Gardening With Clay Soil

Water front for all

Gardening With Clay Soil

gardening in clay soil

If you’re like me, then you just can’t wait to get out to the garden. Whether it’s aquatic plants or the surrounding landscape, it makes no difference it all adds beauty to what you see. One of the challenges we face as gardeners is dealing with the hand we are dealt. We are not hostages to the land we plant on, in other words just because you may have clay soil, or sandy soil or whatever the challenge, there is no reason you can’t have the garden of your dreams. The short video below gives a quick overview of what clay soil is, and some quick tips on how it can be improved.

Three Major Types of Soil

Sandy soil – This soil is made up of large granules, that allow for air and water to pass through them. Because of the larger spaces between the particles, water passes through much easier. This also leads to this type of soil drying out much faster than the other two. Sandy soil requires more watering as well. It has no ability to hold water and as a result many of the nutrients are flushed out. As a result, it requires constant lighter applications of fertilizer. This soil stays loose and crumbles easily.

Loam soil – This is the ideal soil for gardeners. It has a great balance of sand, clay, and organic matter. It has the ability to absorb water and contain it, and at the same time releases it freely. Most soil leans to one side or the other, such as sandy loam, or clay loam. It all depends on the predominant particles.

Clay soil – Now for the topic at hand.

One major problem when dealing with clay soil is that most plants don’t have the root strength to push through the tough clay soil to thrive. When bulbs are planted in clay soil they have a tendency to rot over the winter months because of the soil condition.

Believe it or not clay soil is actually more rich in nutrients than most other soil types. In clay soil the particles are negatively charged, which in turn attracts positively charged particles like magnesium, and potassium However, the cons far outweigh the pros. These properties of clay soil include:

  • Has a tendency to heave due to changing weather conditions
  • Warms up slowly in the spring
  • Poor drainage
  • Compacts easily making it difficult for roots to break through

clay soilClay has some great benefits as well. Unlike sandy soil which allows water to pass through, clay can be used to dam water and keep it from escaping. This is due to the formation of the clay particles. They are much smaller than sand. Because of their shape, and size they align with each other and bind creating an almost water tight seal. Because of its characteristics, the “disadvantages” could be advantages. For instance, clay having poor drainage makes it the perfect material to create a pond base with. On a large scale the clay will hold the water from leeching out into the surrounding soil. This will not work as well for smaller ponds like the one in the DIY section, but if you are looking to put in a large scale pond with a natural bottom, clay is the first choice for the surrounding material.

Another way clay could be used to your advantage is clay is ideal for making dams, and directing the flow of water. It’s the perfect candidate to use to guide excess runoff water during the rainy season.

If you are digging in clay soil, be sure to allow it to dry out before you do. When digging you will only compact the clay together if it is wet.

What Does Clay Soil Mean to My Plants?

First off the pH of the soil is measured on a scale from 0 to 14. This makes 7 neutral, anything below 7 would be considered acidic, anything above 7 would be considered alkaline. So what does all this mean to the gardener? Well, the pH has a direct effect on how soluble certain minerals and nutrients are in the soil, which has a direct effect on how well certain plants will grow in that soil.

The more alkaline a soil is, the harder it is for minerals and nutrients to dissolve in that soil. In order for plants to get their minerals and nutrients they must first be absorbed into the soil, creating a solution the plants can use. One benefit of clay is because of its plasticity nature it is easily mixed.

The fact that clay is mostly inorganic doesn’t make it a good candidate for planting, however it can be improved dramatically by adding organic material to it.

Plants For Every Soil Condition

Here are some recommendations for what types of plants prefer which soil. This is a compressed list and a general overview. The soil types are based mainly on pH of the soil and what nutrients and fertilizer should be used for each type of plant

Acidic soil Loving Plants

Plants that prefer pH of approximately 5.5 which allows easy absorption of nutrients. The list of plants that prefer this type of soil is extensive. This is just a short list of plants that prefer this type of soil. If the soil you are trying to plant in is more alkaline, then it is recommended growing the following plant in either containers, or raised beds. Acid loving plants are most prevalent in the Pacific Northwest, and the Eastern parts of the United States. Here is a short list of plants, shrubs and trees that flourish in acidic soil:

PlantsRhododendron

  • All types of ferns
  • Japanese iris
  • Begonia
  • Trillium

Shrubs

  • Azalea
  • Rhododendron
  • Blueberry

Trees

  • Japanese dogwood
  • Eastern white pine
  • Maples Weeping willow
  • Canadian hemlock

Plants that thrive in alkaline soil

These are plants that can tolerate a more alkaline or clay like soil.

PlantsMorning glory

  • Morning glory
  • Crocus
  • Geranium

Shrubs

  • Lilac
  • Forsythia
  • Juniper
  • Butterfly bush

Trees

  • Green ash
  • Maple
  • Douglas fir
  • Bur oak

Before You Start

Before adding any type of fertilizer to your soil it is recommended to get a soil test done to help guide you as to how to improve your soil quality depending on the plants you desire to grow. It is recommended to get your soil tested every three to four years. These tests generally run around $30 depending on where you have it done. Once you have the test results, determine how much of what kind of fertilizer to use based on the charts below. These charts are from Colorado State University. http://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/yard-garden/fertilizing-the-vegetable-garden-7-611/

soil test resultsJust Wing It

roll the diceHowever, if you choose not to get a soil test done, then it is recommended that you don’t over fertilize. Periodically add small amounts of nitrogen to the soil throughout the growing season (every 4 – 6 weeks) to promote healthy growth. Adding other nutrients my actually hurt your plants if there is an overabundance of one nutrient over another. For example, an overabundance of phosphorous will cause a reduction of the plants ability to absorb iron.

Most vegetables prefer neutral soil rich with organic material. There are three elements that fertilizers are typically measured in. They are labeled by number. The first number is nitrogen (N), the second number is phosphate (P), and the third represents the potassium (K). For instance, 10 -10 – 10 has equal amounts of all three nutrients. A common recommendation for planting vegetables is to fertilize with 1 pound of 10 – 10 –10 per 100-foot row.

There are special fertilizers for specific plants. If you are planning to fertilize your juniper bushes for instance, be sure to use a fertilizer for acid loving plants. This will help maintain the pH of the soil.

Final Thoughts

There is a little more to gardening than just digging a hole and placing a plant in it. If you follow the guidelines above, you should be successful at all your gardening endeavors. If you have any comments or advice, I would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below and I will get back to you as soon as possible. Happy gardening!

6 Responses

  1. kasey says:

    Thanks for providing such great information. I for one do not have a green thumb at all and from what I read I think it may be the type of plants I may be using with the type of soil I have. Now I can start again and hope it works out better.

    • Jeff Klinger says:

      That’s right Kasey, it all has to do with the right plant in the right soil. Once you find the right match, you will set yourself up for success! Good luck to you.

  2. Miranda says:

    Wow! And I thought I was the problem lol. Living in South Carolina, we have clay soil all over. I’ve always wanted a garden, but plants don’t seem to like me very much. Glad to know that I need to at least get the soil tested here. I’m going to give it a try again and we’ll see if it’s just the soil and not me. Thanks for posting this!

    • Jeff Klinger says:

      Yes, it’s easy to take the blame. However if you don’t know what the root (pun intended) of the problem is, then how can you fix it? I recommend the soil test to get you moving in the right direction and well on your way to a beautiful garden this season!

  3. Bruce says:

    I happen to have clay soil. I have been struggling with gardens and my plants around the landscaping for a few years now. You site has brought a lot of insight to the issues I’m dealing with. Is there a way to improve my soil and break down the clay so it is more like dirt, or are garden beds probably my only option?!

    • Jeff Klinger says:

      Yes, there is hope. You can add organic matter to the clay to help improve it. There are also many different fertilizers on the market that will work well for you. Before you do anything I recommend you get your soil tested so you know which direction to go in. You need a baseline before you can really make any changes for improvement. Best of luck to you.

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