Transform Compacted Clay Soil in 5 Easy Steps

Transform Compacted Clay Soil in 5 Easy Steps

August 12, 2018 0 By David Zordani
A picture of garden soil

Clay dirt well on its way to becoming healthy soil

Front range soil is notorious for its clay content.  Most gardeners want nothing to do with it.  They throw in the towel, break out the credit card, erect umpteen raised beds and import expensive soil by the truck load.  Voila!  Problem solved.  But what if transforming Colorado’s hard pan clay into productive soil teeming with worms isn’t as hard, or expensive, as you think?  Consider this…

Clay’s primary issues are it suffers from compaction issues and retains too much moisture.  Compaction leads to poor root development  while poor drainage contributes to numerous problems such as root rot, oxygen starvation, and avoidable diseases such as ‘blossom end rot‘.  A properly draining garden bed is a prosperous one.

To alleviate these issues and transform your soil start with these five things:

1) Promote drainage / reduce compaction in your soil.

Proper drainage is essential, as poor drainage will devastate your garden. You want your soil to retain moisture long enough for roots to drink but fast draining enough that the soil does not remain soggy and those roots don’t remain wet.  Introduce sand, gravel, small bark chips or perlite (the small, exploded, white rocks in potting soil) into planting beds in addition to any compost and manures you feed your plants with.  Don’t rototill your soil, hoe the amendments into the top few inches.  The sand, gravel, bark chips and perlite prevent the clay from binding together and improve overall drainage.

2) Feed and grow your worm population.

Worms are a vital part to gardening as they signal healthy soil.  Worms tunnel through the garden, aerate soil, and leave behind nutrient rich castings. Stay away from synthetic fertilizers which destroy worm populations and drive the sensitive creatures away.  Instead, visit your local coffee shop and ask for their coffee grounds.  Worms love coffee grounds and the grounds provide a small Nitrogen boost to your plants.  Sprinkle generous amounts of the grounds all over your garden and let the worms and other insects go to town.  You’ll know your soil is on the right track as you notice an uptick in the worm population.

A picture of coffee grounds for garden use

A bag of coffee grounds

3) Mulch your garden soil.

In the Fall, when the neighborhood complains about clearing leaves from their yards, smile and politely ask them if you can have those leaves.  Mulch your garden with a 3 or 4 inch layer of leaves and let them rot over the winter.  Once growing season arrives, let the leaves remain, plant your garden, and apply another new layer of leaves, straw, grass clippings or bark chips.

A mulched garden bed with planted herbs

A mulched garden bed with lavender, chives and garlic

4) Plant annual / perennial herbs.

Herbs help the gardener in a multitude of ways.  First, most herbs do not require a lot of nutrition in order to grow.  Most herbs grow quite happily in standard garden soil as long as you provide them adequate drainage. Second, herbs provide you with tasty accents to all your culinary dishes.  Third, they create an environment for beneficial insects to take refuge and overwinter.  Fourth, dozens of herbs have purple flowers which attract butterflies and necessary pollinators.  A few of the herbs with purple flowers include:

  • Thyme
  • Echinacea
  • Borage
  • Basil
  • Rosemary
  • Sage
  • Chives
  • Oregano
  • Lavender
  • Anise Hyssop
  • Peppermint
  • Marjoram

5) Compost your plants.

When the growing season is over, pull out your annuals, cut them into small pieces, and allow them to rot in your garden over the winter.  A thick layer of leaves over the top will help cut down on any unsightliness.  Allowing  the plants to rot in the garden returns nutrients back into the soil and feeds the insect and worm populations.  PLEASE MAKE SURE that the plants you leave to rot in your garden are DISEASE AND PEST FREE.  Nothing could be worse than overwintering and reintroducing an aphid infestation or tomato plant virus into your garden come spring time.

A picture of an aphid infestation on a plant

Aphid infestation on Kale

Over the course of a few years, if you follow these five guidelines, you will transform your garden’s soil and have a clay free, pest free, nutrient rich garden that requires little to no fertilization.