How to Make Clay Soil Plantable & Fertile

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Altering your garden soil is an immediate project as well as a long-term goal. Managing clay soil requires both brawn and patience, but it can be done. Immediately, you'll want to lighten the soil by adding large quantities of organic matter such as manure and compost, as well as sharp sand and peat moss, and dig these deep into the soil. This job is made easier if you work when your clay is not wet and at its stickiest, which makes a smooth mix of new nutrients difficult. The end of summer or early fall is the perfect window for this work in most climates.

Things You'll Need

  • Coarse compost
  • Aged manure
  • Sharp sand or coarse builder's sand
  • Shovel, pick mattock and/or mechanical tiller
  • Measure the length and width of the area of clay soil you wish to amend. Multiply the two figures to give you the square footage. You will want to cover this entire area with an even pour of 4 inches of coarse compost and an additional 4 inches of sharp sand. With even a small 8-foot by 8-foot area you will need bulk supplies of both amendments, as individual bags won't make a dent and will likely raise the cost of the project. Bulk sharp sand and coarse compost come in cubic yards. One cubic yard will cover 100 square feet, 3-inches deep. So with your 8 feet by 8 feet area, you'll need at least 2 cubic yards--1 cubic yard of sharp sand and 1 cubic yard of coarse compost. Do your own math for your yard and place an order. If you don't own one, rent a mechanical tiller as well.

  • Loosen up the clay with a tiller or your pick mattock to a depth of at least 12 inches. This will give you a great workout.

  • Pour on the coarse organic compost in an even layer 4-inches thick and use the tiller to work it into the soil well, at least 12-inches deep.

  • Pour on the sharp sand and use the tiller or pick mattock to work it into the soil to at least 12-inches deep.

  • Repeat this process annually as needed in the same area, and tackle new areas in the yard during the dry season or between plantings.

Tips & Warnings

  • Do not use regular sand or smooth beach-type sand in clay soil, as it will create a kind of concrete. You want jagged, irregular grained, coarse sand to increase the tilth of the soil.

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