Good soil for the garden includes three important elements, sand, clay and natural materials.
We recently moved to an area where the ground is referred as Blackland Prairie. This is a dark rich clay blend that’s high in nutrients but low in phosphorus and nitrogen.
Some folks refer to this as gumbo, because it’s chunky.
In the dry and hot months it turns hard and cracks due to lack of water. Then when moistures hits it sticks to the bottom of shoes in layers, which makes it sound like a nightmare.
Well, clay can be a gardener’s nightmare, but it doesn’t have to be if you’re unwilling to work it into something amazing.
I’m going to share what I’ve done to improve clay soil quickly.
Clay Layers and Natural Debris
Our new property used to be a farm field.
These fields include clay and sand and years of expired crops mixed within/
For the most part, the soil is dark and easy to walk through before and after tilling.
There’s also a heavy tree area on this property where we chose to live nad it’s covered with fallen debris. We’re not sure if this area has ever been cleared which means layers upon layers of debris have covered the ground.
We started digging to see how long it would take to reach hard clay because the top layer was amazing.
About six inches down and there it was that chunky clay glaring at us.
This means the top six inches was perfect. Why was it perfect?
Because it was absorbed in natural material that slowly decayed and amended the clay into workable soil.
Seeing this was fantastic and gave me a little hope for my new garden.
When I started my Garden
When I began my garden here I decided to use my amending techniques previously implemented at our farm and basically turn up the volume at this property.
Anybody can do what I’m about to share but you have to make a plan and actually put it to work.
If you want to speed up the process and amend clay quickly then forget growing directly in the ground and move over to taller raised beds.
Or better yet check out my book, Startle Garden Now as this is a great guide for beginning and amending soil correctly.
By using raised beds, this helps speed up the process, offering a strong foundation for your garden that others dream about.
But I won’t lie it takes effort to set up and if you’re not willing to put in the effort then I guess it might be better to go buy your soil from a nursery.
Ashes and Clay
We burn like crazy around here, which means there’s always a pile of ash that can be used to mix in with layers of clay when I’m establishing new beds.
Ashes can also come from your fire place or outdoor fire pit, this is an ingredient that also helps loosen the ground to open bottom raised beds.
With existing beds use ashes on top, dig small holes or even small trenches to work within.
Never under estimate the positive effect ashes can have on clay.
The Beauty of Leaves
I can’t tell you how many piles of beautiful dried leaves I’ve raked in the last several months.
Some for the garden and many for starting burn piles.
They’re in abundance from fall through winter and they’re perfect for breaking up clumps of clay.
By adding thick layers and covering with loose and heavy clay chunks both ingredients work together through decay and worm activity.
This little bit of effort helps speed up the amending process like magic.
Leaves should never, I mean never be overlooked for boosting and breaking up clay.
Small sticks are another perk and they’re everywhere on our journey to clear land.
Just the other day I was cleaning up and the focus was to burn but I couldn’t help think I should really be using that material to set up new raised beds.
I used a lot of sticks when establishing my first Startle Garden here. All these natural materials, ashes, leaves, and sticks amended this first garden beautifully and in a 7 month period.
Pretty Sweet wouldn’t you say?
One More Surprise Ingredient
The results were quick, quicker than I could have ever imagined which led me to adding one more ingredient that I brought from the farm, Llama droppings.
That’s correct I brought 20 gallons of llama droppings with us to get my gardens started right.
Animal fertilizer is a huge benefit for breaking down clay, learn more here.
The Results Speak for Themselves
When I originally established the first garden, I added these materials in layers and made sure the top six inches inlcuded soil and mulch.
I also took some of the hard clay past that six inches and broke it up in to small pieces and spread it through out that same soil and mulch.
If you look at the above image notice the results, these 6 inches of amended soil was once Blackland Prairie clay.
It tooks a few months but with a little effort I was able to take clay and turn into something useful and you can do the same.
Succeed With A Plan
- First, set a goal
- Bring forward your work ethic
- Begin with raised beds
- Incorporate a lot of natural material and amend that clay soil
Also remember over time these beds will pack down which means it will be necessary to repeat the process and include my favorite tip from grandma direct composting because caring for the soil never ends.
It’s my hope that by walking through this process you can see that clay soil can be amended quickly.
Smiles and Sunshine, Carole West