Title : Planting in Clay Soil
Visit Count : 1813 Time(s)
Upload Date : 7/11/2016 - 2 Year(s) ago
Category : agricultural technical notes
Monday, July 11, 2016
Visit Count : 1813 Time(s)
Upload Date : 7/11/2016 - 2 Year(s) ago
Category : agricultural technical notes
Never work clay soil when it is soggy or bone dry. If the soil is too wet, it will pack into hard clods. If it is bone dry, it will shatter into dust which will turn to mud, then brick when it dries. Bone dry soil should be watered with at least an inch of water, then allowed to soak in for a day or two. Test the soil by squeezing a handful into a lump, then push your thumb into the lump. If it dents like modeling clay, it is too wet. If it crumbles, then it is perfect to work. However, in a compacted clayey soil, typical of much of Colorado, root growth slows when roots reach the undisturbed site soil beyond the backfill area. This is due to lower soil oxygen levels in the undisturbed soil. It is also routine to amend the soil by adding organic matter to improve the water-holding capacity of sandy soils or to increase large pore space in clayey soils. Modifying and amending, while related, are not the same process.

• Test Your Clay – A key with any soil is to adjust the pH to the appropriate level for the crops you're growing. For vegetables, that would be between 6.5 and 7.0. Clay is loaded with nutrients, but if the pH is too low or high, they won't be available for your plants no matter what you do. If you're gardening in the Southwest and a soil test calls for the addition of calcium, consider adding gypsum to your clay soil. Not only does it add calcium nutrients to your soil, gypsum helps break the bonds between clay particles and loosens the soil. However, don't add gypsum if not called for in your soil test. Chances are your soil already has abundant amounts of calcium and adding more will cause a nutrient imbalance.
• Add Organic Matter – Whether it be clay or sandy soil, organic matter is the key to making your soil healthier and easier to work. It doesn't matter so much about the form of the organic matter as it does when you add it. Work in a 6- to 8-inch thick layer of coarse raw materials, such as chopped leaves, untreated grass clippings, hay, straw, peat moss or fresh manure in fall or a few months before you're going to plant your garden. It will take that long for the soil microbes to break down the high carbon material into humus that the plants can use. Only work the organic matter into the top 6- to 12- inches of soil. Add a 2- to 3-inch thick layer of finished compost or aged manure anytime time right up to planting. This works best on clay soil that has already been amended with raw materials so it's beginning to loosen up. Another form of organic matter that helps immensely to make clay soil more workable is a cover crop. If you have the time and patience, grow a cover crop, such as clover, winter wheat, or buckwheat, in your garden area the year before you plan on planting. Tap-rooted cover crops, such as alfalfa and fava beans, are great at breaking up clay and pulling nutrients up to the top layers of soil from the subsoil. Growing cover crops that are tilled into the soil and replanted a few times during the growing season will add loads of organic matter and allow you to better work your garden once you get started.
• Grow Up – Some gardeners contend with clay soil by avoiding it. If you have a small garden, it might be easier to build raised beds on top of your clay soil and fill the beds with a mix of loam and compost. You're basically creating a container on top of the soil, where you'll be better able to successfully plant your crops right away. Not only will the soil be easier to work with, because it's in a raised bed, you won't be stepping on the soil and compacting it.
• The Miracle of Mulch – One of the biggest problems with clay soil is it easily compacts. To keep it from getting too dense and to prevent the soil from cracking and drying out, add a 2- to 3-inch thick layer of organic mulch over the soil during the growing season and replenish it as needed. The organic matter provides a carpet so you won't be packing down the soil as much when walking on it, and as the organic matter breaks down, it's helping loosen the clay. If you aren't growing a winter cover crop, consider covering the garden with organic matter (leaves, grass clippings, hay) all winter so the winter rains and snow don't compact the clay soil further.
• Go No Till – Every time you till your soil you're introducing oxygen that accelerates the decomposition of soil organic matter. The more you turn your clay soil, the more organic matter is burned up, and the fewer advantages you'll get from adding it. Try no-till gardening where you amend the top layers of the bed each spring, but do little or no turning of the soil. No-till gardening may slow down the warming of soils in northern gardens in spring, but in the long run it will require less work.
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