Best way for newbie gardener to ammend hard clay soil?

Discussion in 'Outdoor Gardening in the Pacific Northwest' started by nambi_pambi, Sep 14, 2016.

  1. nambi_pambi

    nambi_pambi New Member

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    Victoria, British Columbia
    Hello Gardeners!
    I recently purchased my first house, and as an apartment dweller until now I have little gardening experience. My new home is in Southern Vancouver Island, and the clay is rock hard and dried out clay which seems to bear hardy any grass, lots of weeds, and the pre-existing plants like hostas and the like, are very sad and straggly looking. Winter is coming, and I'd like to do some stuff with this place next year, so is there any specific treatments I can apply to my sad little garden over the wet and cold winter to get my garden set for next growing season? I have heard applying bark mulch or wood chips can to great things, but I'd love to hear what you folks suggest. Thanks is advance!
     
  2. Keke

    Keke Active Member 10 Years

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    What you're looking for is to open up air pockets in the soil so it's easier for plant roots to grow in, and it drains better. Clay soil is very fine-grained and lacking in organic material, which causes it to stick together without much space for air. You can add fine bark mulch to break up the clay and give it some organic oomph, but compost is MUCH better. First, because bark mulch will take longer to break down in the soil, it will not do as much for you next spring as faster-decomposing compost will. Second, bark, wood chips or sawdust all take up nitrogen as they decay, so you'd need to amend the soil with additional nitrogen fertilizer to offset it. You don't need to do that with compost.

    Because you're new to the property and won't have your own compost yet, you can buy some bags of compost and dig them in. Composted manure works pretty well. There are also free options you can try: seaweed, or deciduous tree leaves can also be dug in (not pine needles or other conifer "leaves," as these are too acidic). The seaweed should be hosed off before digging to rid it of excess salt. I had great luck begging leaves off my new neighbours when I first moved into my place. All I had to do was offer to do the raking and bagging, and I had more leaves than I needed! If you have some additional space, get more leaves than you want to dig in, make sure they're damp (not hard around here), put them in heavyweight green garbage bags and stash them somewhere out of the way for the winter. No need to keep them from freezing, but pile them up together. By spring you'll have lovely leaf compost to top-dress with.

    Remember, this isn't a one-time process. You will be amending the soil as long as you live in that house! But little by little it will improve.
    Good luck!
    Keke
     
  3. nambi_pambi

    nambi_pambi New Member

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    FABULOUS advice!I didn't realize that about the nitrogen being leached by wood chips! I love the composted leaves idea, as I am surrounded by maples right now and any day now they're going to ALL be in my yard. A friend of mine just mentioned that she uses discarded coffee grounds and or seaweed, so I will also look into that too. This will be a labor of love for many years :)
     
  4. Keke

    Keke Active Member 10 Years

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    Coffee grounds can also be acidic, so use them judiciously. Or use them near known acid-tolerant plants like rhodos, camellias or heathers. Our soil here tends toward acid anyway, which can stunt the growth of some plants or even result in "burnt" looking leaf edges -- lettuce is a good indicator. (I used to apply lime to my lettuce beds a week or two before planting to counteract that.)

    I gotta say I know how you feel, because the place we moved into three years ago had a "builders' garden" -- four inches of topsoil over rubble and clay subsoil. But we persevere!
    Keke
     
  5. Sundrop

    Sundrop Well-Known Member

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    Actually, most vegetables and many other plants do best in slightly acidic soil, since many nutrients are the most available to plants in soil with pH of 5.5 - 6.5

    @nambi_pambi: I like your avatar :-)
     
  6. Keke

    Keke Active Member 10 Years

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    Sundrop, yes! But it can tip over to too acid pretty quickly if you add acidic amendments. Like I say, lettuce is a good indicator. It will tip burn if the soil needs sweetening.
     
  7. KimberlyKid

    KimberlyKid Member

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    Here's a good hint: go to your local farm supply store and see if you can find Domtar brand Gypsum. It is a powder that when applied to the soil and watered deeply will open up heavy clay. I have used pieces of broken
    "dry wall" to do the same thing. I had a farm a few years ago and used to buy this product from Domtar by the truck load, the results will be amazing. Put about 1/2 to 1 Kg. per tree. Repeat the process frequently.
    I had a pear tree that bloomed in August when this product was applied, and the leaves on our Cottonwood tree doubled in size. The ground will take a while to open up.

    Regards, KK
     
  8. Georgia Strait

    Georgia Strait Generous Contributor

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    get some "hardware cloth" from the local building supply - form it in to a circle at full height of the width of the wire "cloth" - so it should be approx 4 feet high and approx 3 feet across. google this idea and there are lots of suggestions in the "images" link at the top of the google search results page.

    fill it with big leaf maple leaves (falling now)

    ask friends if they have some
    look on the sides of residential streets or out in the country (make sure you're not picking up nasty garbage hidden in your leaves, like needles and broken glass etc)

    it will take a few months and then you keep doing this for years.

    I found the best time to deal with that type of soil is the winter-spring (moisture) but be careful you are not packing it down by stomping over it repeatedly

    lots of old timers picked up seaweed and other shoreline treasure - however, I don't know how environmentally friendly (respectful) that is - and of course, you have to leave it out for a good coast winter's worth of rain to rinse off the salt.
     
  9. HigherGroundJess

    HigherGroundJess Member

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    The answer is BARK MULCH!! I recommend composted (aged) bark mulch because the decomposition process has already started and nutrients will be available to plants right away. Do not put raw material (chips, yard waste, leaves) on your garden beds before composting for at least one year. Raw material ties up nitrogen in the soil and it becomes unavailable to plants.
    Watch this video, Secrets of Installing Bark Mulch from a couple of professional gardeners:
     

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