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Dealing with Clay Soil

 
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Hello,

Last year my family and I started box gardens on our property and experienced some minor success gardening.  This year I am wanting to take a 35ft by 55ft section of land and turn it into a garden.  The soil on my property is about 85% clay and I am concerned about my ability to grow in this soil.  My initial plan was to plant "clay busters" plants that will help break in the soil like Daikon Radish and Mustard Greens but, I am not sure.  My second thought was to add partially composted woodchips to the soil and till them into the ground to improve the base of the soil and then heavily fertilize the garden.  Has anyone here ever dealt with clay soil?  Is there anything I can do in the next few weeks to get this soil ready for spring planting?

Wynne
 
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Hi, Wynne! Welcome to permies!!
I'm in the Ozarks, and have very similar issues. Our 'soil' consists of rocks & clay. We've tried for a couple years, to build soil, to no avail. Granted, that's not nearly enough time to actually build soil, so while we aren't giving up on that, we NEED to get things planted, this year. I've been building raised beds from pallets, and in the last couple years, we've been raising chickens, ducks, and goats. With the goats, we needed fencing, but with all rocks, our best option was cattle panels - but it took a few tries to get it right, so I'm using some of those early panels to make arbors, in order to go vertical, and make the most of the beds.
When finding a spot for these beds, the best spot happened to be on the south facing side of a couple of oak trees. So, before I start filling them, I'll be pruning those oaks back, a bit, and using the branches & surrounding leaves & other downed branches to start filling the beds. Then, I'll be adding the lovely compost we've created, from the critter housing, and we will, sadly, have to add some purchased organic soil, to balance it all out. I'm not sure if it's correct, but I'm thinking of them as 'contained mini-hugels'.

I think your daikon might be helpful. Normally, I'm not big on tilling, but clay might be easier to aerate it and work some organic matter and a bit of sand into it. I know Paul isn't fond of woodchips, and I get it - bigger tree parts are best, imho, too - but, if you've got woodchips? Use 'em, I think. But, if at all possible, add some bigger pieces, too. They work better, in the long term, hold moisture better, and are (especially if still green), will give much more back to your ecosystem.
 
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I am with Carla on this. I have had the most success with raised beds.
 
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Wynn,

Count me in with those living with heavy clay soil.  First let me say that the raised bed suggestions are a great option, and that is what I have gone with myself.

But secondly, your ideas about woodchips are worthy of merit, but please let me suggest an alternative to tilling.  Simply piling woodchips on the ground will have an amazing effect on both the ground and the chips.  After about a year the biology of the soil works its way into the chips and the chips break down almost into soil.  Actually, after about a year it is hard to tell where the chips end and the soil begins.  Leaving the chips on the surface will actually enhance their breakdown and condition the soil beneath all at once.  

My favorite technique is to pile chips up to about 1 foot deep and plant in fertile holes or fertile trenches.  This soil I bring in is a one-time addition.  By year two, the chips typically break down heavily and the whole patch comes to life.  If you like, there are some other techniques to both break down the chips and increase their fertility.

Wynn, I certainly do understand the challenges of clay but hang in there.  Clay also has some pretty good benefits also.  

Please keep us updated and if you have any questions please let us know.

Eric
 
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Here's where I've gotten to, so far. It's colder out today, than my body can tolerate(which truly pisses me off, because it's GORGEOUS and sunny - an otherwiseperfect day to work!), or I'd be out there now.
received_453686378992118.jpeg
Oaks are to the right, you can see the dead leaves. The standing pallet is to keep the goat fence upright.
Oaks are to the right, you can see the dead leaves. The standing pallet is to keep the goat fence upright.
received_1861531977319320.jpeg
You might be able to see the arbors better, in this one.
You might be able to see the arbors better, in this one.
 
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Our soil is a fine silt loam with just enough clay that it compacts badly and turns to a concrete-like mass when dry. It's a decent soil otherwise and quite fertile, but that fine particle physical structure is its main liability.

My strategy is to put on anything I can get my hands on that is organic matter. Lots of wood chips, bark, shavings. etc. piled deeply and left to do their thing. Everywhere I've done this the difference is amazing: the soil underneath is loose and crumbly and full of life.

In the raised garden beds, I no longer dig anything. I top-dress with a mixture of compost and biochar, then use a broadfork to open up the compacted soil and allow the amendments to gently filter down into the cracks. Then I plant veggies straight into that and mulch like crazy. I'm watering less (and less often) and the plants are doing better than ever before.

One problem with a broadfork is that they don't cope all that well with rocky soil, which is something we also have in abundance. If you've got rocks near the surface, just build your beds up higher.
 
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Carla Burke wrote:Hi, Wynne! Welcome to permies!!
I'm in the Ozarks, and have very similar issues. Our 'soil' consists of rocks & clay. We've tried for a couple years, to build soil, to no avail. Granted, that's not nearly enough time to actually build soil, so while we aren't giving up on that, we NEED to get things planted, this year. I've been building raised beds from pallets, and in the last couple years, we've been raising chickens, ducks, and goats. With the goats, we needed fencing, but with all rocks, our best option was cattle panels - but it took a few tries to get it right, so I'm using some of those early panels to make arbors, in order to go vertical, and make the most of the beds.
When finding a spot for these beds, the best spot happened to be on the south facing side of a couple of oak trees. So, before I start filling them, I'll be pruning those oaks back, a bit, and using the branches & surrounding leaves & other downed branches to start filling the beds. Then, I'll be adding the lovely compost we've created, from the critter housing, and we will, sadly, have to add some purchased organic soil, to balance it all out. I'm not sure if it's correct, but I'm thinking of them as 'contained mini-hugels'.

I think your daikon might be helpful. Normally, I'm not big on tilling, but clay might be easier to aerate it and work some organic matter and a bit of sand into it. I know Paul isn't fond of woodchips, and I get it - bigger tree parts are best, imho, too - but, if you've got woodchips? Use 'em, I think. But, if at all possible, add some bigger pieces, too. They work better, in the long term, hold moisture better, and are (especially if still green), will give much more back to your ecosystem.



Hello Carla,

Thanks for the advice.   Raised beds have worked well for us as well.  I will continue to expand on that idea but, I at least want to attempt to reclaim some of the soil here.  I know this land was farmed back in the 70's and I see neighbors of mine thriving in the soil as well.  
 
Wynne Nicholas
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Eric Hanson wrote:Wynn,

Count me in with those living with heavy clay soil.  First let me say that the raised bed suggestions are a great option, and that is what I have gone with myself.

But secondly, your ideas about woodchips are worthy of merit, but please let me suggest an alternative to tilling.  Simply piling woodchips on the ground will have an amazing effect on both the ground and the chips.  After about a year the biology of the soil works its way into the chips and the chips break down almost into soil.  Actually, after about a year it is hard to tell where the chips end and the soil begins.  Leaving the chips on the surface will actually enhance their breakdown and condition the soil beneath all at once.  

My favorite technique is to pile chips up to about 1 foot deep and plant in fertile holes or fertile trenches.  This soil I bring in is a one-time addition.  By year two, the chips typically break down heavily and the whole patch comes to life.  If you like, there are some other techniques to both break down the chips and increase their fertility.

Wynn, I certainly do understand the challenges of clay but hang in there.  Clay also has some pretty good benefits also.  

Please keep us updated and if you have any questions please let us know.

Eric



Thank you for responding Eric.  I know this land can yield as I see neighbors of mine planting in the soil but, who knows how long it took them to get there.  I am hoping to plant this year.  Hopefully, amending the soil will help.  
 
Wynne Nicholas
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Phil Stevens wrote:Our soil is a fine silt loam with just enough clay that it compacts badly and turns to a concrete-like mass when dry. It's a decent soil otherwise and quite fertile, but that fine particle physical structure is its main liability.

My strategy is to put on anything I can get my hands on that is organic matter. Lots of wood chips, bark, shavings. etc. piled deeply and left to do their thing. Everywhere I've done this the difference is amazing: the soil underneath is loose and crumbly and full of life.

In the raised garden beds, I no longer dig anything. I top-dress with a mixture of compost and biochar, then use a broadfork to open up the compacted soil and allow the amendments to gently filter down into the cracks. Then I plant veggies straight into that and mulch like crazy. I'm watering less (and less often) and the plants are doing better than ever before.

One problem with a broadfork is that they don't cope all that well with rocky soil, which is something we also have in abundance. If you've got rocks near the surface, just build your beds up higher.



Well, one thing I don't have to worry about is rocks.  I am essentially living on an unfinished pottery project lol.
 
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