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I have a small area in front of my house with some grass and existing shrubs. I want to make an L-shaped flower bed in my space without disturbing the existing shrubs.

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I have removed some of the grass and dug a bit to airate the soil. I have noticed that the soil is quite poor.

I can't tell if it's clay or silt. It clumps together and is very hard when it dries.

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I don't think it's ideal for annual flowers or bulbs. It will cost a lot of money to dig for 2 feet and to remove the soil all around in an L shape.

If I add compost, I don't think it will blend well into the existing soil and make it less clumpy.

What are some things I could try?

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    What type of mulch are you planning on using in the new bed? And, BTW, your soil looks and acts like clay, so concentrate on plants that like to live in poorly drained clay soils when planning the bed. Do not dig up the soil and replace it - this will result in very poor drainage. I can include a link to a scientific paper dealing with that specific issue if you'd like.
    – Jurp
    Feb 26, 2023 at 20:50
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    The science on soil amendments is now much clearer than it used to be. Basically, add no inorganic amendments to native soils without a soil test (as noted in the answer), and do not replace native soils with "good black dirt" (see Myth #1 for both, here: nacaa.com/file.ashx?id=25092c16-a031-4b70-94ea-b20a683b7ea7) This paper is from the National Association of County Agricultural Agents (US); hope it's available in your area. And Ecnerwal is right - many plants do well or at least adequately in heavy clay (the "right plant, right place" design philosophy). Use wood chips for mulch
    – Jurp
    Feb 27, 2023 at 16:06
  • "I can't tell if it's clay or silt" Get a jar. Fill 1/3 with dirt and add water well over. Shake violently. Leave for a couple of hours. Look at the jar.
    – Vorac
    Mar 3, 2023 at 9:47

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Feed the worms (provide mulch that's good worm food - grass clippings less than 3" deep work well, if not poisoned - can also tuck things like coffee grounds and tea leaves under the clippings), let them deal with blending, transporting, and aerating. You can also (dependent on local wildlife issues) make small pits to direct-bury food wastes for worm processing. Or, compost them in a vermin-resistant manner and then apply the compost.

As per usual, you should get a soil test to know what (and how much) amendments to apply, but in many cases clay soils benefit from applying gypsum. But mulch that breaks down easily or is attractive worm food (often the same thing) or compost applied to the surface will do much of what you need, with the help of the worms.

While it may not be "ideal" I grow daffodils, snowdrops, crocus and iris in truly awful clay soil and they manage. So "ideal" is optional. Marigolds, zinnia and nasturtiums also do fine on the annual flower front. Likely many more, but those are some examples I've got experience with in bad clay.

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