Clay Soil: Tips for Amending & Improving Your Soil

Ed Wike
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Discovering The Signs Of Clay Soil

If you have clay soil you are aware that this type of soil is almost always a difficult soil to work, even with the best soil amendments. As clay soil is heavy and dense in consistency it will swell in the presence of water, which will create structural problems for both wooden and plastic garden tools. The poor drainage properties of clay soils can also be a problem, as water will not evaporate if there are no air spaces within the soil allowing the water to drain away.

Clay soils are naturally dark in colour and contribute to a healthy, vibrant & rich soil, with the correct level of fertilisers and the correct type of compost. However, clay soils do need to be amended by adding around 20% sand to the soil, along with around 10% well-rotted organic material (e.g. compost, manure or other organic vegetable waste).

How To Amend Clay Soil

If you have heavy or clay soil, then you need to use some simple landscaping tricks to make it easier to work with and to maintain.

Add organic material and compost to increase water retention of the soil you have.

Build raised beds on top of your existing soil to simplify your soil preparation and planting needs.

Plant the greener sides of your plants upwards and dig your beds in the direction of your water source.

Growing flowers and vegetables in raised beds or larger containers means you only have to move soil, not remove it to access your baby plants.

When working with clay soil, it’s important to never walk on it. Try to use a garden rake or landscaping hand trowel instead.

When planting, dig a hole twice the size of the rootball and don’t force the plant into it. Use a corner of the hole as a place to rest your plant while you install it.

To water, use a watering can with a rose to deliver water to the rootball and suppressant to control erosion.

Plant trees and shrubs on a rain plan, so that water will always be available and you won’t have to water them.

Check The Soil Moisture First

Before embarking on a backyard messy, consider what’s at stake. You may be tempted to rush out and purchase large quantities of topsoil to revitalize your clay soil but this can be a costly mistake.

To get the most out of what you add to your soil, test first to find out what’s missing. You may only need to add and amend the top layer of soil to kick-start this improvement project. On the other hand, you might find that adding a layer of topsoil is all that’s required.

However, if you have to dig down to reach the desired composition of loam, subsoil, etc. renting a tiller may be your best move.

Topsoil isn’t the only place to find nutrients either. Seaweed is a good alternative to expensive fertilizer and provides nutrients plants require.

Buy a book that identifies soil compositions and pH numbers for native soils; this will make testing and planting much easier in the future.

Don’t Overwork The Soil

Most gardeners feel that the best way to improve your garden soil is to turn it over. Turning soil and planting in raised beds and containers solves this problem; but most mature gardeners were brought up in the "plant in a hole and turn over the soil" school of gardening. The problem with turning over the soil is the soil organisms are exposed to air.

When the soil organisms are exposed to the air, they die. You can only take up so many of these organisms before your soil becomes microbe-deficient. The more soil you turn to aerate it, the more microorganisms you kill, and the more microorganisms you kill, the more work you must do to replace them.

Soil microbes are like microscopic workers that convert decaying organic matter into microbial mass. Without microbes, the decaying organic matter just sits there decomposing with no end in sight. The resulting buildup of decomposing organic matter will raise the pH to a point where it is difficult to grow most vegetable and flowering plants.

This is where the problem lies. If you don’t turn your soil, you will have the same pH level year after year. This is soil that is acid. But because it is acid, it has close to zero microbial life so you have to work harder to replace them.

For more vegetable growing tips, refer to this article “the key to growing successful vegetables at home.

Add Quality Amendments

Any rebar or sharp wire should be removed before the excavation begins. If the garden area is a concrete slab, the removal of the concrete and rebar can be completed at the same time.

Prepare the area for the garden by removing any sod or weeds, and then grade it. Then, add topsoil and a starter fertilizer. Finally, lay down the landscape fabric, soil conditioner, and a weed barrier.

Gardeners should remember that clay soil needs plenty of organic matter. While sand drains well, it is usually low in essential nutrients.

When shopping for amendments, gardeners should look for mature compost, peat moss, Canadian peat, decomposed granite, leaf mold, and composted animal manures. Powdered milk and eggshells can also be used to add organic matter.

It may take up to a year to consider a new garden bed completely "broken in". Once the planting area has been converted into a garden, it will need enriching using amendments once every three years.

Consider Soil Builder Mulches

If you already have clay soil but want something quicker and easier to improve the health and consistency of the soil, consider a creative mulch that isn’t a traditional wood chip.

When you think of mulch, the most common choice is a shredded woody material. While such mulches provide much-needed shade, they also can compete with the tree or shrub for every last drop of water in the soil. When the mulch is high in nitrogen, it may feed a fungus and stress the tree or shrub.

When it comes to using mulch, you have some choices. In addition to a traditional wood chips, you can go with a mulch like Potting Soil (sold in bags for gardeners who like to do their own thing) or consider a soil builder mulch such as Bio-mulch. This all natural soil builder mulching product improves both the soil’s structure and its capability to hold water closer to the growing surface. It’s a great solution for clay soil.

The polymers in the soil builder mulching product, create a structure for the soil that helps it to hold water and allows oxygen to reach the root zone much easier. The fertilizers in the soil builder mulch move into the soil when over watered. This helps your trees and shrubs to grow more quickly.

Plant A Cover Crop

A cover crop is a low growing crop that is planted to improve the soil in your yard or garden. Cover crops help to keep the soil from eroding, improve the health of the soil and supply it with vital nutrients.

Planting a cover crop in the fall is a great way to keep your lawn rejuvenated throughout the winter months. The cover crop will provide nutrients and organic material to the lawn as it breaks down.

Your garden will also benefit from the cover crop. Most winter cover crops can be planted in the fall and plucked out before the spring if you choose. These crops are usually nitrogen fixers, which means they enrich the soil with nutrients while they grow.

Some common types of cover crops include radish, rape, red clover, turnip and mustard. If you are using a green manure cover crop for the purpose of enriching the soil, plan on mowing the cover crop before it gets out of control.

Cover crops are a great way to add nutrients to your soil and maintain healthy soil practices.

Should I Use Gypsum?

There are many benefits to using gypsum in clay soil.

First, it helps to add extra calcium to your soil, which is not only essential for maintaining good plant health but is also necessary for the development of good root systems.

Secondly, gypsum can help to reduce soil compaction which can dramatically affect root growth in clay soils.

Third, if your soil isn't naturally high in sulfur, gypsum can help to deliver it where it is needed.

Lastly, it can be used in almost any condition, even under the soil of container plants. This makes it a great tool to get even stubborn clay soils ready for planting.

How to Declutter Your Closet for Good

It's easy to accumulate things we don't need, which makes it difficult to get rid of them later on. But, if you can adopt a handful of habits you'll be surprised at how well you can declutter your closet for good.

Remember, you don't need to get rid of every item in your closet to declutter. This exercise isn't necessarily about getting rid of things but rather about maintaining only things you need, really love, and are actually using.

Stuck With Clay? How to Garden Anyways

The good news is that there are a few helpful tips to get you quickly on your way to garden maturity. The best news is that clay soil improves over time. It's not the end of the world.

Most of us tend to grow plants that like average, well-draining soil. Consider that your clay soil may need to be amended with some sand and/or organic materials to keep the growing conditions suitable for the paradise that you envision.

You may want to consider raised beds, pots and containers to give yourself more control over the soil mix. Your containers may be your best hands-on bet. If you live in a climate with colder winters, you probably won't want to keep containers of bedding plants on standby.

If you live in a warmer climate (zone 8 or greater) or a climate with milder winters (zone 5-7) you can use raised beds or containers. These are good options for growing plants like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and several varieties of flowers.

Clay soil is one of the leading causes of plant disease, one of the primary reasons that your plants won't grow well. Have you ever had weeds in your garden? What about insects? Clay soil makes a welcoming home for many pests, too.

One of the best parts of growing plants in these types of soils is using the organic compost to help add the necessary nutrition that your plants need for healthy growth.

Rise Up

Rise Up and Get to Work.

Whether it’s your first homestead or you’re just getting back to the land, having a balanced, fertile soil is vital to your success. Building a healthy soil is an art form that many beginners find challenging to master. Your soil is the framework of your garden. Without healthy soil, nothing you plant in the garden will thrive.

Learning the basics of soil preparation will help you begin your homesteading journey successfully. Before you begin, consider your existing soil. Is it healthy, has it been treated with pesticides or herbicides, or is it unworked? Whether you’re starting from scratch or enhancing your existing soil, it’s important to know the characteristics of the dirt you’re working with before you begin.

There are several effective ways to improve your homesteading soil by incorporating cover crops to feed the soil, mulching to help the soil retain moisture and improve soil texture, adding compost to amend the soil, and inoculating your soil with mycorrhizal fungi to help the soil retain nitrogen.

Warm And Protect Your Soil

The first thing you have to know about your soil in winter is that it has the potential to become a frozen solid block of ice in cold winters. You have to protect it so that it doesn't freeze and ruin your spring planting season. Before you even start to work your soil, cover it with some newspaper, garden cloth, or even a cheap dropcloth.

Now break your soil up into chunks that are 3-5 inches in size. You can do this with a spade, a garden hoe, a pick, or even your hands. This is a great time to get some exercise. You can also use a tiller or cultivator to turn over your soil and mix in some amendments.

Apply a starter fertilizer. If the cold didn't kill your soil, it will kill your plants. If you haven't already, till in a fertilizer that is made for spring or early summer plantings. If there are any ice crystals on the top of the soil, break them up and then water your soil deeply.

You should now have warm, fertile, organic soil that is ready to plant in the spring. If you don't, now is the time to learn what you need to do to improve your soil.

Layer On The Mulch

If you have sandy soil with no organic material, you’ll want to perform two tasks to improve the soil. The first is to leach the soil by applying water to the area, allowing it to seep into the ground, and then flushing it out with another round of water. The second is to add organic material and humus to the soil.

You want to add organic material to sandy soil to help it retain water. Layering on the mulch will further help the soil hold on to water. To amend the soil in your garden, rake it to loosen it then add shovel fulls of compost or soil amendments. The process works best if you use a spade to cut lines in the soil first. This gives the mulch something to grip when you go to lay it down.

Adding organic material is ideal for improving clay soil. It’s a great way to improve the soil in a small way and to get you started on the path to having beautiful soil for your garden.

Plant Suggestions When Growing in Clay

Clay soil needs to have moisture in order to be good for growing plants.

Dig holes and plant your seedlings at the correct depth. If the plant needs to be planted deep, don't plant it deeper than the rootball, as it will take a long time for nutrients to reach the plant, and it won't get the benefit of water retention.

Make sure the top few inches of the soil is loose and sandy.

Plant your plants in raised beds, as this makes it much easier to maintain the correct level of moisture.

Clean your tools after use to prevent parasite or disease spread.

Mark your calendar or set up a smartphone alert for when you need to plant.


Clays soil is your typical heavy soil. It is usually a very hard soil as well. This is because of the high amounts of clay that it contains. When a soil is said to be composed of large amounts of clay, it means that rich compounds have been brought to the land through the heavy rainfall or groundwater.

Some clay soils in the Southern part of the United States can be above 80% clay.

The Southern part of the United States tends to be the most well-known area for having a high clay soil composition. However, the Northern parts of states such as Colorado, North Dakota and Illinois also have clay soils.

Each area with a clay soil composition has different needs and problems, including:

  • Pests
  • Plants
  • Damage
  • Soil drainage
  • Fire hazards
  • Nutrients


Many vegetables and herbs will add nutrients to your soil. Before adding fresh manure (e.g. horse, chicken), make sure to mix it with compost. This will eliminate the inevitable "stink" of manure.

If you don't have the room or time to compost, make sure you add plenty of soil, peat or other types of organic matter.

Be careful with adding larger quantities of soil. Too much can make the soil too dense, which can decrease water flow and reduce the efficiency of your irrigation system.

The best soil is usually a 50-50 ratio of topsoil and compost. If you add organic matter to your soil, you should be prepared to double your watering efforts.


Vegetables, and Herbs.

Your soil's pH is the measurement of acidity-alkalinity. A high pH indicates alkaline soil, whereas a low pH indicates acidic soil. Potatoes, legumes, and azaleas prefer acid soil. Holly, rhododendrons, and blueberries prefer alkaline soil.

Your soil's texture, drainage, and water holding capacity is more important than pH for vegetable plants.

Soil texture is clay, loam, or sand. Soil texture refers to how well sandy soil holds water, how well clay holds water, and how well loam (or loamy) soil holds water. Deciduous plants and vegetables with deep roots prefer loam soil.

Draining soil is ideal for vegetable garden plants. If a soil is poorly drained, it is necessary to plant in raised beds or along contour lines in order to prevent drainage problems. Mulch can also help to improve your soil's drainage.

Including organic matter in your soil improves the type of soil, the moisture retention, and the drainage.

To improve your soil, think about adding sand to make soil more draining or adding clay to make soil more water-holding.

Best Cover Crops

__XI__Your top soil is more than just dirt. It's full of nutrients (the portion we're talking about here) and organic matter that feed your plants and allow them to thrive. Over the years, this layer collects from the plants that grow and die in your garden, as well as the animal waste and decaying plants that get pulled up into this layer. Not only is it full of nutrients for your plants to use, but it's packed with air, water, and your organic matter. So how do you know when it's time to add to or improve your topsoil in the first place? What's the best way to go about doing it?

Soil pH

If you run your soil test and your pH is thrown off, the first thing you're going to want to do will be to add a pH adjuster. This can be in the form of peat moss, limestone, ash, sawdust, mulch, straw, etc. Any of these materials will be enough to correct this issue.

Clay Soil Benefits

For those that have clay soil, there is a clear concern in every garden on how to improve soil with clay. With clay soil, it is important to maintain the moisture to prevent the soil from being too compacted. Also, using the proper tools and techniques in gardening with clay will help prevent the soil from having a tendency to be too compact. When it comes to gardening with clay soil, it is important to limit the effects that clay soil will have on your garden by choosing the right gardening techniques and products.

Here are a few tips that will help when considering how to plant in clay soil:

  • Add organic matter into the soil to help loosen it
  • Break up soil and make it more crumbly (especially with vegetables)
  • Find the right tools for this type of soil
  • Use mulch to help plant growth
  • Add gypsum to help loosen soil

Choose certain plants that are great for clay soil such as: Sage, moonflower, or columbine


Clay soils usually have a very small pore space, little air space and high water holding capacity, which makes it tough to drain properly. Heavy rains or hosing down the sidewalks can cause the water to pool and stay on top of the soil, creating muddy conditions that can suffocate the roots. Adding organic matter such as peat moss or compost to the clay soil will help loosen it up and also make it more workable for the garden.

The addition of organic nutrients such as peat moss and compost will help to loosen clay soils to allow for proper drainage and aeration. Compost also contains beneficial microbes that will help improve the quality of soil.


Conditions, Mixing with Other Soils.

Are you interested in learning how to water plants in wet clay soil? Here are a few tips to keep in mind when dealing with this type of soil.

Watering Conditions with Clay Soil

First, do not water your plants for several days, so your plants can get use to the decreased amount of moisture in the soil. Next, water your plants until the water coming out of the drain holes makes the water about 2 inches deep.

Keep your watering can at a 45-degree angle so water can seep into your clay soil. The water in the soil should be able to penetrate about 6 inches in one week, for optimal growth. To make sure your plants' roots have easily digested nutrients, water your plants again after a day or two.

Mixing Clay Soil with Other Soils

If you have potted plants in clay soil, mix some sand into the potting soil or add some compost to loosen the soil. This will help your plants grow. You could also amend your soil by using more organic matter, such as peat moss. If you have clay soil, but want it to have a lighter, more loose texture, you should add some compost to it, as well.


If you're building your soil from scratch (or improving the existing soil in your garden), a good step is to add compost. This will add your garden can use to their heart's delight. Look for local suppliers for compost material. Not all compost is created equal, and some is less expensive than others. If you're willing to spend a little extra, look for compost made from rich green matter (such as, chicken or cow manure) as it will contain more nutrients.

Whichever compost you choose, make sure it's labeled as being safe for vegetable gardens (thus excluding chicken litter, which has high Phosphorous content).

Because most commercial fertilizers don't work well in clay soil, it's best to use compost to improve your clay soil before you add fertilizer.

Long Term Root Development

The long-term health of plants depends on the permanent improvement of the mechanical and chemical properties of the growing medium.

If you have clay soils that are compacted, lack pore space and air, or drain water slowly, you may need to improve your soil to create the kind of environment in which plants thrive.

Light and sandy soils benefit from a mix of sand and organic wastes to help water drain freely.

Clay soils benefit from plenty of organic material to improve texture and drainage.

Here are some fast facts about improving clay soils for growing plants:

Plants grow best in amended, fertile soil with the following characteristics:

  • A neutral pH of 6.5 to 7.0
  • A pH between 5.5 and 6.5 is best for most garden plants. Testing pH can be as simple as mixing water with your soil sample and getting it tested at a garden nursery.
  • A soil texture light enough to allow your shovel to dig in
  • A fine texture that doesn’t pack or fall apart when tossed
  • The kind of pore spaces and water permeability that will support root growth
  • Hours of sunshine and an adequate number of hours of air movement.
  • Minimal weed competition

Don’t Skip This Important Step

Most gardening failures can be traced to poor soil preparation. A large percentage of new gardeners don’t spend enough time preparing the ground in their gardens. If you skip this important step, you may very well have years of frustrating or unfruitful gardening in store.

If you live in a heavy clay area, you know the problems heavy soils can cause. Clay soils are rich in minerals, but that can also be their downfall. The sheer weight of clay soil makes it hard to dig and tends to stay wet. It can easily become compacted and waterlogged.

If you live in a clay soil area, don’t despair just yet. You can landscape beautifully with clay soil with the right techniques and tools. In this post, you will learn how to replace that dark, heavy soil with an attractive, healthy landscape. It’s a lot easier to do than you might think.

The first step is to make sure you have the right tools. You will need small rakes to loosen the soil and larger ones to move it over the area you wish to plant. A hoe is also useful for stirring the soil, as well as for removing any weeds that still remain.