How to Quickly Amend Clay Soil

Learn how to quickly amend soil in your garden space using natural materials.

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How to Quickly Amend Clay Soil

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.

The Good and Bad Layers of Clay soil

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.

Check out these examples here and here.  

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.

Incorporate Ashes to mix with clay soil in raised beds

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.

Decaying Sticks - The clay really loves them

Stick Debris

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.


Quick results for amending clay soil just got easier

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


How to Quickly Amend Clay Soil


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  1. Gloria Spaulding says:

    We recently moved to So.Tx with black clay soil (Black gumbo). I found your video very informative and helpful. I put in a bed last yr and the plants didn’t do very well, I brought in what I thought (was told) was good top soil, but I didnt amend. I previously had many beds in So. Cal did really well but growing conditions are different here even though the zone is the same 8b.

    Having said that I’m starting over, I’m putting in a couple of raised beds (8’x3’x1′) to start with, how much ash would you use in that sized bed? I also will be adding compost I’ve been cultivating over the last 9 mos or so. Do you know if this gumbo clay need gypsom for Calicum?

    I appreciate your help!

    1. Carole says:

      Welcome to Texas! Raised beds are the best way to go down here. Add an inch or two of ash with soil i between. it’s perfect to breaking up clay. Add natural elements in the mix if at all possible. I’m attaching my Direct Compost article because that technique welcomes the worms and will be really helpful to getting your beds headed on the right track. You will notice a difference in a matter of months if you do it on a regular basis. We’ve used sand in the past to break up that clay if it’s really a thick gumbo. The clay helps hold the moisture which is good and the sand helps the water flow through so together worked with organic materials helps establishes an awesome raised bed where the root system of your plants can grow by sprawl out naturally.

      You might like my book Startle Garden – I break the process down into steps by using old fashioned techniques that have worked for generations.

      Calcium can be added through egg shells just break them up and mix in and I don’t use gypsom, clay is actually very high in nutrients you just need to break it up.
      Hope that helps.. Carole

  2. I love this! Just more of what I needed to read. Since we are looking for a bit of land to build on, and a garden is an absolute must for me {a kitchen garden but also rose garden}, I’ve needed to learn how to work with this soil.

    We had clay in California, similar but grey. It would crack, too, but my yards were hauled in dirt over clay. I double dug in manure, good bought dirt and would toss in composted kitchen, grass and leaf once broken down. Will having good soil help reduce chiggers? Any thoughts on that? Oh, and I know you probably have a llama person, but if you would like to raise alpacas, Janet where we live now raises them to sell and sells their wool woven into yarn. Wagon Master RV Park and Alpaca Farm. Happy for you in your new home!!! ?

  3. Patti says:

    Hi Carole,

    This is fascinating. I know everyone is on the raised bed wagon and I agree that they are great for a number of reasons but I’m glad you’ve shown us how to work with the soil, the leaves, and other debris we already have at our disposal. We have a dump areas for grass, leaves, pruning even for weeds that I call my compost pile. Every now and then I dig below the mess to find some black gold. We do have a wood burning fireplace so I’m going to keep your ash info in mind for this future too. Thanks

    1. Carole says:

      I like the raised beds for a number of reasons but when they allowed me to see such amazing results with the clay I was fascinated. Ashes are great and can be added underneath mulch too. Glad this was helpful.

  4. daisy says:

    That’s some gorgeous looking soil. It looks so rich. Good to know that it can be done within a year’s cycle. I need to get a burn pile going, so that I can add some ash to our clay soil. Thank you for the easy to follow instructions!

    1. Carole says:

      So rich too – this was amended in a 7 month period which honestly was by surprise and I didn’t even realize until I had to move those beds. Burn piles are great but don’t over look the debris because it welcomes the worms which gets things moving fast. The worms out here are HUGE!!

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