First Garden too wet: how quick does your soil dry out?

emmers_m(9a/Sunset 7 N Cal)April 6, 2009


This is my first real garden: did some balcony and hydroponics in apartment, but moved to a house with a nice backyard last summer. (Not a 'recession garden' nor intentionally trendy, just first opportunity.) I tilled/planted a small garden that August, but due to the lateness of planting and some pesty problems only got bush beans, green tomatoes, and radishes.

I'm planning on expanding to 20 x 30, using raised wide rows for the most part. I have a head start because I dumped 0.9 acres of autumn leaves on the area last fall, which quite effectively killed the sod. I'm planning to till, probably just this year, to break up the roots, loosen the clay, and incorporate compost. Hopefully after that I'll be able to do routine yearly maintenance by hand.

But my soil is clay, and sopping wet. Squishes when I walk on it wet. I don't even need to squeeze it to know that's no good for tilling (or planting for that matter.)

And that's before the 1-2 inches of rain that are supposed to come down today.

I have a windowful of seedlings and a box of seeds that I had hoped to plant out on April 18, but now I despair.

Is there any hope of it drying out in time to till next weekend? How long do your gardens take to dry/drain? Will a few sunny days do me, or am I looking at a couple of weeks at this point?

I realize this is highly variable based on soil type and climate, but any general guidance would be much appreciated.

Sorry for the long post! It's a bit of an introduction, as I just finished reading all 67 pages of archival forum, so(hopefully) I'm edu-micated enough to ask questions now! :)


Pictures to come.

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leira(6 MA)

Hi Emily,

You've called it right in saying that how long it takes depends on all sorts of things, including where your garden is located (even in one yard, you may well have dry spots and wet spots) and also on what the composition of the soil is. So sadly, it may be that no one will be able to tell you how long it will take. I'd seriously doubt that you'll get there by next weekend, though.

Since you know you have lots of clay, I'm going to venture that that is the most likely culprit. Unfortunately, I fear that this year your only option may be to wait it out. Sad but true, but the leaves you dumped on top probably aren't helping the drying out process. They will help other things in the long run, however, so don't regret your actions.

You're absolutely right to avoid working overly wet soil (and "squishes when you walk on it" is absolutely and beyond a doubt too wet!).

Once the soil finally does dry out, however, work in some organic matter (those leaves are a good start, though if they're not broken down yet, they may rob the soil of nitrogen this you may need to do something about that). Work in lots and lots of organic matter. All of the organic matter you can lay your hands on. That's about the best thing you can do to amend clay soil. Personally, I'd add peat moss to this mix, because I think it's a nice addition to clay, but some people aren't fond of it. Exactly what you add will depend on what you have available and/or can afford (and I'm a big fan of "free," let me tell you).

Good luck!

    Bookmark   April 6, 2009 at 11:01AM
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wayne_5 zone 6a Central Indiana

Drainage is my number one concern here in a garden layout. Here in Indiana it is critical in springtime. I would make sure that your gardening space has good drainage away from the garden even if some trenching and channeling are necessary. Additionally, you can make ridges for rows if necessary with channels for drainage if necessary.

Ideally, lots of organic amendments like muched leaves, peat moss, compost, and in some cases sharp sand, will to wonders to loosen soil and also raise the height of the soil. Many may reccomend raised beds [and I have several large unbordered beds] but it isn't a requirement you know.

Piles of unmulched leaves on top of clay soil is asking for springtime goop-sloop in the north.

    Bookmark   April 6, 2009 at 2:00PM
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emmers_m(9a/Sunset 7 N Cal)

Thanks for the replies!

I did pull back most of the leaves over the past month or so, so it is exposed for direct evaporation.

I will be tilling in ~5 yards of free town leaf/grass compost, as well as some of the leaves (some I will use as mulch and some will kick off the compost bin.)

Then I plan to raise my wide rows as much as possible by usng the soil from the walkways, which, judging by a bed that I raised a few inches last year, will drastically improve the drainage. (I don't have effort or $ to do 'real' raised beds, and I don't think my soil is hopeless.)

I just need it to dry out so I can start!


    Bookmark   April 6, 2009 at 2:41PM
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You can cover the garden with plastic to keep more rain off of it. Secure it with rocks, tent stakes, whatever. Just be sure to take it off or vent it when the weather is warm and dry to allow remaining moisture to evaporate off the surface (although leaving it on will help your soil warm faster). I've done that and it does help.

You could also try picking up used coffee grounds from local shops... mix them in with the leaves to help them break down faster.


    Bookmark   April 6, 2009 at 3:36PM
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leira(6 MA)

Emily, it sounds like you're absolutely on the right track. As soon as you can get in there an execute your plans, you'll be on your way to excellent soil. Now comes the hardest part...the waiting!

I'm with Wayne in saying that raised beds aren't at all necessary. I've always been a fan of gardening right in the ground, because there's good stuff to be found in plain old dirt, and it's good to make that stuff available to your plants. Even when I do build raised beds (either for aesthetic reasons, or because the soil alone really is that bad by itself), I always dig down and make sure that the "real" soil is a part of my mix for filling the beds.

    Bookmark   April 6, 2009 at 3:41PM
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The day you think your soil is finally dry enough to work, go shopping. See a movie. Read a book, anything but work in that garden. If you till clay soil when it is damp, it turns into concrete. OK, not quite, but it gets very hard and is much harder to work with. If you grab a handful of dirt and can make a ball out of it, it is probably too moist.

My solution for clay soil is to sprinkle mulch on it in the fall and till it in, then sow wheat and rake it in (others like alfalfa). In the spring, wait as late as possible to allow the wheat to grow, cut it down at ground level with a weed whacker and add it to the compost pile with leaves I've preserved from the fall. Then till the soil and let the roots sit in the ground for a couple of weeks, till again, wait a couple of weeks and till again.

It takes a couple of years or more to really get a heavily clay ground into shape.


    Bookmark   April 6, 2009 at 5:27PM
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daylilyfanatic4(Zone 6 SE NY)

HI I live in SE NY with the same very heavy clay soil except you can't dig 6" with out finding a boulder I even have named a few pebble (about 50 lb.) Montana over a 100 lb. etc. I built raised square foot beds becuase of that. My point is that I'm already planting it doesn't matter how wet the clay is since my beds are filled with a well draining mix. You may have a drainage issue though since even my clay is no longer soggy from winter and I'm not to far away. check for a drainage issue if you have one don't lant veeggies there build raised beds or move your garden vegtables need moist well drained soil not soggy soil.

hope this helps

    Bookmark   April 7, 2009 at 9:29AM
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emmers_m(9a/Sunset 7 N Cal)

So just to give you an idea of how ever-so-slightly obsessive I/we are being with this, we have not only been tarping the area when it rains, but we post-hole dug a couple of 'wells' and have been using the old pumps from our hydroponics setup to pump out some of the water. From Garden Pictures

Note the water table, right after all the rain, only about an inch down!

On the plus side, digging down 3ft or so gave me a good idea of my soil strata - after about a foot and a half I hit some clay that looked like I could sit down and throw a terra-cotta pot on the spot. But up until that point, it was (decreasingly) nice and dark brown and more crumbly.

So I think my dirt is pretty good :)

Hopefully adding my compost and raising te rows as much as possible will improve the drainage. We're also eventually planning on putting a dry streambed through the backyard.

But as for the good news - after only 24 hours or so without water falling from the sky, the water table receded to about 5-6 inches down. Progress!

Thanks for the advice, everybody - still don't know when I'll be able to start working out there, but hopefully it will be soon, as I have some little ones anxiously waiting! From Garden Pictures


    Bookmark   April 8, 2009 at 9:18PM
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wayne_5 zone 6a Central Indiana

Pet the kitty for me.

    Bookmark   April 8, 2009 at 9:36PM
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emmers_m(9a/Sunset 7 N Cal)

done, but now the other three want to know why you're playing favorites :)

    Bookmark   April 9, 2009 at 12:18AM
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The good news is that you won't have a droughty garden in mid-summer!

My soil is so sandy that I can till at any time of year. Even when it is soaking wet it doesn't hurt it to turn it. Light soil seems to be my fate, because my other gardening location is central florida and that is even sandier. Maybe someday I'll know what you guys are talking about...

    Bookmark   April 9, 2009 at 6:59AM
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emmers_m(9a/Sunset 7 N Cal)

Update, as of yesterday the soil was almost there - I dug 4 inches down and squeezed a bit and the resulting ball crumbled with light poking. I was looking forward to a week of dry weather and tilling towards the end of the week, but then it happened - the previously sunny-all-week-forecast betrayed me once again, and I am now in the midst of receiving another inch or probably more of rain. No idea when I'll recover from this!

But yes, my sole consolation in all of this is that *if* I ever manage to get my plants in the ground, I shouldn't need to water that much.

And hopefully, my raised rows will mean I won't need to suffer through this next year!

Thanks for the replies, encouragement, and sympathy!


    Bookmark   April 14, 2009 at 6:24PM
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Love the window and I want to know how you keep the cats from eating your seedlings?! I have three cats and any plant I have in the house gets eaten...and then thrown-up! I have to grow my seedlings in the basement and lock the door!
Good luck with the drainage, a few weeks won't make too much of a difference with your veggies.

Good luck!

    Bookmark   April 16, 2009 at 2:59PM
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emmers_m(9a/Sunset 7 N Cal)

Hi, cgiglio,

I like my window, too :) except in the deep winter when it's 70s-era single pane glass and aluminium construction makes it very very cold inside - we tacked up a sheet of plastic this past winter which barely helped. But it's very nice for the little ones, and the cats love it too!

As for the possible cat-meets-seedlings carnage, I suppose it was beginner's luck - I germinated them on top of the microwave, where the cats can't get to them, and have kept the shelf in the window so packed with seedling trays that they can't jump up there either!

I know they would eat them if they could, though. Recently they chewed a "lucky bamboo" plant I'd had for 6-7 years down completely.

Thanks for the words of encouragement - I was finally able to work the dirt this weekend (I'll post pics in a new thread) and will finally be planting right after this next set of rainstorms. Whee!


    Bookmark   April 19, 2009 at 6:47PM
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