How to improve clay soil for gardening

If you’re like most gardeners, you have to deal with clay soil at some point in your gardening career. Clay soils are notorious for being difficult to work with, but there are a few things you can do to improve them and make gardening a little bit easier.

In this blog post, we’ll discuss a few tips for improving clay soil so that you can start getting the most out of your garden!

How to improve clay soil for gardening
Little plant in clay soil

What is 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.

Read Difference between potting soil and garden soil

How to improve clay soil for Gardening

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 upfront. 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 the soil in 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.

Read What Layer of Soil Is Best for Growing Plants

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.

Read How to turn Bad Soil into Good 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.

Read How to Add Calcium to Soil?

How to Maintain 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 deficiencies 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.

Read Best Soil for Growing Plants

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.  

Read How to Improve Soil for Gardening

Try Using a Cover Crop

A cover is a lot like using 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 the compost! Add as much and as often as you want. However, if you’re putting the uncomposted organic matter onto 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 winters 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! I hope you got an idea on, how to improve clay soil.