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Clay soil: can i "till" it with roots?  RSS feed

 
Bo Bryant
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Hey Permies,

Some friends and I have the opportunity to turn an empty south facing lot with clayish soil into a permaculture garden in Whitefish Montana. Awesome.

The concern at the moment is that if the topsoil is layered too distinctly on top of the clay subsoil, water and roots will not penetrate into the subsoil. The Lot is bare and tightly compacted, and water runs off into an adjacent parking-lot. Renting a tiller to mix the clayish soil with organic matter to hold moisture and house EM has been mentioned, but I was wondering if anyone here had an opinion on the matter.

additional info: lot is roughly 51' on west and east sides, and 110' on south and north sides. There is an apartment building to the north, with wooden patio fences that catch nice heat(no gates on these,no access from apartments). Lot is nearly level, draining slightly towards the southeast and southwest, where the parking lot is draining our run-off. A swale will likely be dug along the southern side to hold moisture in the lot a while longer, and will allow us to build the soil up higher than is currently possible. We also plan on doing some Hugulkultur, if that changes your opinion.



thanks for your time! peace and much much love!
 
Jason Matthew
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I have been trying to convert a clay area into a productive garden, this is my second year. Unless you are going to put in a lot of organic matter, you are wasting your time. The only areas that I have got to be productive were double dug with straw and chicken manure. The rest of the area is to dry, compacted, and hard, to get anything besides weeds and tough trees to grow. It has been a very humbling experience thus far.

Steve Solomon talks about clay soil in his book, Gardening When it Counts. I did not understand his comments at the time I read the book, but I surely do now. His advise was to truck in topsoil and put it on top of the clay. The area I am working has been mowed grass for the last 20 years, and it is hard, compacted clay beneath the grass. I have been trying to use what is available on the land to get the area into decent shape and it has been tough. I'm overseeding with clovers and rye grass this fall to try and up the organic matter in the soil. Otherwise, I am going to have to truck in mulch, compost, and/or topsoil.

 
Neal McSpadden
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My new property (suburban lot) is very similar. I have about 1/4" of soil on top of clay. I'm sowing spike rooted plants like radishes, but I am considering buying topsoil to get things going a bit more quickly despite all of Paul's cautions about herbicides and what not in commercial products.
 
Cal Edon
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I recommend planting cereal rye when fall comes. It's well known for breaking through impacted or clay soil - some people have called it a living shovel. It will also produce a lot of organic matter which you can till under next spring if you wish.
 
M Taylor
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I have a similar situation except that I don't seem to have any topsoil on top of my compacted clay and rock. I was wanting to try some oilseed radish and clover mixes to bust it up and add organic material, but I am afraid that they won't germinate on top of the ground. I have been looking into seed drills, but I would prefer not to have to invest in a tool that I should only have to use once or twice. Any other ideas? Will the seeds germinate better if I cover them with straw or something similar?
 
Leila Rich
steward
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Location: Wellington, New Zealand. Temperate, coastal, sandy, windy,
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Organic matter. but as far as I'm concerned, aside from earthworks, it's the answer to just about any question with 'soil' in it
Apologies, a bit of a sidetrack:
Neal McSpadden wrote: I am considering buying topsoil to get things going a bit more quickly

Maybe look at buying in the equivalent value in good compost/spoiled hay/composted free-range manure?
I'd want to be very sure I was actually getting good topsoil, as it's quite likely to be about as challenging as what's there already.
I just get this mental picture of an unintegrated layer of soil lying on top of the clay like this . Ok, that's pretty melodramatic, but you get the picture!
 
shawn dunseith
Posts: 59
Location: mo
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M Taylor wrote:I have a similar situation except that I don't seem to have any topsoil on top of my compacted clay and rock. I was wanting to try some oilseed radish and clover mixes to bust it up and add organic material, but I am afraid that they won't germinate on top of the ground. I have been looking into seed drills, but I would prefer not to have to invest in a tool that I should only have to use once or twice. Any other ideas? Will the seeds germinate better if I cover them with straw or something similar?





Maybe fukuoka style seedballs could help
 
Alex Brands
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I have orange clay soil, and have had really good results with cover crops. If I stand on a garden fork in the middle of my lawn, it goes in an inch or two. After a single season of a cover crop, I can push a fork in the length of the tines. I've used the "Soil Builder Mix" from Peaceful Valley Farm Supply.

You might also think about getting a broadfork to loosen the soil a bit without turning it over. I have not used one myself, but have heard great things from people who have.

Alex
 
Jason Matthew
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I just wanted to thank you for the reference to Peaceful Valley. I'm going to use their "Sod Buster Seed Mix" and their "Soil Builder Mix" this fall. I'm going to use both of them and see if they will give me some decent soil to work in the spring.

 
M Taylor
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Thank you for the info. I like the seed ball idea. Does anyone have a suggestion as to the best time to sow seed for cool season cover crop/green manure crops? Our first frost date is around the middle of November. Our average high temps in August are between 95 and 100.
 
Bryzantium Langford
Posts: 21
Location: The Great State of Louisana
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I don't know what yall are talking about. Where I grew up it was just a thin layer of soil and a 1-? feet of red clay. We grew corn,okra,cantalope,pea's,cucumbers,and tomatoes. Never had a problem at all.
We just tillled the top 3 or 4 inches and planted. Lots of stuff grows fine in clay atleast when its tilled.
 
Tyler Ludens
pollinator
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Location: Central Texas USA Latitude 30 Zone 8
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Bryzantium Langford wrote: Lots of stuff grows fine in clay atleast when its tilled.


It might depend on what kind of clay, amount of rainfall, etc. It is hard to grow stuff in clay here where I am. I guess you were just lucky.

 
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