When you start growing a garden or ornamental plants you’ll get lots of recommendations on plant care.
One of the things you learn is the soil types your plants will grow in. The type of soil the plant roots live in plays a major role in watering and fertilizing.
Improving heavy clay soil may involve:
- Adding organic material and soil amendments
- Growing cover crops
- Spreading mulch
- Taking measures to prevent compaction
How Can I Improve Clay Soils?
Clay soil structure is a heavy soil and challenging to work with, making it difficult to cultivate much at all. If you’re having this problem and you’re not quite sure what your soil is, there is a good chance that it is clay.
Fret not. There is plenty to do to improve the soil and grow the plants you want that can thrive in clay soil.
How To Tell If You Have Clay Soil
There are a couple of easy ways to tell if your garden soil is clay or not. For example, if your soil dries up and cracks, or if it sticks to your shoes and tools when it’s wet, odds are you have clay soil.
A way to test this is by taking a small amount of soil, adding some water, and forming a ball. Squeeze the ball until it is flat and long. If it is two inches or so long before the soil breaks, you have clay soil.
Clay soil particles are the smallest of soil particles, which means they pack tightly together. This makes it difficult for air and water to flow through to the plant’s roots.
Though it can trap water for a long time, it also traps nutrients, making the soil more fertile.
How To Improve Clay Soil
To improve your clay soil, you will need to dig it up, break up the larger clods, and expose them to air and sunlight. Then follow a process of drying, wetting, raking, and adding organic matter to the soil.
Managing Clay Soil
It’s better to use a spading fork to break up clods when you begin the process. Once you have broken up the clods and exposed the rest to the air and sunlight, lightly respray the dried and crumbled clods with a hose.
After spraying, rake the soil when it dries once more. Continuing this process helps break up all the large clods.
Add Organic Material
The best organic matter choices include compost, animal manure, shredded leaves, green plant material, or even leaf mold. These materials are great for clay soil because they help control the soil’s temperature and release small amounts of nutrients.
Be sure to use about two or three inches of your chosen organic matter to blend into the upper part of the soil.
If you choose manure as your option, you can find various types in your local gardening store. Check labels to see what will work best and in which season you should use them.
It’s best to avoid organic materials like straw, peat moss, shredded bark, sawdust, and more. They will end up competing for the nitrogen in the soil.
The proper organic matter is food for the earthworms, insects, and fungi, turning the soil into nutrients and humus. Organic material also improves the drainage of the clay soil.
Grow Cover Crops
Cover crops are temporary and typically grown in the fall. They add more organic matter and protect the soil from erosion. Using cover crops helps the soil warm again in the spring when you can blend them into the ground.
When the cover crop decomposes, it provides nutrients for the soil. It also helps processes like water filtration, soil tilth, air movement, and biological activity.
There are plenty of cover crop options. You can use legumes and their roots for added nitrogen, or grasses and clover roots that grow deep into the soil.
Add A Layer Of Mulch
It’s essential to help your soil hold water and stifle weed growth. A layer of mulch over the top of soil work well for this. Mulch also adds the benefit of slow decomposition, adding more organic matter over long periods.
Knowing when to start putting your soil to use in the spring can be difficult, especially when you’re hoping to continue improving clay soil.
Make sure not to start your gardening while the soil remains too wet, as clay soil tends to become compacted.
Check the temperature of your soil as well. If it is 50° degrees Fahrenheit or warmer, it should be safe to begin. You do not want your plants to lack nutrients, water, or air.
Final Tips On Improving Clay Soils
To ensure your clay soil stays healthy, repeat the compost and mulch process every year at the right time. Remember the regimen to help the soil’s structure, and to provide moisture, nutrients, and oxygen. Add compost and cover crops helped by mulch layers.
If you continue to help your clay soil improve, your once-dried-out garden will transform beautifully over time.