Management of clay soil


Firstly, we all know that a garden full of clay soil gives us years of backache in continual digging and sieving to try and get rid of this heaviest of all soils, but there are ways of turning clay to your advantage by simple management methods which don?t require too much hard work.

It is a fact that in the early stages of cultivation that clay is not nearly as easy to work with as sandy soil, or any of the other soil types for that matter as when it is wet it quickly becomes a heavy, soggy mess, and when it dries it sets like concrete. It is badly drained, cold and heavy because the spaces between particles are too small to allow the free passage of air and water so the soil is forever in danger of settling down to form a solid, airless mass.

Clay soil
Clay soil

So what steps can we take if we have clay soil?

1)    Rather extreme but I had to resort to this in order to get a crop in quickly: remove the soil completely and make a raised bed. Replace the soil with new.

2)    Improving the soil structure is one way of dealing with clay soil, but we must remember that clay soil is far more capable of growing better crops than a sandy soil is which is usually only any good for growing carrots.

3)    Some gardeners swear that adding fresh cow or horse manure to the top of the soil in Autumn will dissipate the clay entirely. I have never been lucky enough to get fresh manure at that time and so cannot say whether it works or not but I see no reason why this should not work over a couple of seasons as rain will take the manure into the soil in liquid form and this is what breaks down the clay.

4)    The slow method: Dig your soil in the summer and leave it rough over the winter for frost and rain to break it down. Using this method exposes the maximum of soil to the elements. Add some organic matter to the top layer of soil during that summer dig.

5)    Another idea is to add plenty of bulky organic matter to the soil will hold the particles apart and enable roots and water to pass through. When the level of organic matter is satisfactory and the soil is filled with the roots of previous crops the clay will become far easier to work. Every crop you crop you plant from then on will play its part in improving the soil for the next plant generation.

Now our garden here in Chesterfield (Derbyshire) was all clay, and I have talked extensively to other residents here who all agree that this town is built on clay, so I treated one patch of garden which I hadn?t made into a raised bed with chicken poo pellets (organic of course). I put lashings of chicken poo pellets on one summer and eventually the rains dissolved them and the resulting slurry was taken into the soil. I was able to plant the next Spring and topped the patch up with more pellets that Autumn. The soil is now clay free to a good spade depth.