There are three main soil types. Sandy soil, humus (or silt) soil, and clay soil. Clay soil is the heaviest and with that comes a few challenges when it comes to gardening.
Clay soil is very commonly found in the Midwestern states in the US. It can also be found in the Southeast, however the concentration is not as high. The soil types are also very different in these two areas. The soil in the Southeast is a clay and sand mix while in the Midwest the soil is a mixture of clay and humus or silt. It is because the soil where I live is very clay and sand based that I have to work extra hard to amend my soil.
One challenge that presents itself is poor drainage. Clay is very dense and that leads to water pooling at the top and having a hard time percolating into the deeper soil levels where your plants’ roots are located. This can mean that even after a heavy rain your plants may end up drowning with out actually taking up much water. This pooling at the top can also be disastrous for squash, pumpkins, or melons growing on the ground. It is very easy for such fruits to rot when they are sitting on top of soil that’s collected water.
Another challenge that is common with heavy, clay based, soils is that root crops struggle to grow in such soil. Root crops require very loose soil in order to be able to form the tap roots that we then eat. Because clay soil doesn’t easily break up, root crops struggle to develop a full size root. They often end up just creating stringy roots or growing a tap root that is very small and short.
However, one thing that clay soil has going for it is that because it is denser and water takes longer to drain through it, clay soil has very good nutrient retention. This can be a real asset to your garden.
Thankfully, clay soil can be amended to make growing produce easier. It can be an extended process, but, with dedication, it is possible to form good growing soil from previously difficult to work with clay soil.
One amendment that is very important is adding organic material into your clay soil. This not only boosts nutrient levels in your soil (which the clay soil then retains), but it also loosens up soil. This means things like worms that break down organic material in soil and create air pockets can move more freely. It also allows your plants to develop stronger root systems.
Organic material can be incorporated in two main ways. The first is to mix it in with your soil when you dig up an area to plant seeds or started plants. This places organic material immediately in the root zone where it can benefit plants’ development.
The way I incorporate organic material is through my garden sandwich method. (This post explains the process) This method dresses the soil with a top layer of organic material which over time breaks down and feeds the soil from the top down. I find this to be useful in my garden because it not only builds the soil layer, but it also gives my plants a very loose soil to grow their initial roots in before they are strong enough to develop in heavier, denser, soil.
Another important amendment is to add calcium into your soil. This not only supports healthy fruit development in plants like tomatoes, squash, and melons, but also can greatly improve your overall soil. Calcium in clay soil increases the plants ability to uptake nutrients. This is a very good benefit, because as I stated earlier in this post, clay soil naturally retains more nutrients than other soils (especially sand based soils.) Calcium also helps loosen clay soil which is frequently very bound up by nutrients like magnesium. For more information on calcium in soil see this post.
While clay soil can initially pose many challenges, it can be amended. It’ll take work and it’s most definitely not an immediate change, but with dedication and work clay soils can grow very healthy, high producing, gardens.