on top.  

If this isn't very clear I can look up some photos from when I started.

-Nathanael
 
Posts: 649
Location: In the woods, West Coast USA
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Joe, there's lots of good info at this website about growing in clay soil.   I have a ton of clay and I like it very much.  It's full of minerals, holds more water than other soil, and provides a lot of nutrition when used with compost.

Don't be discouraged about your tomato.  There are thousands of different types of tomatoes, some are much more apt to have diseases and fail than others.  Some need a lot of heat, some will take 100 days, some will take 60 days.  Some give one crop and die (determinate tomatoes) and some will continuously give tomatoes throughout the season.  They are very heavy feeders, so they need the soil prepared with composted manure a couple of months before planting, and shovel 2 inches of compost every 3 weeks or so around the base.  Over that put dead leaves or mowed grass.

Cherry tomatoes are much more forgiving, try a few of those.  Tomatoes also need pollinators, hopefully you've got enough of those insects.  If not, you can tap the flowers lightly and pollinate them yourself.  I have to do this in the greenhouse because I'm not sure if the pollinators are getting inside.

One of the most important things about clay is to keep it out of the sun.  Drying it out in the sun is what turns it rock hard.  So keeping thick mulch over it, like mowed weeds and dead leaves as deep as your hand, keeps the moisture in the soil.  It also brings the worms up to near the surface, and they will improve it even more.   Rock mulch won't improve the soil, and that's crucial in the first several years of growing organically.  I have used rock mulch in a circle around the base of fruit trees when rodents were digging up at the base of the trees and chewing on the bark.  The large rock would fall on them and into their holes.  Then I would add more rock.  But mostly the tree got layers of mowed weeds and manure.

If the clay is already dried out, wet it down, cover it with a tarp or a wet sheet, come back 20 minutes later and it will fall apart with a shovel.  Any tougher spots, keep wetting, cover it, wait a while, it will break down easily.   It's kind of like working with wheat flour instead of white flour, it absorbs more slowly, it takes some time to change it.  

If you have a zone where the water makes the clay too wet, it's perfect for tough perennials like grapevines, and then they won't even need watering.  

Compost doesn't smell if it is turned regularly and air gets in it.  But rodents will get into it sometimes and steal your best ingredients.

Digging the holes, like you are doing, is a great idea.  Trenches also work well, just fill up a small portion at a time with vegetable cuttings and manure, cover with the soil you dug out, then plant right over that, using lots of leaf/weed mulch over that.  

An organic garden takes a couple years to get going, but each year will do better and better.





 
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