What Is Clay Soil and How to Improve It

Improving clay soil
Little plant in clay soil

Garden soil can be complex.

It’s not dirt that you can leave alone and not bother to check. When you examine garden soil closely, you understand that it’s a combination of many little elements. These elements can be particles of other minerals, moisture, organic material, chemical nutrients, and other living organisms. We will check out various tips on Improving clay soil.

While gardeners may pay attention to the plants they decide to grow or the fertilizer they get to support it – few think about the soil. The clay soil you choose for your plants plays a critical role in their growth and time of maturity. One of the most critical factors of the soil you choose is the texture it has.

The texture of the soil is ultimately decided by the size of the minerals in it and the quantity of these minerals. Depending on the size of these particles, the texture of the soil can change from porous (sandy) to immensely dense soil that can resist the flow of water. The latter is known as clayey soil. Clayey soil got its distinct name because it consists of fine particles of clay.

Once you have understood the importance of the clay soil you’ll lay in your garden, choosing a type can be a daunting task. Even if you make the wrong pick, you’ll be glad to know that there are many ways of improving clay soil. The perfect soil for gardening can sometimes be known as loam.

Loam or loamy soil is a mixture of sand, some mineral particles, clay, and lots of organic material. You’re going to find clay soil in many spots around the United States. But with that being said, growing flowers or vegetables with clay soil in your garden can be very difficult.

Even though some shrubs and trees can grow better in clay, most perennials, annuals, and vegetables don’t have the roots that can make way through thick clay. To build a path through clay, plants need strong roots. And if you’re dreaming about growing spring flower bulbs, forget about it. Most bulbs can rot throughout the winter if they are laid in clay soil.

However, improving clay soil is possible. With a well-thought-out strategy and some pre-existing information, you’ll be able to grow vegetables and flowers that make your heart feel content! Let us understand what is clay soil.

Understanding Clay Soil

Clay soil is soil that comprises mostly of mineral particles and not a lot of organic material. The resulting mixture can be pretty sticky since there isn’t a lot of space between the elements of the soil. You should also know that clay soil does not drain well. If you can see that water is holding up in your garden rather than draining, it might be possible that your garden has clay.

When your soil has more than half of clay, it is commonly referred to as heavy clay.” To understand if your garden has clay soil or not, there are many tests that you can do. But chances are when a gardener has clay soil, they know they do. If you can see:

  • Soil sticking to your shoes
  • Soil sticking to other garden tools
  • Formation of big clods that are hard to separate
  • Cracks in dry weather

Then yes! You have clay.

Benefits of Clay Soil

Even if you have clay soil – there’s no need to be sad about it! Even something as annoying as clay soil can have some good qualities. Because of the density of clay soil, it can hold moisture really well. Clay soil is also a lot more rich in nutrients than other kinds of soil.

This is simply because the elements that form together to create clay soil are charged negatively. This means these elements can attract positive charges and stick to them. Elements like magnesium, potassium, and calcium are all positively charged.

Now we saw What Is Clay Soil and the benefits of clay soil. Let us see some limitations of clay soil.

Drawbacks of Clay Soil

In addition to the disadvantages of clay soil we mentioned above, clay soil can also have these negative qualities:

  • Drains slowly
  • Warms slowly in the spring
  • Can compact very easily, which can make growing plant roots difficult
  • May heave in winter
  • Can be alkaline in PH

How to Improve Soil for Gardening

Improving clay soil
Two persons holding a clay pot full of tomatoes

Improving clay soil can take a bit of work. But you’ll be glad to hear that the amount of work you do will show results almost instantly. You’re going to see an improved soil structure, and it’ll be a lot easier to work in your garden then. Most of the work you do in your garden is up front. However, there can be some chores that you’ll have to do, which can prolong the health of the soil.

It’s best if you improve an area at once when you’re improving clay soil. Try not to attempt to improve soil in the separate holes as you might need them. If you decide to plant something in clay soil, then drop a plant inside the hole. Next, amend the soil as you move ahead in the process. When you’re backfilling the clay soil, amend it as much as you can.

In retrospect, all you’ve done is create a ground flower pot. As time passes by, the plant will start creating its roots through the soil. It will stop on its own once it reaches the walls of the hole. The end result will be a plant bounded by its roots. In this case, the plant won’t grow as healthy as it should because its roots were forced to stop in the growing process.

Where to Start

You can start by defining the area in which your plants will grow in the garden bed. If you’re improving clay soil in a garden bed you already have, dig out as many plants as you can, and set them aside in different pots. Don’t touch these pots until the improvement process is complete!

If you’re preparing a new garden bed, you’re going to have to go through the basic steps of setting up a new garden bed. To improve clay soil, you’ll have to add almost 6 to 8 inches of organic elements to your garden bed. Make sure you don’t miss a spot! You can add anything organic you can find. This can be:

  • Shredded leaves
  • Clippings of grass
  • Rotted manure
  • Compost

Spread the organic elements you find on top of your garden soil. Now the labor part comes in. You need to make sure that the organic elements are mixed in up to 6 to 12 inches of the soil of your garden. A great way of doing this is using a shovel. Dig up the soil and use a shovel to mix it. The shovel will move lots of earth.

But if digging is proving to be too hard for you, it’s fine to use a tiller. When you’re done, your garden bed will look several inches taller than it originally was, but this is nothing to worry about. In the course of the season, the organic elements will start to break down and the soil will begin to settle.

This will also improve the structure of the soil because the microorganisms in the soil will break down the organic elements you added. Once this step is done, you can plant what you want in the garden bed. But this shouldn’t be it! As the year progresses, you should add more organic compounds in the form of compost. The compost you add will continue to improve the soil.

What Should I Avoid?

Surprisingly, you’re going to find many people who think that the proper way of improving clay soil is to do the exact opposite – adding sand. The loamy soils that are perceived to be ideal gardening soils are a mixture of clay and sand.

But what most people don’t know is, when sand is directly added to clay, the resulting mixture resembles concrete. The core reason loamy soil is excellent for gardening is that it is rich in minerals. These minerals act as a foundation for clay and sand. If you don’t have lots of organic material, adding sand will only ruin your garden.

The best way you can improve clay soil is by adding organic materials and compost only.

Maintaining Clay Soil

After a season of gardening, it would be a good idea to collect a sample of the soil. Get the sample tested and check if it has any pH issues or deficiency of nutrients. The report you get back will often offer you different ideas on how you can improve the soil in your garden. Add any soil amendments or organic fertilizers to your garden if they are mentioned in the report you receive.

By doing this, your bed will be healthy for years to come. If you don’t want your garden to return to the heavy clay-slate it was before, keep adding compost. After a while, this process becomes self-fulfilling. The material of your garden will break down what you add and the organic material will automatically find its way into the soil. 

Rather than cleaning your garden after fall, let the leaves decay naturally. This will allow your soil to become healthier as more organic material will be added. If your garden is often dressed with compost, there won’t be much that you’ll have to do.

A Raised Bed Can Help, Too

It is always in your best interest to incorporate organic matter as deeply as you possibly can. But you should also know that a lot of losses can invert the soil or mix it too much. Because clay soil has the tendency to hold water, a raised bed can help with drainage. This will make the stored water run off easily.

Raised beds can simply be made from soil or they can also be built out of brick, wood or stone. To reduce compaction, increase the size of the bed so you can reach the middle without stepping on the garden bed.

Cover Bed During Winter

Benefits of Clay Soil
Leaves covered by frost

The rain can pack down the soil. That is why you should keep your garden beds covered with organic material during the winter and the growing season. You can try using a layer of straw in this case. Straw can protect the soil from compaction and it will also decrease erosion. The layer of straw will also reduce the growth of weed.

When it’s spring season, transfer this cover to the paths in your garden.  

Try Using a Cover Crop

A cover is a lot like using a mulch. Different kinds of cover crops can be appropriate for different kinds of regions. If you live in the north, winter rye and winter wheat can work for you. But if you live in a warmer area, oats and crimson clover can be good options.

If you’re using a winter cover crop, sow the crops after the last plant has been harvested. When spring comes, just till the plants into the soil. This will add even more organic matter to your soil.

Bonus Tips

Improving clay soil can take time. If you’re new to this, don’t expect to see results instantly. But, if you follow the tips given in this article, you can see massive improvements in the space of a year. Within a few years, you’ll have nutrient-rich soil that is plant-friendly.

There are no limits on compost! Add as much and as often as you want. However, if you’re putting uncomposted organic matter on to your soil, like a cover crop, straw, leaves or a fruit peel – wait a few weeks until the previous organic material has broken down.

Are you a beginner in gardening, check out the tips:

The Bottom Line

Conclusively – even though there are some ways that can help extend the life of your plants – excellent clay soil is always the most crucial. Think about it this way – in winter’s the amount of sunlight your plant receives can reduce.

You can also forget to water your plants. But the one thing that always stays with your plants is the soil they are sowed in. In every case, compost is essential!