Heavy Clay In Garden Soil

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I have VERY HEAVY clay soil in my garden. Does anyone know a way to loosen this soil in a hurry? I know years of composting will help, but I need a quicker solution to my problem. Is there anything I can work into the soil that will prevent it from turning to cement after a rain? This is the first year for this garden on our new place, and since we only plan to be here five years, I'd like to have the soil in much better shape for next year.

-- Dan Shaske (dshaske@excel.net), July 08, 1999


Dan, the fastest solution for your problem that I have found yet is to truck in lots of wood shavings. I live in a forested area where every third person has a sawmill so sawdust us plentiful. I spread out the sawdust about six inches deep and broadcast over it all plenty of cottonseed meal. By plenty I mean 1-2 tons per acre; more would not be out of line. An additional amendment that would further help is gypsum added at up to a ton per acre, which will help loosen that heavy clay. Then I fire up the ole farm tractor and plow and disc it in. The heavy dose of cottonseed meal provides the nitrogen required to balance the carbon-nitrogen ratio and let composting begin. And I doubt you'll locate anything that better improves the tilth and texture of your soil over the course of a winter. Worked great for me. If you are not such an organic purist an alternative I can suggest is to use urea fertilizer. It is bagged and granular, nothing is more organic than urea, even though the purists insist it fails the test of organic purity. You might try planting some wheat or oats late in the season. Come spring plow down your oats before they form seed heads and plant a legume cover crop and plow that down as well before it forms seeds. By this point you should be able to grow about anything you want. All this means you are improving your soil the first year and not going to able to grow a garden. Generally, with really impoverished soil it takes two or three years to bring it to high production. Good luck and enjoy!

-- Nick (nikoda@pdqnet.com), July 08, 1999.

Dan, You've asked a couple of imponderables that I cannot give you good advice. I live in N. Calif. where our winters are reasonably gentle. Some winters we see snow, some we do not. We average about 48 inches of seasonal rain here, mostly in the winter. In El Nino years we may see 72 inches of rain. Here, getting the sawdust, etc, on and plowed in by October when the fall rains begin does the job. Your cold season is much worse, so it may take much longer to compost. Remember this depends on temperature and it simply isn't going to happen when the ground is frozen. Because of these considerations it may well take you longer to improve your garden than it did me. Trying to plant in your climate with fresh sawdust in the ground regardless of how much nitrogen you add, may not work because the fresh sawdust will eat up a lot of nitrogen. Later, as it rots, it gives the nitrogen back for plant growth. If your garden looks like it isn't going to do much this year, I'd opt to get the goodies on the ground and tilled in as fast as possible to take advantage of the summer heat that you have left. You may get little or nothing from the garden this year, but next year should be much better. And yes! it will not hurt to do this again next year, but in smaller quantities. When I got started I did this three years in a row with additional straw and leaves over spread newspapers for summer mulch (excellent organic weed control & feeding the soil. And don't omit the gypsum, it goes far to loosen up that heavy clay. So far I see a mix of sawdust, cottonseed meal or urea, cow poo, and gypsum. The more you can get into the ground and composted this season the farther ahead you will be next season. Even with all the inputs I had it took three years to convert my heavy clay virgin forest soil into soft easily disked fertile soil. But now, I don't even have to sweat it if the ground dries out because the disc works my soil up like a dream. As far as nitrogen fertilizer is concerned, since you are not organically oriented check out the price of the meal and urea. Both should be available from a nearby farm/fertilizer supply. Here I use Peaceful Valley Farm Supply....too far to ship to you. It is usually bagged in 50 lb bags. By all means add it as much cow manure as you can haul, it will substitue for SOME of the meal/urea (which is a hot source of nitrogen).

-- Nick (nikoda@pdqnet.com), July 10, 1999.

Sand helps condition heavy clay soil too. I have had good luck with adding builders sand and organic matter to the clay in my garden.

-- marci (ajourend@libby.org), July 14, 1999.

Dear Dan, I have the same problem! Here is what I did about it. First of all I have clay soil in a low lying area, which for all practical purposes is a glorified bog. First, I added every last bit of compost and other organic matter I could get my hands on. Second, I added liberal amounts of gypsum. Third, I worked in a good amount of plain builder's sand. And lastly, I built raised beds. It's kind of funny to see my 8 foot tomatos growing seemingly out of the middle of a bog. This method worked like a charm for me, but beware, if your soil is low in organic matter and you don't add any, you might indeed end up with cement, after it is dried by the sun. ADD AS MUCH ORGANIC MATTER AS YOU POSSIBLY CAN!!!

-- K. Reynolds (popiel77@sprynet.com), July 19, 1999.

Dan, We have fairly heavy clay soil and are gardening on it for the second year. This year we have hauled several truckloads of composted turkey manure from our neighbor's turkey barn. This manure was taken from a pile that is 4-5 years old and therefore well composted. The manure was originally mixed with the rice-hull bedding that they use in the turkey barn. We didn't have our bucket loader when we plowed up the garden this year, so we've added this manure by sidedressing the plants once they were in the ground. Even doing this little bit, the soil has loosened so much. Weeding in the areas that have not received compost is such a chore. But in the areas that are composted, the weeds pull right out. We plan to haul more compost up and cover the garden with it and till it in this fall. As the last poster said "add as much organic material as possible!"

-- Sandy Croslow (tscros@shawneelink.net), July 20, 1999.

Just completed an experiment in the garden where I teach. One bed was double dug, all the soil down to twenty four inches was moved, but not inverted, an adjacent bed was tilled. Both were brick forming clay. The only amendment added was composted cow manure as a top dressing. Kennebec potatoes were planted. The double dug bed yielded one pound per square foot. One plant survived in the tilled area, and all its LITTLE potatoes had root knot nematode damage. We are currently growing green manures, and continuing the double digging. For my home clay I was able to get a job cleaning a horse barn six days per week when I first moved here. I was paid extra to remove the manure. Areas worked by hand have incredible fertility and beautiful soil structure. The places I till, plow or disk have lost large amounts of organic matter, and will crust. I wouldn't double dig five year property, but I would minimize power equiptment and maximize organic matter. Concentrated fertilizer will destroy the organisms in the soil capable of increasing the particle size and creating decent soil. Get your nitrogen from the air, plant legumes. White Dutch Clover is a versitile green manure/ living mulch/ fertilizer. It's very hard to remove the next year if you change your mind.

-- Kendy Sawyer (sweetfire@grove.net), July 23, 1999.

Dan- I'll second the advice on the wood shaving/saw dust. My wife used this in half of her perenniel/herb bed. The half w/out is still growing flowers, but pulling weeds is a chore and digging any sort of hole is tough to impossible now that it is so hot here. good luck. Rick

-- Rick Ficken (rkfickn@hotmail.com), July 27, 1999.

Hello.If you only plan on being at your place for five years,and you need to get production up quickly,do what Steve Solomon the garden writer suggests;truck in sandy loam and lay it in raised beds right on top of the clay 10-12 inches deep.Dig in some soil amendments,let them rot in and you're in business.

-- Ken Davis (Pike8888@aol.com), September 23, 1999.

You needed an answer in a hurry it is now 2001, but one of the fastest ways is to add Gypsum to the soil. It has done wonders in the land of red earth. Oklahoma! Gypsum is found in wall boards used for construction but I would buy it in bags from a garden store. There are diffrent qualities and percentages of purities. Go to the garden guied on the net for a good article of what it does and how to apply

-- Curtis Jones (cjones5576@aol.com), April 29, 2001.

Broadcast limestone and peat moss.

-- rosemary (rosemary.lester@ citynet.net), February 01, 2002.

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