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A garden is only as good as the ground that it's planted in. Discussion forum for the many ways to improve the soil where we plant our gardens.

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Old June 15, 2018   #1
SQWIBB
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Default Clay soil, Friend or Foe?



Time to ponder...


Almost every one agrees that hard clay soil is not the preferred soil for gardens. So how much of this is just regurgitated information? I have been giving this a lot of thought lately and just so you know, I'm not one of those "Hop on the bandwagon" types. I like to do what works for me. I have been using my clay soil to my advantage and so far it seems to be working fine for me, although I dont have a "control" to compare it with.



While clay soil, on its own, has a terrible tilth or texture, is almost impossible to work, especially when wet and can be compacted too easily, clay soil is loaded with minerals, can hold a lot of nutrients, and is more fertile than some other soil types. I didn't want to loose out on the benefits of using clay soil but at the same time, I didn't want to have the issues that come with using clay soil.


What to do?



When I built all of my "newer" beds I used clay soil as one of the layers in the beds, layering in with other Bio Mass. I'm guessing about 20-30 percent of my Hugelkultur beds have clay soil mixed in, my Raised beds on the hill have even more. So far this has worked well for me.


Here are a few examples.
  • This bed had the clay added to the next to last few layers (4th layer).












  • This one had the clay as the third layer.










  • This bed was dug down about 14" and all of the clay soil was reused layering with hay and other yard waste on top of the wood.








  • This bed had the clay added to the 4th layer of the bed then was topped with my end of year potting mix.
















I just wanted to do a quick write up on clay soil because I think a lot of times it gets a bum wrap. The only thing I have done to one of my beds that I wish I wouldn't have, was to add top soil, not that top soil hurts but it was a waste! There is no need to add top soil, use your own soil, just amend it properly or layer it in the bed.

I'm sure my clay soil was a better gardening choice than buying a few bags of top soil.


Well that's 2 cents worth anyhow.


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Old June 15, 2018   #2
Whwoz
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SQUIBB,

Could not agree more, make the clay work for you is definitely the way to go.

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Old June 15, 2018   #3
jtjmartin
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SQWIBB:

I'm with you. I just got back from visiting Wisconsin where I used to live. I had places in my garden where the top soil was 3 feet deep.

Here in Virginia, you're lucky to have anything laying on top of the red clay!

I read about hugelkulture and saw that I had plenty of dead wood and plenty of clay. The two work great together. Clay is nutrient rich and holds water well during dry spells. The decomposing wood seems to keep the raised beds aerated.

Thanks for the photos!
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Old June 17, 2018   #4
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Not saying you have done anything wrong but have you done a soil sediment test with a jar of water?
When you dig a hole in the ground how long does it take the water to drain out.
The reason I ask this is because there are so many types of clay soil.
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Old June 17, 2018   #5
brownrexx
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I started with heavy clay soil and have been tilling and amending it for several years. My % organic matter by soil test is usually about 10% and most of my garden soil is now dark, fluffy and nice although sometimes I find a patch which seems really clay-y and things do not grow well there unless I mix it up with some other garden soil.

Clay soil does hold nutrients better than other soils so it is not ALL bad.

Interesting photos. I wish we could fast forward and see the end result in a few years!

How soon will you plant in those beds?
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Old June 17, 2018   #6
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Same here, Worth. I've amended my raised bed soil so much I can plant just about anything using my hands. I sent soil samples to VA Tech 2 years ago and all the levels came back great. I had wondered if the buried wood was robbing nitrogen from the soil - apparently not.

On most of my property, water can sit in a hole for a day without draining - its really heavy clay. We live close to a river and I expected to hit pockets of sand but haven't found it so far!

Many people that use wood as a really slow compost say its only the wood/wood chips mixed in at the top of the soil that steals nitrogen.

Last year I added well rotted wood to the pots I planted my dwarf tomatoes in and reused the soil this year - they are doing great.

I wouldn't drive to pick up any wood but my property and the neighbors' all had piles of it. With the wood comes leaves - lots and lots of leaves. I picked up three bags of pine needles yesterday that I use for bed mulch.


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Old June 17, 2018   #7
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Sqwibb, I cant see your pics.
I have clay soil and my mother has almost pure clay. Stuff does grow in it, but I have a hard time seeing how any roots are getting through that stuff. It won't crumble so planting in it involves setting the plant in the hole and fitting lumps of clay in around it. It holds water nicely; I don't water at all (5-6 hrs of sun) and my mother seldom does (full sun).



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Old June 17, 2018   #8
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Nan_PA_6b View Post
Sqwibb, I cant see your pics.
I have clay soil and my mother has almost pure clay. Stuff does grow in it, but I have a hard time seeing how any roots are getting through that stuff. It won't crumble so planting in it involves setting the plant in the hole and fitting lumps of clay in around it. It holds water nicely; I don't water at all (5-6 hrs of sun) and my mother seldom does (full sun).



Nan
Roots dont move through the soil like snakes or worms they get longer and bigger by way of cell development/division.
That is how they can crack concrete.
Worth
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Old June 18, 2018   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Worth1 View Post
Not saying you have done anything wrong but have you done a soil sediment test with a jar of water?
When you dig a hole in the ground how long does it take the water to drain out.
The reason I ask this is because there are so many types of clay soil.

I done a perk test a few months ago and the water drained about half and stopped, it never drained any further for a whole week.




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Old June 18, 2018   #10
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Darn near pottery clay.
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Old June 18, 2018   #11
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Quote:
Originally Posted by brownrexx View Post
I started with heavy clay soil and have been tilling and amending it for several years. My % organic matter by soil test is usually about 10% and most of my garden soil is now dark, fluffy and nice although sometimes I find a patch which seems really clay-y and things do not grow well there unless I mix it up with some other garden soil.

Clay soil does hold nutrients better than other soils so it is not ALL bad.

Interesting photos. I wish we could fast forward and see the end result in a few years!

How soon will you plant in those beds?

I have hasd stuff grow directly in "my" clay soil no problems, but its too hard to work.


hugelkultur beds Last year











  • plants around the pond, clay and rocks






front yard 100percent clay, just mulch.



same on this hill







this is 2018 so far.


Hugelbed




Mostly clay just added a few inches of compost and black kow last year






Retaining wall in front of fence, about 80 percent clay, I dug out a bunch of arborvitaes, built the retaining wall then back filled with whatever compost I had in the bin at the time and added bio-char over the winter.


Raised beds in front of the retaining wall were filled with the dug out clay from the front of the retaining wall and amended with peat and Black Kow.








Mostly clay, may have peat too?





All clay, just topped with compost and mulch last year and mulched again this year, around the tree I put down cardboard in the spring and topped with arborvitae trimmings then mulched, you need a pick axe to dig in this area.
The only area i dug out a bit and amended was around the horseradish plant.



One advantage to clay is when I laid my patios, I just laid the pavers on top of the clay...cheater ... lol.










This stuff is heavy too!


Last edited by SQWIBB; June 18, 2018 at 10:59 AM.
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Old June 18, 2018   #12
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Just to be clear, my point that I am trying to make is that clay soil is not as bad as everyone says, but again, that has been my experience it may not be yours. I'll never buy top soil again. I will always build my soil from what I have.


I am not relying on my plants to bring in income or to feed my family. Whatever I reap is a bonus.

For most of the folks that like to toss in a few plants , nurture them and then reap whatever benefits you can, clay is not a bad thing.



For folks building hugelkultur beds, I would save that clay and layer it in with other yard materials as you build up your beds.




Work with what you got, amend it, build it up, treat the soil like its a living thing, because it is.
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Old June 18, 2018   #13
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100 percent pure clay that I am trying to till with the help of mother nature, I have had a pool on this area the last 15 summers? or so compacting it even more.
To give you an idea how hard this is, I had to use a hammer drill with a chisel bit when I got down about a foot when trying to install a doggie septic system, the clay was about as hard as limestone rock!!!



Lets see if mother nature can help me out here a bit
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Old June 18, 2018   #14
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Beautiful photos!

We bought one of those Earthquake auger drills so that we could plant our trees when we first moved here 15 years ago!
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Old June 18, 2018   #15
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Organic Matter...and keep on adding yearly, monthly, etc IMO is you best friend with clay.
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