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Dealing with heavy clay  RSS feed

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Hey there, we are currently developing a 30 by 40 back to eden garden on missourri heavy clay soil. I believe we are currently dealing with  some pretty bad compaction, rooted veg are growing up out of the ground instead of down and seedlings are having issues taking root.

Currently looking at a broadfork or digging fork regrettably I cannot afford a $200 meadow creature broadfork and so am looking at a digging fork and finding a lot of so-so reviews online. Was wondering if anyone here can give a recommendation or  other methods to deal with heavy clay in back to eden gardens. The only suggestions I have found involve rototilling excessive amounts of compost into the soil which is not feasible for me financially and since there are a lot of wood chips in the way.
Thanks in advance!
 
pollinator
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Sounds like you have wood chips. Have you considered planting Daikon radishes as in the book One Straw Revolution?
 
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Radishes are great! So are spinach, beet, fennel and other big rooted plants. Beware though, when they are happy they will selfseed. But first what you need is gypsum or lime, depending on your ph value. They help to deflocculate the clay (separate the very fine particles from each other so your soil can drain). Will help to break down your woodchips too
 
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hau David, when starting to deal with heavy clay the double dig method works best when rapid improvement of soil texture and removal of compaction is needed in a garden space.
As Natasha mentioned, the addition of gypsum and or lime will help greatly in creating crumble in heavy clay situations this works in conjunction with additions of organic matter.
As far as the wood chips go, working them into heavy clay requires some of the amendments mentioned so the chips will break down, just incorporating wood chips will not mean any improvement without something additional to start them into the process of decay, wood can last for hundreds of years when covered by clay soils and this is why we have many wood structures from antiquity in museums today.

Doing a double dig on such soils works far faster than broad forking because you can change the structure faster, allow more organic material to get deeper which ends up making a deeper soil with many air pockets, water infiltration channels and the humus to release that water to roots faster when the plant needs it.
Once you have created this better structure, the daikon, rape, alfalfa, clovers and other soil structure building, nitrogen fixing plants will be able to do their job to give you good soil structure and deep humus in a shorter time span than if you tried to do this in a no-till method.
It also means you will be able to get a harvest faster than if you tried to use just plants to accomplish your end goal.

If you haven't, go find my soil threads and read them, there is a lot of information about building soil and adding the necessary soil organisms in them along with other tidbits.

Redhawk
 
pollinator
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Bryant Redhawk's Epic Soil Series

I find a lot of people resist tillage at all costs, often for no reason other than they have been told that it's bad.

It's true that inverting the structure of healthy, living soil will result in a soil life die-off. But for that to be an issue, there needs to be healthy, living soil in the first place.

I think that if you have a healthy worm population, tilling is perhaps optional. This won't be the case in a heavy clay situation.

I would read Dr. Redhawk's soil series, get as much free or cheap biomass as possible, like woodchips from an arbourist, if they are to be had in the area, or rotted straw or animal bedding, provided it can be sourced cleanly, and gypsum grit and dust. I would spread them over the area, and double dig, rotovate, till, or whatever method best works most of what you add into the clay.

But keep us posted and good luck.

-CK
 
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In my opinion the best thing for clay is manure. And the gypsum and or lime, as already stated.

You can find manure, free, at for instance a farm that boards horses. They aren't so likely to use the manure themselves. You could rent a pick up for $20 ++. I'd try to get a few truck loads, minimum, for a 30x40 foot garden, in that clay. If you want to plant root crops I'd dig up the spot you pick for them now so that next spring you're not planting in fresh manure. The manure you find should be taken from the oldest part of the manure pile. If you can get free wood chips I'd sprinkle some manure over the chips. When you're scouting up manure it's my opinion the manure with straw is better for growing now than manure with wood chips used for bedding.

I'm currently planning a new garden. I hauled 6 bags of manure on top of my car. Need at least 2 more loads for my potato field. It's currently just a spot in the lawn. I'll fence it later, dig up some of it over the fall/winter, some will get dug up in the following year. When I've double dug I flipped a spade full over and left a small space next to where I pushed the spade in. When you come back across that line as you pull the next shovel full the previous soil/sod will fall into the hole you just made. Flip it over so the sod side faces what you just dug. But before you start the next dig you can push a fork down into that and rock the fork. The only times I've actually turned over soil double deep was to create better drainage around the high side of my garden space.

I've never used raised beds. I've always planted in the ground. Doesn't effect the earth as much as building a structure and then finding soil from somewhere else to fill it. Plus it's easier on my body to bend over to plant or transplant than it is to do all that construction and hauling.
 
David Pritchett
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Thank you all so much for the helpful replies.

We are currently growing a "green daikon" from baker creek quite successfully however it has tended to grow down 2-3 inches through the meager top dressing of compost and then start growing out of the ground, I presume due to compacted clay. Long hinona turnips again fom baker creek are going down to the clay and not really penetrating the clay  at all. Carrots are not growing up but I haven't harvested any yet so I can't tell you if that is working.

I am lucky to have an arborist a few doors down that I have been able to get chips from. However I have had to be a little choosy because he gets called out for a lot of black walnut and most of the stuff I have gotten has been pretty dead so pretty low nitrogen content.

There are a couple of horse boarding barns out here but I am hesitant to go that route due to all the horror stories I have read of people working persistent herbicides into their soils. The basic guidelines I have heard is check for broad leaves in the manure pile but if people have further advice to avoid that I am all ears.

Thank you very much Dr. Redhawk for all that you have contributed to this forum I feel I will be perusing that thread with all your postings for months or more.  I do not have a problem with tilling so much as not wanting to mix excessive woodchips into the soil and tie up nitrogen, hence the interest in broadfork or similar to get tillage while working minimal woodchips into the soil.

I have no doubt of how alive our soil is as I am constantly finding lots of ants, worms, mycorhizaie/mushrooms and the roots run deep for my beans and brassicas, its mainly the root crops who are struggling, beats, garlic, turnips and potatos.
 
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I don't know nearly as much as Bryant Redhawk, but I can share what I did in a similar situation as you are in.  I inherited eight raised garden beds.  Maybe 1/8 of an acre total.  Nothing was growing but weeds.  I dug into the ground to find the following:  1-2 inches of dusty, gray "topsoil" and then endless dense, compacted red clay.  The kind that retains whatever shape your shovel pulls it out of the ground, even if you let it sit for weeks in the sun and rain.  I dug down to over my own head, say six feet, and never encountered anything but the 1" of gray "soil" and endless clay.

So I gave up any notion of any easy fix.  I dug 4-feet deep into two of the beds and connected them, for a 6ft x 28ft hole, then filled that with logs to a 4ft high mound (eight feet of wood in total).  I used hugelkultur principles and followed that with branches, then sticks, then compost on top.  Even some of the red clay mixed in.  Within half a year I was planting successfully on that.

The rest?  I dug them out too, and used the heavy clay as aquaponics beds and pond.  The one good thing about clay is it holds its shape and restricts or even blocks water flow.  I had a 5000 gallon pond and 15,000 gallons of grow beds.  The only expense I incurred in this venture was a pond pump (about $100) and gravel for the grow beds.  Don't remember the cost, sorry.  Let's say $300?  If you want to be extra safe, use a pond liner, which adds another $300.

Then I had tilapia and crayfish and nice growbeds for almost anything.  Not everything will grown in them, but most things will.  The fish waste feeds the plants, the plants clean the water for the fish.  The only input is fish food.  It will last virtually forever with little intervention or maintenance.

It took me about 3 months part time to shovel all of that.  I used a fiskars shovel.  Highly recommend.  There are probably faster ways.  It was a great project and it turned out beautifully.

Completely ignores any notion of amending soil.

 
pollinator
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My best results for dealing with virgin compacted red clay was to add 20% SAND to the mix.   After 3 years of adding lots of organic material I still had compaction with dry clods at the end of summer and muck at the end of winter.   The sand and compost and chopping and dropping into the beds is resulting in a nice friable loamy soil after one year.   I wish I had, from the beginning, paid attention to the ratios for rich soil which is 20% CLAY, 40% SAND AND 40% SILT
 
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I have heavy clay, and the trick is never let it be exposed to the sun, that's what dries it out.  So thick mowed weed mulch, leaf mulch over compost and manure, like 8 inches of mowed weeds that will shrink to 3"-4".  Think of it as wheat flour as opposed to white flour.  It has more nutrients, it takes longer to absorb water, but holds it better.  When you keep it damp this way the worms will show up and do your tilling for you.  I haven't tilled in years and don't intend to.

I encourage native vetches and clovers (although burr clover may be troublesome for pets) to grow on the paths and around the beds, and mow and collect it for mulch, clip it (but do not pull it) around plants. 

I recently had a horrible influx of voles that were able to hide under thick mulch around fruit tree trunks.  I shoveled an 18" circle of 3/4" gravel all around the trees and grapevines, which also shades the soil from the sun, and if the rodents tunnel under the rocks, they don't like to get hit on the head, it drops to fill their tunnels.  Then I can see where the rocks are dropping and I just add more.   I don't like to call a rock groundcover "mulch", because mulch is something that improves the soil.  But it worked nicely.
 
Rob Lineberger
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Cristo, that's a very cool trick about the voles.  When you say 18" circle, do you mean 18" deep? or 18" across? 
 
Cristo Balete
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Rob, not 18" inches deep, just 18" out from the trunk of the tree or grapevine, (I guess that's 36" across)   1 rock thick layer, but I've poured whole Tidy Cat buckets of the rock into some bigger tunnels heading towards the plants.  I specifically got granite rock, because I like using granite sand.  And in my heavy clay the rocks don't make it to airy for the roots.  

I also plant daffodils, daylillies and a native weed called dock around new plantings to stop the gophers.  Daffodils are only available in the later summer/fall, so it's kind of a timing issue to plant in the summer, then go back and plant daffodils.  I wouldn't have half my fruit trees if I didn't make this kind of effort to stop the gophers.

I haul the gravel 1 ton at a time, and it's amazing how fast that pile goes down a bucket at a time. 
 
David Pritchett
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Thank you very much Rob for the suggestions, your situation sounds virtually identical to mine, cheap fill then clay and about the same size of lot. I am very tempted to push things a little more towards the aquaponics route especially because we've been wanting to do that but had been looking more at ibc and barrel methods. Was there anything special you did to seal up the pond for the aquaponics? Most of the things I found online refer to using bentonite and cut plant matter to seal the pond sides. About what size did your pond end up being and what did you do with the excess dirt? What we havedoes decently for planting in but not spectacularly but I had considered using them to berm up the sides. How did you setup the beds you converted to aquaponic grow bed? Most things I have seen suggest using some kind of plastic or pond liner or just put them into bins of some sort. We were trying to establish a small food forest in our backyard (a food glen maybe?) and have really had decent success given its a first year garden. We were wanting to do fruit trees but I have seen some references to people growing trees in aquaponic systems so I don't think that is a good reason to avoid the aquaponics. Our current plan is to do perennials around the border, mainly a mix of blackberry, elderberry, globe artichoke and asparagus. The main issue is we do not intend for this to be a permanent property so we want to use it as a test bed but we can't do anything too crazy that would lower the perceived value too much.

Cristo, we have native red and white clovers and I have tried to get them to  establish themselves and start working their nitrogen fixing magic, though really this just means I do my best not to shovel them. I have found that clover is one of the best weed suppressors in our yard, so much so that they sometimes even suppress established dandelions.
 
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Hi David, I am gardening in heavy clay as well on the Texas blackland prairie.  Along with all of the other recommendations here for breaking up clay, as for a digging fork, I use the Bully Tools 'Super Fork'.  It's heavy duty and does the job well for me.  When the soil moisture is right, I use it to break up the clay and then follow with a shovel to get a bit deeper and break clods.  I checked their website and couldn't find it there anymore, but it is available on amazon.  Good luck!
 
Rob Lineberger
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David Pritchett wrote:Thank you very much Rob for the suggestions, your situation sounds virtually identical to mine, cheap fill then clay and about the same size of lot. I am very tempted to push things a little more towards the aquaponics route especially because we've been wanting to do that but had been looking more at ibc and barrel methods. Was there anything special you did to seal up the pond for the aquaponics? Most of the things I found online refer to using bentonite and cut plant matter to seal the pond sides. About what size did your pond end up being and what did you do with the excess dirt? What we havedoes decently for planting in but not spectacularly but I had considered using them to berm up the sides. How did you setup the beds you converted to aquaponic grow bed? Most things I have seen suggest using some kind of plastic or pond liner or just put them into bins of some sort. We were trying to establish a small food forest in our backyard (a food glen maybe?) and have really had decent success given its a first year garden. We were wanting to do fruit trees but I have seen some references to people growing trees in aquaponic systems so I don't think that is a good reason to avoid the aquaponics. Our current plan is to do perennials around the border, mainly a mix of blackberry, elderberry, globe artichoke and asparagus. The main issue is we do not intend for this to be a permanent property so we want to use it as a test bed but we can't do anything too crazy that would lower the perceived value too much.

Cristo, we have native red and white clovers and I have tried to get them to  establish themselves and start working their nitrogen fixing magic, though really this just means I do my best not to shovel them. I have found that clover is one of the best weed suppressors in our yard, so much so that they sometimes even suppress established dandelions.



Barrel methods are ok for micro-control of different environments. I prefer to go big, especially in the pond.  As big a pond as you can.  That helps stabilize temperature and water quality .  That said, the pond has to be small enough for you to farm the fish, and to provide enough effluent to fertilize the plants. Too big and the pump is less effective.

My pond was 30 feet long, 6 feet wide, and averaged 4 feet deep. The technique you are describing is gleying. You embed plant matter into the bottom and sides, put a coating of bentonite (aka cheap cat litter) and pound the heck out of it to create an anerobic slime layer.  Some people let pigs wallow in the pre-filled  pond and that does the trick.  In my case, given the compaction of the clay and the absolutely torrential rains, I just left it.  There was a little vein that drained the water slowly, but rain kept up with it.  If you use a liner then you're good anyway.

I piled the excess dirt around the pond.  A month or two later, rain had converted it to a gentle poofy pad of clay.  Not the best solution but I don't know what else to tell you.  Make earthbags for a retaining wall?

My growbeds were higher than the pond.  Not much to do there.  Pump water from the bottom of the pond to the top of the growbeds and watch it trickle down back into the pond.

I had 6ft wide growbeds by 2 ft deep.  13 tons of peagravel poured in.  Raked it flat. I had tomatoes, broccoli and other brassicas, squash, peas/beans, herbs, cucumbers, and lettuce.  The herbs didn't do very well.  Nor the tomatoes, which I was surprised by.  I've since grown my tomatoes upside down in the air and man! what a difference.  You could do that aquaponically with a smaller, timer controlled pump.  Everything else flourished.  I'm sure you could do dwarf fruit trees.  I'd suggest dedicated containers, such as an IBC or similar, with a drain hole near the bottom to keep a constant height of water.  The aquaponics media will wick that water up to the roots.

One important difference: you don't want it permanent.  Mine was meant to be so.  That setup could have grown plants almost indefinitely with fish food as the only input.    I will say when I got divorced my ex paved the whole thing over with mulch.  It looks horrible but it didn't cost her much to do it. 
 
Cristo Balete
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David, I have a pond that is just in my clay hillside, no gleying, it just sits there.  It's dug out in a funnel shape, or a deep bowl over about an acre.  It's about 15 feet deep in the middle on average, but the water level drops naturally about 4 feet in a normal year, comes back up in January.   There are 2 springs that feed it, no outlet other than seepage.  There is an overflow on one end that goes on down the hill if there is heavy rain and the groundwater level is high and is contributing to the water level.

If you've got that much clay, especially down as far as you mentioned, you might not need to do anything.  No harm in trying it, and if it empties out too soon, then you can find something to line it with.
 
Rob Lineberger
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Cristo Balete wrote:David, I have a pond that is just in my clay hillside, no gleying, it just sits there.  It's dug out in a funnel shape, or a deep bowl over about an acre.  It's about 15 feet deep in the middle on average, but the water level drops naturally about 4 feet in a normal year, comes back up in January.   There are 2 springs that feed it, no outlet other than seepage.  There is an overflow on one end that goes on down the hill if there is heavy rain and the groundwater level is high and is contributing to the water level.

If you've got that much clay, especially down as far as you mentioned, you might not need to do anything.  No harm in trying it, and if it empties out too soon, then you can find something to line it with.



I agree.  There is nothing to lose. If it doesn't hold water to your liking, move the pump hose to the side and drain the water.  Insert liner.  refill.
 
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