Soil is composed of three different soil particles- sand, silt and clay. Out of those three, clay is the finest particle. The ideal garden soil has almost equal parts of all three particles but that doesn't always occur naturally. Clay soil, being composed of the fine particles, holds water extremely well. This can be a good thing when water is in short demand. It can also be a burden when water is abundant as the clay can hold too much water. I cover determining soil texture over on my site, Farminence.
What to do about clay soil?
There are several things that you can do to remedy a soil that is too 'clayey'. The way that you go about fixing your soil depends on the size of the area to remedy and the amount of money that you want to put into it. Keep in the back of your mind that good garden soil is going to pay you back with the amount and quality of crop that you'll get out of it.
If you have large fields that you typically plant row crops in, you would benefit from utilizing cover crops. Cover crops not only prevent your precious topsoil from eroding, but they can help fix some of the issues you have with your clayey soil. Clover, winter wheat and buckwheat can be planted as cover crops. When the plants die back, till them into the soil. You'll be adding nutrients from the plants back into the soil. The organic material from the plants will also help to break up the hard texture of the clay soil.
Add alfalfa or fava beans as a cover crop to your soil. These crops are a little different because they have long root systems. These long roots reach deep into the clay soil, breaking it up. The long roots also help to move nutrients around in the soil, making it more accessible for shallow-rooted crops. Till these into the soil as well to add the nutrients back into the soil and add organic material to further break up the hard clods of clay.
Tilling the soil frequently does lead to erosion and soil degradation. However, it definitely helps when you are trying to break up the dense clay to till it. I recommend limiting the amount of tillage once you get your soil back to a good spot.
Fixing clay soil on a small scale
If you're a gardener that has a designated gardening area on your farm you will want to fix your soil as well. It's definitely easier to fix smaller areas than it is large areas. Remember when I said there were three soil particles and the ideal soil was almost equal amounts of all three? If you're working with mostly clay, you can add the other two particles to create a nice loamy soil texture. Add silt and coarse sand. This will improve the aeration and drainage of the soil.
If you don't have access to sand or silt, there are some other options to add to the soil the help break it up and create a softer texture. You can add peat moss, sphagnum moss, perlite or vermiculite to the soil. If you add peat moss or sphagnum moss, keep an eye on your pH as they can affect the pH. Ideally, for most garden vegetables you'll want a pH around 6.0-6.5.
Always, always, always add organic matter to your soil, even if you already have good soil. Organic matter adds nutrients and improves the texture of the soil. Straw, chopped leaves, rotted manure, compost and mulch are all excellent forms of organic material that can easily be added. I don't usually plant in my garden during the winter, so I just toss these materials onto my garden over the winter. In the spring, I incorporate them into the soil to spread out the nutrients and break up and hard clods.
Clay soil can be hard to work with, but you can work with it. It's just going to take a little more time and love from you to take it from mediocre soil to awesome soil.
Shelby DeVore is an agricultural enthusiast that enjoys writing about gardening, raising livestock and simple living. You can read her most recent posts on Farminence.com or follow Farminence on Pinterest and Twitter. Read all of Shelby’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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