How to improve clay soil for growing plants in a garden.
If the clay in your garden is not causing water logging but you want to improve the structure and break up hard soil to make digging easier, these tips may help.
Clay soil can be useful in a garden, and a lot of plants grow well in it.
Clay soils are hard to dig but retain moisture better than sandy soil, clay is also rich in the nutrients plants need to grow, holding calcium, potassium, and magnesium. Improving the soil to make it easier to dig is a better and cheapest option than replacing it.
What is clay soil? Clay soil is composed of mostly clay particles. Soil that consists of over 50% clay particles is referred to as heavy clay. You can carry out a simple test to find out if you have clay soil - if your soil sticks to your wellies, garden spade and fork like glue and forms big hard lumps of soil that are difficult to break up and the garden surface cracks up in dry weather, it's clay.
What are the problems associated with having clay soil in a garden. Clay soil can be a nuisance, even if it's not waterlogged. Hard clay soil is hard to dig and although many trees and shrubs grow well in clay, the roots of the some annuals, perennials, and vegetables, especially root crops like carrots and turnips can't grow their way through heavy clay. Clay soil is slow draining, slow to warm up in spring and compacts easily into large hard lumps of soil making it difficult for plant roots to grow. In dry weather the surface cracks up.
What's good about clay soils?
Clay soils retain moisture better than sandy soil, handy during long dry spells. It's also rich in the nutrients plants need to grow, holding calcium, potassium, and magnesium.See the note below to understand a little more about calcium, potassium, and magnesium in garden soil.
How can I improve and break up clay soil? It's possible, with some hard work, to make clay soil more workable and suitable for planting and growing most plants and at the same time keeping the good things about clay such as nutrients essential for plant growth. Clay also has moisture retention properties. How to further down this page.
Improving Clay Soil.
Improving your clay soil will take a lot of digging but will improve the structure of your soil and make it easier to work with. Their are two main stages: the hard work to change and improve the clay soil and the easier but just as important once a year job, needed to continue improving your soil. How to further down the page.
When is the best time of the year to dig clay soil ? The best time of year to improve clay soil is late Spring or early Summer, right after the frosts have finished and the clay has warmed up.
The best tools to use digging clay.
Cheap spades and forks are not much use when digging clay soil, the handles bend and break and the fork prongs bend, I have broken more than i care to remember.
For just a few pounds more I recommend the "neverbend" spades and forks I have listed later in this article, most good gardening equipment shops stock them or you can buy now from Amazon.
Don't try digging frozen, frosted or baked clay. It's impossible.
The best way to improve and break up clay soil long term.
There are no short cuts. Digging out and improving a small area or a planting hole doesn't work. The plant will be ok for a while but as it starts sending out roots that hit the hard clay, they will start circling around in the planting hole, just like in a flowerpot and will become pot bound.
The other problem with just improving a small area is the surface water draining from the clay into the area you have improved and subsequently water logging the area.
So it's best to improve an entire planting area, decide how much of the garden you want to improve and dig out any plants you want to keep.
1 You will need to cover the entire area with about 8" of organic matter. This could be anything that hasn't been treated with chemicals, compost from your compost heap, rotted manure or lawn cuttings.
2 Now the hard bit that can be done over several days. Dig the organic matter into the top 10" of the clay soil, trying not to compact the dug soil. Digging in with a spade is the best way but using a rotivator works ok too. Be careful if you are going to use a rotivator, it's likely to bounce off the compacted clay until you have got the hang of it.
The garden bed will be a couple of inches higher when you have finished improving the clay soil and will settle down over a season.
3 Add more organic matter to the top of the garden bed each year, as the clay soil improves, this can be left on the surface for the worms to take it down into the clay for you.
Digging clay basic tips
Using the correct tools makes digging clay easier, I have listed the ones I use on this page
Digging smaller chunks of clay is easier than digging out large chunks.
Break up the stubborn chunks of clay with the side of the fork or chop it with a sharp spade before raking or shoveling it back into the hole,
This Neverbend Treaded Digging Spade has a solid forged carbon steel head and long lipped socket, riveted for added strength. The head has a tread to make digging in clay more comfortable.
The spade is designed for garden professionalials using tools in the most demanding conditions. If you are digging clay, this spade is worth the extra few pounds.
Blade/ Head Size - 290mm x 190mm (11½" x 7½") Shaft Size - 710mm (28"
This Neverbend Fork has the same heavy duty construction features as the spade, making it a Ideal tool for digging clay. It also has extra wide tines to lesson the chances of clogging up like an ordinary garden fork.
The fork is aimed at the garden professional using tools in the most demanding conditions.
Features & Benefits: • Solid forged carbon steel head and socket • Extra wide tines for lifting potatoes • Hammer finish epoxy coated head for improved resistance to rust, scratches, humidity and alkalines in the soil • Weatherproofed hardwood shaft for greater durability Specifications: Blade/ Head Size - 280mm x 180mm (11" x 7") Shaft Size - 710mm (28")
Correct rake for raking and breaking up clay soil.
Over the years I have broken more ordinary garden rakes raking clay than I care to remember I have used this Heavy duty all steel rake for years and its still being used by my team.
It is strong enough and suitable for raking and breaking up heavy clay soil. Its 1500mm long heavy gauge tubular handle is designed for raking tarmac and is almost unbreakable even on clay soil.
If you are digging drainage trenches in clay this trenching shovel will make digging and shaping easier.
Breaking up extra hard and heavy clay soil
It's extra work but worth spreading a one or two inch layer of grit sand across the clay soil before spreading the organic matter and digging the whole lot in at the same time. This will help break up even heavy clay soil. You will need to work at it over the years by repeating the process though. Baked clay is almost impossible to break up, rotivate or dig, it's easier to spread the organic matter and grit and wait until the worms have done some of the work for you. How soon can I plant in the improved clay soil. As soon as you have recovered from digging it all in. And remember - try not to compact the freshly dug soil.