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What would be the best way to amend clay soil on half an acre? We want to grow our usual garden plants like tomatoes, cucumbers and such but the soil on the land we just bought is small rocks and clay. Short of bringing in 4' of topsoil, is there anything else I can do? We have a whole year until we will be growing on it if that matters. Property is in Northern KY and hardiness zone is 7a-b.

  • Out of curiosity, what is on the ground at the moment? What has it been used for? If it's been compacted then you'll need to sort that out first, down to a depth of 2 spades. No amount of organic matter, leaves, topsoil nod etc will do any good if it's heavily compacted. – user13638 Feb 23 '16 at 11:12
  • @Rosie It's been sitting there for decades growing tall grass. It's part of 7 acres we just bought. The rest of it is all woods. – NKY Homesteading Feb 23 '16 at 12:15
  • If it's fenced off, is there anyway you could put animals on it to graze it down for you and manure are the same time ? What a lovely project, similar to a dream of mine. That's exciting. Anything you cut in the woods that you could chip can be used for paths, and as a top dress mulch. Good luck – user13638 Feb 23 '16 at 13:06
  • @Rosie I'ts not fenced off and we are two hours away from the property. We do hope to move there before winter once we get our shop built with an apartment over it. Then we will build a cabin down in the woods as a permanent home. – NKY Homesteading Feb 23 '16 at 22:05
  • What a fantastic opportunity I hope it all works out and is a great success for you – user13638 Feb 23 '16 at 22:42

10 Answers 10

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Clay soil is composed of extremely small clay particles formed by the breakdown of rocks by erosion and organic activity. The particles have a high surface area with the capacity to hold lots of positive ions (cations) such as calcium, magnesium, sodium and potassium which are essential for plant growth. And it has a capacity to hold a lot of water. The degree to which the clay is compacted is determined by the calcium to magnesium ratio. High levels of magnesium lead to tighter soils. Without first correcting the calcium/magnesium ratio, adding organic material to form humus may be ineffective in achieving good crop growth.

Albrecht's ideal ratio for healthiest crop growth is where the soil's ability to hold cations, the cation exchange capacity, is 65% calcium, 15% magnesium, 4% potassium and 1-5% sodium. Because magnesium tightens soil, in a clay soil you instead want a base saturation of 70 - 80% calcium, and 10% magnesium to loosen the soil up. The remaining percentages are occupied by copper, zinc, iron, and manganese with exchangeable hydrogen which then determines the soil pH, and sets this at about 6.4.

Just testing soil pH is inadequate. A soil can be alkaline but also be low in calcium. When clay soils are deficient in the 4 major cations, it rips free hydrogen from the water to bind to the negatively charged sites on the clay particles instead. Testing pH only tests the free hydrogen in soil water, and so will mislead you. Restoring the major cations restores pH as they will replace the hydrogen bound to clay.

So, the first step is to get a soil analysis done. You can then calculate how much agricultural lime you need to add, or whether you should use gypsum which has added sulfur. You won't probably want to use dolomite (calcium magnesium carbonate) because of the magnesium. The soil analysis will also advise you of any other imbalances that need correcting.

After you have amended the soil minerals, you can then add organic material to create humus in the soil. Humus greatly expands the cation exchange capacity of the soil thereby greatly increasing the resources available to the plant roots.

Cation Exchange Capacity in Soils, Simplified

  • I plan to have a full test done so I only do this once. Thanks for the tips. – NKY Homesteading Feb 23 '16 at 22:22
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    The cost is about $20. Some farmers do a soil test yearly. – Graham Chiu Feb 23 '16 at 23:43
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Clay soil is the most hard work, but is also the most nutritious. It holds onto the nutrients and water very well. Try working as much as you can with what you have. Adding a huge amount of organic matter manure will open up the soils structure a bit. Just as long as it's not compacted, (if it is you'll need to rotovate or dig over somehow) & don't walk all over it once rotovated. You'll need to lay a very thick layer of manure/organic material over it and let the worms do the rest. If you need to walk on parts of it, make paths through for access. Potatoes grown will also open up the structure I'm told. & Legumes will add nitrogen. If you can't do it all in one go easily, start with a portion of it first, that way get a portion into cultivation which will hopefully spur you on to do the next portion. I hope you have a local supply of manure/organic matter & keep adding it. Sorry it's an uphill struggle, but once going it will be a very productive. There's a very good reason why I have had a pottery nearby me - I garden on clay on a plot smaller than yours, so can emphathise If you have large stones remove them, but leave the smaller ones, they will warm up quickly and keep the soil warm. You may be able to use some of the stones to form a path or two. Do you have family & friends that you can enlist to help, and take along a vat of soup to keep them fed whilst they work?

  • What do you suggest if you can't avoid walking on it (compacting it)? My entire backyard is hard clay. – ashes999 Feb 23 '16 at 15:13
  • Hi, Walk in paths across soil, not indiscriminately anywhere. place walking boards (scaffold planks are good) and walk on those. As someone suggested use bark on paths will prevent compaction. It spreads to weight out. This will prevent damage to the soils structure and prevent you slipping if it's wet. Scaffold boards are wide enough to to walk and to wheel a barrow on. I've found worms curled up in knots in my clay when compacted. They can't move and do the job they need to. – user13638 Feb 23 '16 at 15:46
  • @ashes999 Paths. As Rosie already says. You pick where the paths are, and only walk there (you can also add a layer of woodchips to the path areas, but that does not really do a lot to prevent compaction - it does, however, help with mud on your shoes. If you have a layout you are happy with, you can make the paths stone or some other more permanent material - the idea being to NOT walk where you'll grow most things (a few things are willing to grow in paths, despite the wear/compaction) – Ecnerwal Feb 23 '16 at 15:46
  • This land has been vacant for a few decades. It's pretty loose and slippery. – NKY Homesteading Feb 23 '16 at 22:15
  • The will help with the ultimate cultivation. If you're building a woodland cabin, will this also have a veg store? – user13638 Feb 23 '16 at 22:43
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We amended a similar plot of dense clay on a half-acre in zone 7a in North Carolina. The main work was done by a flock of about 60 chickens. We fenced the chickens in on the half-acre, and then spread leaves over the whole area. The town public works department delivered two giant truckloads of shredded leaves (mostly deciduous) from street-cleaning to our property. We carted them over to the chicken yard one wheel-barrow load at a time (that's a lot of work!) and let the chickens scratch around in the leaves and spread them evenly. After 2 or 3 months, we moved the chickens to another area, and let the ground rest for another few months. The amazing thing to watch was the earthworms. They are drawn to both the chicken manure and the leaves. The high-carbon leaves are a good balance to the high-nitrogen manure, and together, the leaves and manure feed the soil in an amazing way. About six months later, we planted a giant crop of garlic on that land. We mulched the garlic heavily again with leaves. It grew beautifully.

  • We're about two hours from the property so until we build and move there this would be almost impossible. We most likely will do this when we get moved though. – NKY Homesteading Feb 23 '16 at 22:17
  • Second the idea of truckloads of plant material. Long ago we did something similar, albeit on a smaller scale, with a truckload of grass clippings from my father's employer. – Loren Pechtel Feb 23 '16 at 22:50
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I think applying gypsum or horticultural lime is an easy and effective way to loosen up clay soil.

Covering pathways with wood or bark chips will alleviate compaction from foot traffic and can be tilled into the soil at some future time or not.

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    Check the pH before adding lime. My clay soil started at 7.5, so upping it with CaOH/MgOH was not an option. – Wayfaring Stranger Feb 22 '16 at 15:23
  • Gypsum is also called "dry wall". I put a couple tons on about 1200 sq ft of garden at "no" cost. A rail road terminal was not far and I got the dry wall "bearings" , 6" X 48" stacks of drywall which are put under the pallets.. You need a pickup to move it. I also put on a few tons of mushroom mulch ( left after growing mushrooms) . These helped ; my point is it, is difficult and requires a lot of stuff to change a soil. – blacksmith37 Jan 23 '18 at 0:43
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Agree with Rosie's answer, but with one caveat - what's important is the ratio of rock to clay. If you have mostly rocks, small and large, with only small amounts of clay soil in comparison, it probably would be best to buy in some top quality topsoil and spread that, as well as incorporating as much organic, composted material as you can get hold of. You might also check whether there is bedrock a spit or two beneath the top material - this is sometimes the case with a high level of rock and some clay.

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Graham's answer seems very sound. I can't say anything about the chemistry, but the basic advice, "Get a soil test FIRST," is the place to start.

I have had good luck with copious additions of organic matter, after correcting chemistry. Also, since you have time, I find that corn and clover do an excellent job opening up the soil. For half an acre (assuming you don't have a tractor), I would start with clover. Once that's established, you can plant corn in a striped pattern to further open the soil and encourage worms to do the really hard work for you! ;) Just rototill (or mow) a path through the clover, tilling the clover into the soil, and plant corn seeds along the edge of the path. (As others have suggested, DO NOT walk on the tilled soil.) You may or may not get a yield from the corn, but as long as the stalks get tall the plants have done their job.

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    clover is great at opening up soil and adding nitrogen. It's just hard to remove it. – kevinsky Feb 22 '16 at 23:13
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Clay with small (and not so small, but fewer of those every time I find one) rocks pretty much describes my garden "soil" prior to generous additions of manure.

Kinda depends on what you are willing to do, and on what scale. You certainly don't need 4 feet of topsoil; but 6" of manure (i.e. about 25 15 yard dump truck loads) would be a big help. Since you have a year to work it up, plan a succession of cover crops - perhaps oats starting Real Soon Now, then a legume over the summer, then winter rye over next winter. If you till (or have someone with a tractor till) each of those in, it's home-grown "green manure." If you can have the brown kind hauled in inexpensively, do as much of that as you can manage, too. Daikon radish (with one variety being trademarked as "tillage radish") is another option.

Check and correct chemistry as well, to the extent that you can, and remembering that you might want to preserve a more acid section for potatoes, blueberries, etc.

You CAN also mix in sand, but you need to do so in concert with organic material (aka manure, whether the green kind or the out-of-a-horse kind) or you risk getting concrete-like soil.

  • I like this. We have a few farmer around and perhaps I could enlist one to help us out. Getting a soil test done first though. We are two hours away from the property but will be building this summer in between doing our regular jobs. – NKY Homesteading Feb 23 '16 at 22:21
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    It will be one way and a good way, to get to know your new neighbours – user13638 Feb 23 '16 at 22:45
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Organic matter can help temporarily in my experience. Peat moss is pretty nice because it's acidic and clay is often more alkaline. Plus, peat moss is inexpensive and takes up a lot of space. A temporary solution is going to be a lot easier than a long-term one.

Growing lots of zucchini (which can grow well in clay) and using the fruits for organic matter for your soil is supposed to work (according to someone in my town).

Greensand is supposed to help loosen compact soil. You'd probably need a lot of it (like truckloads), and it might be really expensive. Gypsum is supposed to help, too, but I've read mixed things about it.

Clay isn't all bad. As has already been noted, clay has lots of nutrients in it. Some things grow quite well in it. Most peppers tend to have trouble with it, it seems, though (but California Wonder may be more tolerant than most). Tomatoes seem to be okay with it. Amaranth seems to love it. Regular cucumbers may have trouble with it, but you should be able to get great results with Armenian cucumbers (e.g. Metki Dark Green Serpent melon). Some kinds of tomatoes shouldn't have a big problem with clay. Regular carrots will have trouble in clay, but you can try Parisian carrots, which are said to handle it well (they're shaped like radishes). Muskmelons/cantaloupes can handle clay-type soils better than many plants.

Clay can be an advantage in hot, dry, arid areas, because it holds moisture well, for a long time. It may not absorb the moisture from a watering quickly, though. I think it's an advantage in containers for this same reason (because they don't dry out as fast), although you might be hard-pressed to find another person to recommend clay in containers (but I like it in hot, dry, arid areas). Fast-draining soils can really set plants back in hot, dry, arid areas.

Bringing in some topsoil probably isn't your worst option, actually. You probably won't need four feet of it, though, especially as most plants don't grow nearly that deep (you may get much better results in partial clay than full-on clay, too, if you mix it together). You could always amend just part of the area with some feet of it if you really need to grow some stuff that can't handle clay. A half an acre is a lot of land; you can grow a lot on that, clay or no clay.

Anyway, it looks like you're in Kentucky. It's pretty humid and not dry there (I used to live there). So, all that ranting about hot, dry, arid areas is for the benefit of others looking for the same stuff.

I'd personally be more concerned about your soil pH, fertility, the level of organic matter and such, then about how clay-like it is.

  • Yes I sort of agree with adding some sand, but grit sand, and definitely not builders sand. However, after a few years the sand has sunk, and the main issue returned. An old adage of 'mix sand and clay is a waste of a day', has some truth in it. Sand tends to be expensive, and on such a scale, may be prohibitive. Waste muck brought in from local farms and stables, will do far more good, and is likely to be much much cheaper. I also agree, that the clay will hold moisture for much longer, take a long time to dry out but also take a long time to become re-hydrated once again. – user13638 Feb 26 '16 at 8:04
  • Organic matter will be temporary yes, but so is the nutrient content of the clay. The organic matter, will put back nutrients used in cropping from the clay and open up the structure at the same time reducing the need for fertilisers. The adjacent woodland can be used to make clippings, if disease free, can be used as a mulch, composted as a source of organic matter. If put directly into the soil, will help with structure. These however, will rob the soil of nitrogen whilst it breaks down, before returning it to the soil once rotted. A good shredder, or access to one, will be a huge advantage – user13638 Feb 26 '16 at 8:13
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By many standards a half acre is a large garden. In my experience nothing improves the tilth and friability of clay soil better than composted cow manure. Try to find a dairy farmer in your area and ask if they have seasoned (no older than six months) manure available. Spread (or dump) the manure on your garden in the Fall and till it in the following Spring when the ground is workable. If the cost of covering the whole garden is prohibitive then start with a smaller affordable section. I think you'll be impressed with the results.

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Here in Australia, we have very similar clay where we are (Mid-North coast, Nsw). what works well for our soil on a smaller scale is to work in old/used straw or Hay, leaf litter, wood chips and coffee grounds. We loosen the clay as best we can and add as much organic matter as we can regularly. What happens over time, is that the clay is diluted by the organics and begin to compost down and become aerobic. Just turn it every month or two in the warmer months while adding a fresh supply of organic matter. On a larger scale, it might also be beneficial to add living manures like beans or peas to cut and drop to add further nitrogen and green matter to the mix. This should be cut and dropped and just work it in when you do your next turning of the soil.

Geoff Lawton has some videos on YouTube which incorporates some of these ideas.

I guess, in summary, be prepared for work because there is little you could do for cheap and quick relief. My method uses waste and a little seed and labour but is cheap. I wish you well, and good luck. Keep us posted how it goes anyway :)

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