My house is in an area where the native earth is basically solid clay. This means that wet or dry, you can't dig with a shovel and get crumbling dirt — it always clumps together, unless you break it apart with a shovel or until the weight breaks it apart, which usually results in clumps of at least 5" in diameter. It also weighs a ton because of the water it can hold.

All of our yard is now covered, with the exception of a 4' border around the back of our house. We brought in topsoil for these beds, but the topsoil was never really evened out or tilled into the clay.

Through various weed seasons, settling, and dirt transplanting much of the clay is now at the surface again. I'd finally like to get these garden beds sorted out instead of just killing the weeds throughout the season.

Is there any good way to manually till this kind of clay in with topsoil, or is a machine my only option? I am worried that the narrowness of the garden bed will make using a machine very difficult anyway.

  • Have you considered going the raised bed method instead? Build 12inch (300mm) minimum high raised beds...
    – Mike Perry
    Commented Sep 6, 2011 at 23:36

3 Answers 3


Some tillers aren't as large as you think they are. I recently had a similiar issue and I ended up purchasing a garden mantis tiller. http://mantis.com/mantis-4-cycle-tiller.asp

I don't know how much you are looking to spend but this one costs 450 bucks..but it is worth every penny. I also got the dethatcher and aerator combo that can be put on this. It's sort of a like a transformer :) and can transform to various different machines. Mantis makes good products and their warranties are awesome. Customer service has been fantastic and no I was not paid to review them :).

Aside from tilling it the only thing you can do is break it up using a shovel, but this is a LOT of work!

Good luck.

  • Great info, didn't know about the smaller tiller. I recently purchased a dethatcher blade for my lawn mower which worked fantastically, though being able to aerate myself might be nice.
    – Nicole
    Commented Jun 9, 2011 at 16:53
  • @NickC: I've got this electric Earthwise tiller/cultivator that only cost me $100. I'd recommend it for existing beds, but it's not very good at breaking sod. I'll let you find my review on Amazon rather than typing the whole thing out here, though.
    – Doresoom
    Commented May 2, 2012 at 19:25
  • @Doresoom - congrats the only thing I dont like about it is it is electric..I hate lugging all that wire behind me.
    – JonH
    Commented May 2, 2012 at 19:33

If you are looking for a manual method try using a hoe. Dig a trench with your shovel and then use the hoe to chop a side of the trench. I live in an area with a lot of clay in the soil and was able to get a usable garden area with this method last year. It took me the better part of a day to get a 10x10 area done, but I was able to successfully plant my garden and did will with tomatoes and peppers and got a couple of usable zuchinni.

This year I borrowed a powered tiller and it was much easier, but I have a lot of space. You might try a hoe and shovel in concert to get it done. In limited space you should be able to be pretty effective.

  • yikes... I have about 100 x 4-5 feet of beds. Sounds like I may want to go powered.
    – Nicole
    Commented Jun 9, 2011 at 17:09
  • @Renesis - your back will thank you...And probably your hands too.
    – wax eagle
    Commented Jun 9, 2011 at 17:10
  • 1
    @Renesis - If it makes you feel better you can rent tillers like the mantis, in Michigan we have a Chet's rental, I'm not sure where you are from but renting for the entire day could run around 70 bucks.
    – JonH
    Commented Jun 9, 2011 at 17:18

Add sand, leaves, and compost and mix it around with a pitchfork.

I didn't want to mention adding sand because it might draw the ire of other gardeners. If you add straw then you're pretty much just making bricks.


Just till it and hire a 2 year old to smash all your dirt clods with a hammer!

Farmers risk this all the time, I'm sure they don't let it get them down. You may also want to go to a no-till* garden, which is what the Rodale's Encyclopedia strongly advocates.

Organic gardening advocates suggest that tilling causes damage to soil structure in a way that just digging, double digging and triple digging doesn't. For one thing, you can't really avoid compacting the soil when tilling. For another thing, you might have root structures which are naturally working on aerating the soil and finally the worms and toads buried in your soil may not appreciate it.

Personally, I till my soil because it is pretty clayey and I want to get a good start on the weeds. But, the best tomatoes I've grown I've done with a double dug row. You start by digging a trench, break up the dirt clods with a pitch fork, then work up the soil under the trench with a pitchfork. Move to the next row and do the same until you've either died of exhaustion or came to the end. Dump the extra top soil on the compost (Technique from Tips for the Lazy Gardener). Why this is in Tips for the Lazy Gardener is because you barely need to water a double dug garden.

* No-till is sort of a misnomer, no till farming means you don't mess with the ground until you plant. No till gardening means you don't use a machine on the garden. I'm not sure if "No-till" gardening is even a thing.


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