West Coast Gardener – Embrace Your Clay!

by Chris Sigurdson, Peninsula Landscape Supplies

As gardeners, we are always plagued with problems that can present significant challenges. These problems could include pests (wildlife and insects), noxious weeds, poor fertility, plant diseases, unexpected changes in environmental conditions … the list goes on. Personally, I always find that the most troublesome issue is the soil. This is where it all begins and perhaps it should be the first problem that we focus on correcting.

The most common complaint I hear from people about the soil they are dealing with is the clay content. It always seems to be heavy and compacted. So the question is: how do we correct this? Should we dig it all out and start again? The answer is absolutely not. Clay is a natural component of soil and it has many benefits. It is fertile and has an amazing ability to hold nutrients. The problem with too high of a clay content is that it becomes hard to work and is poorly drained. Furthermore, even if you turn it over it will inevitably become compacted again.

In order to cure this seemingly perpetual cycle of compaction, we need to change the physical properties of the soil. It needs to be recreated in such a fashion that it will promote optimum plant growth by incorporating other materials into it – a recipe so to speak.

There are many schools of thought as to what you should add to clay soil to make it more friable. Historically, incorporating sand has been a typical go to for many people. The problem with using sand as an amendment is that it requires a large volume (in some cases a 50/50 mix) to make any noticeable structural change. Sand has the potential to increase drainage but alternately, it will not hold moisture very well so your soil will dry out quicker. Furthermore, sand has little to no ability to hold on to plant nutrients, so adding sand solely as a fix may help correct the workability of your soil, but it will not increase the plant nutrient holding capacity of your soil.

The most productive method to amend soil with higher clay content with long lasting results is the introduction of composted organic matter. This increases the porosity of the fine, tightly packed nature of clay soils. Not only will compost make clay soil more workable, but it increases air exchange, allows water to be absorbed more readily preventing erosion, and allows plant roots to develop deeper and more easily. Most importantly, composted organic matter, unlike sand, has the ability to store large quantities of plant nutrients.

In conclusion, embrace your clay!

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