I have a lot of clay in my yard. At first, I thought of this as a disadvantage; however, I'm learning to embrace my clay. Here are the ways I have thought of to embrace it so far:
1. I've learned of the benefits of rock dust and diluted sea water in agriculture. If clay is weathered rocks (aka broken down rocks, aka minerals) then shouldn't one be able to perhaps dissolve it in water then spray it on the garden and it remineralize your sol? 2. I put a lot of organic matter on top of my clay soil and garden in that. The plants should benefit from being able to push their roots down into the clay and take up the minerals in it? They could not live in just clay alone, but if they live in the organic matter and are able to access the clay, wouldn't that be ideal?
What other benefits/uses of clay can you think of?
Hi, Benton! You're on the right track, but don't settle for speculation when there's actually been a lot of research on this topic. You are correct that soil amendments should be unnecessary in clay soil if you have healthy soil life -- bacteria and fungi -- that can mine the nutrients out of the clay and make them available to the plants. The plants cannot access the nutrients without the help of soil life. I recommend watching Elaine Ingham's videos on YouTube for more information. Dr. Christine Jones has another piece of the puzzle with her "liquid carbon pathway" research, though that is aimed more at ranchers than gardeners.
I've been doing similar experiments to what you describe for the last 8 years, top-dressing heavy clay soil rather than tilling it. It can work, but you must be patient. The first few years, daikon radish or other "tillage" radishes will be your friends, as they loosen the soil for you. After three or four years the daikon will not grow as well, but you may be able to grow carrots and other root crops in the loosened soil. It's not just a matter of physically pushing their roots into the clay; the clay stays wet longer than other soil when it rains, and binds up like concrete during drought, and most annual plants can't handle that kind of stress. The best technique I've found is to add "texture" to the soil, as Paul Wheaton is fond of recommending, and plant sensitive crops in the raised ground rather than the low ground so that their roots don't rot off. I'm currently in my 3rd year of experimenting with what settlers called "woody beds," what permies might call "low hügelkultur," a layer of branches and other durable organic matter covered in clay and compost, so it's kind of like a sandwich, clay above and below the organic matter.
Another experiment I've had more immediate results with is adding clay soil to my compost pile. It accelerates the composting process by holding water in the pile like a sponge, and the soil comes out much improved in texture and ready to use.
One advantage of clay that's often overlooked is that it can hold a shape much better than looser soil. If you need to dig a hole or make a pile, it can be nearly vertical without caving in right away.
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