Quickest way of breaking up clay soil

Rio_GrandeMay 8, 2014

Long term I know compost is the answer and we are working on that, what is the best way short term to break up clay soil until I can manufacture enough compost to get this done?

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johns.coastal.patio(USDA 10b, Sunset 24)

Hmm. If you are waiting for your compost, rather than bringing it in, the thing to do in the meantime is "green manure." Plant legumes and/or other deep rooted crops. Japanese diakon is a favorite for this.

Groundhog Daikon Radish Cover Crop

    Bookmark   May 8, 2014 at 2:45PM
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Here's a good article on how to amend, and how to work with clay soil. It suggests adding coarse sand, also called builder's sand, as an option. It says compost too. We did add lime to our soil and did seem to help. This article seems to think the jury is still out on that one, but personally, I noticed a difference.

I will tell you one thing I really loved about having clay soil, and the article says this, it retains moisture really well. So, moisture loving plants do really well.

Here is a link that might be useful: working with clay soil

    Bookmark   May 8, 2014 at 2:55PM
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My garden area used to be part of a coniferous forest with very little topsoil, perhaps 1" and the soil was similar to grey concrete in color and texture.

IMO the fastest way to help clay soil is to till in something organic that is easily obtainable at the lowest price. Leaves are good but not easily obtainable here in this mostly coniferous forest. Some people dislike using peat moss as do not think it's a good environmental choice but I don't mind using some, have probably only bought 3 bales in 18 years.

When we first began creating new perennial beds here DH tilled in various amendments - initially top soil, sawdust/fine wood shavings, peat moss, and mushroom manure and I planted a cover crop to later till in. Later for other beds we used soil from our pasture, bags of steer manure, peat moss, and my fav fertilizer/amendment alfalfa pellets. He always went over the area twice with the tiller to get deeper the second time. Over many years annual top-dressing with compost or manure and fertilizing with alfalfa pellets has produced a soil where my roses and other plants flourish. Over many years of 'feeding the earthworms' and mulching the soil is easy to dig in, and my plants do well.

Heavy clay soil is very difficult to till when it is dry but when too wet it's not good either. Probably wait a couple of days after a rain to till. Layer on your amendments first before tilling.

    Bookmark   May 8, 2014 at 3:22PM
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High clay soil can be dug up, when it is damp but not wet, and broken up. It can then be mixed with peat moss or some similar vegetable fiber. This is a lot of work, and only practical for a small area.

    Bookmark   May 8, 2014 at 3:22PM
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johns.coastal.patio(USDA 10b, Sunset 24)

I was a little bit confused, because Rio_Grande says "quickest" but also says "until I can manufacture enough compost."

I'm still not sure if Rio is looking for amendments, or a way to get started without amendments.

Maybe we should ask more about short term goals.

    Bookmark   May 8, 2014 at 3:36PM
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I read until I can get enough compost to matter, is why I said coarse/builder's grade sand. That's my suggestion for the interim.

    Bookmark   May 8, 2014 at 4:27PM
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nil13(z21 L.A., CA (Mt. Washington))

You would have to bring the sand fraction up to 70% before it does any good. Any less than 70% and it will make things worse.

    Bookmark   May 8, 2014 at 4:40PM
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Plant aggressively deep-rooted plants that can tolerate clay, and cut them off at ground level at the end of the season. The roots stay behind as organic matter.

I use okra because it loves the heat.

    Bookmark   May 8, 2014 at 5:25PM
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hoovb zone 9 sunset 23

In this region, it is gypsum that is recommended to improve clay soil, in a yearly or twice yearly application. It is only beneficial to heavy clay soil, not to sandy or silty or loam soil.

Here is a link that might be useful: Myths and benefits of gypsum for clay soil

    Bookmark   May 8, 2014 at 5:31PM
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Since everyone is throwing in ideas, this guy over at the organic lawn forum (Dschall?) says he experimented with applying anywhere from 3-55 oz of diluted clear shampoo, per 1000 square feet of clay, and it softened up his clay real good. I happen to know somewhat of the guy, as I've been reading him over at Howard Garrett's forum for years. I'm always for LAZY and CHEAP. I trust his word but cannot confirm as I haven't done it myself. In this thread, I'm voting for LazyGarden's advice, since I have tried what she advises with okra, and by george, them's there some deep roots on okra i've grown. Then some swiss chard in the winter, perhaps? I like growing watermelon, as well, and the roots spread out and down to Chiner. M

    Bookmark   May 8, 2014 at 7:31PM
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wayne_5 zone 6a Central Indiana

I love what I did for my good clay loam soil. I added 3 inches of medium/coarse sand, 4 inches of local well hydrated sphagnum peat moss, and forked [ loosed, lifted a bit] the top soil 7 inches deep with my potato fork.

I worked this all in with my tiller to a beautiful mix. Then I added rotted horse manure with a lot of rotted hay, and then added very fine leaf mulch, and then tilled it all, and then sowed tillage daikon radishes in summer or before the end of August.

I have done this on about 4500 square feet....love it.

70%sand...I don't think so!!

    Bookmark   May 8, 2014 at 10:31PM
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Wow thanks.
There might be some credit to the soap. In my area they sell a product called panhandler and it is a slippery clear liquid you only use a few ounces to 100 gal spray tank. I always thought it was snake oil.

I had about 6 yards of compost made that I added to our tomato bed it is about 20x12 so it got. About 3-4 inches. I will till it in tomorrow if it dosent rain.

The big field I am concerned about is our 1/2 acer that was planted in alfalfa last year but we lost all of it to rain. The field shaped in such a way that it's hard to turn the conditioner and baler in. So we killed off the alfalfa last year and let it lay all winter. I was taking samples out there and it is a deep clay loam.

I started about 6 yards of compost tonight and will add another 6 or 8 in the next few days but this field will be planted long before this is ready.

I have access to all the leaves I want. Last year I mixed in several 24 foot trailer loads into one other patch we have and added nitrogen to help break it down. We grew fall crops in it and this spring the leaves were gone and not much organic matter remained.

Thanks again.

    Bookmark   May 8, 2014 at 10:53PM
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nil13(z21 L.A., CA (Mt. Washington))

Wayne, what were your sand, silt, and clay fractions to begin with? Because it sounds like you bumped the sand fraction up to about 50% if you started at 0 and you most likely had more than that to begin with.

    Bookmark   May 9, 2014 at 1:17AM
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To make enough difference in clay soils by adding sand you need between 45 and 75 percent sand according to about every soil scientist I have read. That is a lot of sand and can be quite expensive and it may well raise the level of your garden and create a surface water flow problem.

The short and long term solution to amending clay soils, as well as sandy soils, is organic matter.

Here is a link that might be useful: sand to amend clay

    Bookmark   May 9, 2014 at 6:42AM
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johns.coastal.patio(USDA 10b, Sunset 24)

lol, sounds like you are way ahead of me Rio. 1/2 acres, alfalfa, conditioners and balers ... not to mention starting 6 yards of compost in one day!

    Bookmark   May 9, 2014 at 9:22AM
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wayne_5 zone 6a Central Indiana

nil13 and kimmsr,

By definition clay loam would be about 25 or 30 % sand to begin with. Adding 3 inches sand and 4 inches peat moss [2 or 3 inches after settling] to 7 inches soil gives about 12 inches final mix. This would be about 5 inches of sand out of 12...42%.

kimmsr, This mix absorbs water like a sponge. Why would there be a problem with surface water?....there isn't one.

    Bookmark   May 9, 2014 at 9:36AM
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I don't know about ahead John, not real good at this at the moment. We have completly changed how we make our compost and it is slow..... The alfalfa was just what was in the field and not really intentional.

Sounds like the alfalfa will provide some organic matter then in the short term, a portion of this will go in beets, turnips and okra so some deeper rooted crops, most though will be in corn.

I am hesitant to put leaves down for additanal organic material as I don't want to tie up nitrogen through the growing season. Unless that is inaccurate.

    Bookmark   May 9, 2014 at 12:49PM
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Wayne, the people at Purdue will tell you that clay loam is 25 to 30 percent clay with 70 to 75 percent silt and sand. I think you have your numbers backwards.

    Bookmark   May 9, 2014 at 5:16PM
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wayne_5 zone 6a Central Indiana

Loam is about equal portions of sand, silt, and clay. Soils do vary though.
Clay loam leans more to clay than loam does.
Sandy loam leans more to sand than loam.
About 65% silt and sand in clay loam....maybe thirty some percent sand.

Here is a link that might be useful: Interesting Soil Link

This post was edited by wayne_5 on Sat, May 10, 14 at 14:50

    Bookmark   May 9, 2014 at 7:09PM
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jean001a(Portland OR 7b)

Gypsum helps break up clay ONLY if the soil contains excess sodium.

Only a professional lab test can tell you that about your soil, or about So Cal soil.

who gardened for 30-some years in LB,CA. where sodium-affected soil is rare.

    Bookmark   May 11, 2014 at 2:16AM
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No offense to hoovb, but yeah, Jean, I was waiting for someone to say something. It's a lot of work, trying to clean up all the "dirt" around here. It's an overwhelming task. It's like steppin' into "uncomposted manure", at times...

Speaking of, Grandma, who would be 102 today, said that when she was a young girl, she'd go out and squish her bare toes on a cold morning in warm cow paddies.

She also told me that when she was a child, her grandma told her that the Devil had laid her out on a stump, and the sun had hatched her. I used to think she was for real.

Turns out, I started learning about biology, and that it was impossible for a mammal, like we are, to be hatched from an egg.

And then I learned about the platypus. M

    Bookmark   May 11, 2014 at 3:34AM
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wayne_5 zone 6a Central Indiana

Gypsum is useful for helping sodic soils.
That said, it may also be helpful to mellow clay loam soils. It's the calcium that, mellows the soil without making it higher in PH.

    Bookmark   May 11, 2014 at 10:31AM
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I didn't read all the post. Have experience at this. Presently continuing this endeavor in Oklahoma clay.

I find digging in kitchen scraps to be the absolute fastest way to ready soil for plant nutrient up take. Dig in about a foot or more down. Add wet kitchen scraps. Bury. Moisten soil stop the compost heap. Cover with something: egg cartons, newspapers or cardboard. Cover it so the bugs will come. (You migth have other critters depending upon where you live.)

I've had the soil ready within 3 days. It was the starving bugs. Amazing. Usually it takes about 2 weeks.

Keep digging it in and expanding the area. It's important to keep the area moist and favorable for bugs. We're in a drought in windy Oklahoma, so this is an issue.

    Bookmark   May 22, 2014 at 5:04AM
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