Apr 18, 2014

Adventures in Gardening - Pt. 3 Four Rules for Gardening with Clay

Remember this picture from our soil test?

See the mason jar of orange-brown liquid in the back? 

 That's our soil sample mixed with distilled water, shaken and left to sit for about an  hour.  Over a month later it looks about the same.  The soil particles still haven't settled completely.  This is pretty common with clay soils.  

For those of you not experience with the red clay soil found in North Alabama,  it is special stuff.  

  • It stains clothing well enough to be used as a dye.  
  • Holds on to water and minerals well.
  • It's pretty good for making bricks.  
  • Slightly purer deposits can also be used to make pottery (granted according to my potter friend Wendy the pots are quite fragile).  

In general, it's pretty useful stuff.  But as gardening goes, it's a pain in the tooshkuss! 

 Many home gardeners around here avoid working with the stuff all together.  Instead, the build raised beds that they fill with truck loads of commercial or home mixed "garden soil."  That can get pricey fast, but if you have money to burn, it's a fine choice.  

We have 3 kids.

 (translation:  we have no money to burn)
We are on a budget, and I'm trying to do this as cheap as possible.  That means, working with what I have and following the rules for gardening with clay.

  Rule #1  Never dig wet!  
Ignore this rule and you'll end up with huge heavy inseparable clods that dry as hard as brick.

Rule #2  Don't dig dry!

If you dig when it is completely dry, the ground is already hard as a brick and if you can manage to get your tools into the ground, you'll have hours of back breaking work ahead of you.   

So when the heck should you dig?
  About 1-4 days after a good soaking rain in the Fall is about right.

You have to find a sweet spot of soil moisture when it's wet enough to dig, but dry enough that the clods can be broken apart by hand or with tools.  The first season you work the soil, expect to spend extra time breaking up clods, and know you will end up with some pieces that won't break up at all and will dry into pebble or rock sized bricks.  These are usually the bits with a higher clay content.  You'll know them because you can knead them in your hands like putty.  I try to pull these out by hand now or later when it's time to plant.  I've also used these "super clay" bits in the past as chinking/mortar in brick borders.

What's that you say?  It's not Fall.  

You're right, it's spring!  So there is an added challenge of trying to time this "sweet spot of soil moisture" in between the frequent torrential downpours, tornado watches, and schizophrenic temperature fluctuations of a North Alabama Spring.  Not an easy task, but not impossible.  

Rule #3  Amend! Amend! Amend!
By nature, clay is sticky, prone to compaction and slow to drain.  So slow in fact that this 6" deep hole in the garden, where we started digging and had to stop (more on that later), is still filled with water nearly a day after the rain stopped.

 The fix for all of clay's problems is to add as much organic material, like compost, as you can.  Add more each year, and over time, you'll end up with some pretty awesome stuff.  We bought compost this this year, but are starting a compost pile for next year's garden.

Rule #4  Keep Out!
Once the soil is amended,  your little tootsies should never touch it again.  When you step on soil, it gets compacted and the plant's roots have a harder time growing.  Clay compacts easily enough without you walking on it, and you can't have strong plants without strong roots.  So incorporate paths to work from into the garden design and stay out of the growing area.

Up Next:  Pt 4 - From Grassy Spot to Garden Plot

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