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What to do with clay soil  RSS feed

 
                          
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I'm new to to gardening and permaculture. I'm having big headache with my clay soil. I was told to use coarse sand and mix it up with the soil. But nobody seems to have coarse or river or road or builder's sand.
Now I'm thinking about using hay but I don't know. Please any advice would be greatly appreciated.
 
Tyler Ludens
pollinator
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Location: Central Texas USA Latitude 30 Zone 8
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My advice is don't add sand to clay -  you might get adobe, a good material for building but not a good soil for gardening!  The safest thing is to add tons (literally) of organic material such as old straw, hay, ,manure, leaves, etc and/or plant green manures which can be turned under.  I have heavy clay soil and it has improved tremendously with the addition of a LOT of organic material.  I am also trying hugelkultur - burying logs in the soil to add organic material.

The danger of using fresh hay as opposed to old rotten hay is you can introduce grass seeds into the garden, causing a weed problem.  Best to compost the hay before adding it to the garden unless it has sat out in the rain for a year or so.  If it is alfalfa hay it's ok to use it fresh.

 
                          
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Thanks for the quick reply H Ludi. 

I'm actually looking for something that can amend my soil rather quickly (ie: no waiting period) as I'm just looking to plant some perennial shrubs that I've already purchased.

  I had come across the suggestion of adding wood chips to the soil in lieu of the sand, but I was advised very strongly against that from a seemingly knowledgeable but adamant nursery employee.  He informed me that any addition of wood would leech nitrogen from the soil eventually turning the soil into a dead zone. 

  I've dug out about a foot of the clay soil from half of a bouldered off section in the front of my house (essentially, it's a raised bed) sandwiched in between my front steps and driveway.  Would mixing the dug out clay soil with mostly compost and garden soil be enough to make my perennials happy for years to come?  Or is it hopeless to think I can amend the dug out plot with just one application of something?

  (Is this a question best answered by a gardening forum? Anybody know of a good one?)
 
Tyler Ludens
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Yes, wood chips added without a source of nitrogen will take nitrogen from the soil.  Adding compost and garden soil would be a good thing - you can add more organic material in the form of mulch each year. 

 
                          
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Can you suggest something that I can buy? I don't really have supply of organic material or any sort of compost. I just started with this hobby and I'm pretty green at it.
 
Tyler Ludens
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Generally you can buy compost either in bags or by the truckload to be delivered.

 
                          
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I both 4 bags of gardening compost but I'm not sure if I should try to get the organic material and mix it in; Or just buy more compost and mix it 50-50 with the clay soil.
 
Tyler Ludens
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I would buy more compost if you can afford it. 

 
Erica Wisner
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If your chosen shrubs are a good fit for your climate and soil, a decent amount of compost mixed into a big hole when planting should give your plants a good start.  Try 8" to 18" below the roots, and 4" to 6" around the outside. 
And if your shrubs are a good choice, they will also help add organic matter (leaf litter) that can help you grow other thing later. 
Your raised berm sounds like a good starting place.  You should not have nearly the drainage problems usually associated with clay soils.  But it may dry out before the plants have strong roots to help them grow.

You will want to water well during the dry season, but not every day, to encourage the plants to grow deep roots.  Especially if you have long dry periods when the top layers of clay can dry out and harden.

As far as other things you can buy -
In my area (Portland) the city composts yard debris, and so do several private compost companies that collect food and landscaping wastes.  You can get a dump-truck-load of compost delivered, delivery costs but the total price is much less per cubic foot and you don't need to load it into your car yourself.  You can get it dumped somewhere near the driveway where you want to garden in future, or just in the street and move it where you want it.  Ask around for prices at landscaping companies or farm supply places. 

You can also add perlite for drainage, it will not compact down like sand, but it is more costly.  Usually only used for potting soils, as it's spendy and organic matter does the same job only better.  Don't buy less than 2 cubic feet at a time, to get decent prices.

Charcoal can also improve clay soils tremendously.  You can probably buy it from the same places above.  If it's not originally intended for garden use (like you are just using the stuff from a friend's burn pile or something), make sure there wasn't anything nasty like lead paint or lighter fluid in it.  Don't use briquettes, but charcoal from any type of wood or plant debris should work OK.  Rinse it well, then add some fertilizer (e.g. plant food, miracle grow, or watered-down pee) before mixing it into your soil.

You could also use woody debris if you remember to add a lot of nitrogen (pee) regularly, or grow plants that thrive in woody debris like most of our NW Native shrubs and ferns.  This is more of a long-term strategy, not a quick-fix.  Lots of permies use wood chips for semi-permanent paths, they last a couple of years and give the clay soils some structure instead of being just mud.

Best advice - take a walk around and look at what the neighbors are growing.  Watch to see how much work it is - are they are out tending their plants every day, or hire a gardening crew, or does their yard takes care of itself and they get to relax?  Ask them about their plants.  You may find an enthusiastic gardener neighbor who has filled up their own yard and would be tickled to help you start yours off on the right foot.
 
Tyler Ludens
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Personally I would incorporate compost into the entire bed rather than just the planting hole.  Improving only the hole in clay soil tends to encourage the roots to just stay in the hole rather than extending out into the surrounding soil. 
 
                    
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Gypsum breaks up clay soils.  "Soil Buster" is a commercial product for breaking up clay, made from gypsum and chemical fertilizers.
 
                          
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Thanks so much for all the info everyone has shared with me.  It is MUCH appreciated. 

I have a couple of more questions in reference to the responses.

1. Can I use grass clippings to work into the soil?  IF so, should they be somewhat old like the hay?  How long would you recommend after cutting that they be used to work into the ground?        Forgive my ignorance, but when you say "compost the hay" does that means just throw it in a compost pile or simply let it break down on it's own?

2.  Besides urine, what are some sources of nitrogen that I can add to the soil if I were to incorporate wood into my soil?  Particularly, something easier and cheaper to find than say a chemical product from the nursery.

3. Also, this may seem like a silly question, but what exactly do you mean by mulch?  Compost components BEFORE thy become composted (grass, leaves, etc.) or the stuff found in garden centers labeled mulch?  The latter seems to be more for aesthetic purposes than beneficial.  We throw down store bought mulch every year and it doesn't seem to add much nourishment to my plants. 

4. As far as the charcoal, how MUCH should be added to the soil?
 
Jordan Lowery
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i have amazing success with adding wood chips to the soil, preferably softwoods. you have to give the soil time to rest and balance out as far as the nitrogen cycle goes. but the end result is fluffy fertile soil.

or you can grow rice.
 
Brenda Groth
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below my topsoil my entire property is heavy grey clay soil very very deep, like 10' or more.

You can go to my blog (see below) and see what we have done with it..
 
                                    
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to answer your second question you can start using nitrogen fixing plants... in my part of ohio everywhere is clay... on my particular property I look for what is growing there.... we have white clover... sweet bushclover *melilotus* chicory (taproot, breaks up soil) and a melee of of assorted grasses and forbes...i'm trying a daikon radish strain this year to see if i can break up the soil and add organic material. .... these plants change the structure of the soil over time... depending on how quick you want results you may be thinking about incorporating things into the soil... my own personal view on this, especially with clay soils, is that changing the structure of the soil can be quite detrimental... although i still dig holes to put my trees in etc... i try to use the plants as much as I can to do the work... the earthworms and a bunch of other organisms are doing a bunch of work too....in any case... adding organic material would be very good... biochar, mulches, compost... comfrey and nettles will grow well in clay soil.. as will most alders and willows *as these are coppiced they add organic material to the soil and make it more friable*
 
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