Red Clay Drainage Problems

top3cretMay 27, 2011

I had 3 holes dug in red Ga. clay the other day for my Holly shrubs. I planned to plant this weekend. It rained last night (big storm) and as I return home from work I noticed the holes are STILL holding the rain water.

What is going on and what can I do? I have never encountered a problem such as this. Can I raise the bed way high? Dig deeper and add small rock for drainage? Totally miffed.

Any help would be most gratefully accepted....

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rain1950(W. WA z8)

If you have a post hole tool or auger; go deeper until you get into a gravel layer then back-fill the hole with gravel. If it's on a slope; you could dig a trench and fill with gravel for drainage.

    Bookmark   May 27, 2011 at 11:27PM
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ralleia(z5 Omaha, NE)

You *can* raise the bed higher to get out of the clay--that way at least the portion that is above the clay would drain away from your plants' roots.

The other thing to consider is the overall drainage of the site--are the holes in a depressed area of the land? Is the yard sloped sufficiently that the rain can drain away in a controlled fashion?

Dealing with excess water can be such fun. :(

    Bookmark   May 28, 2011 at 12:21AM
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Clay soils tend to present drainage problems because the soil particles tend to stick tightly together and not allow water to flow easily. What clay soils need to drain well is a lot of organic matter mixed in that will seperate those soil particles so water can move more freely, but not just in the planting hole which simply creates a tub that brins even more water in but which then cannot move out because of the tightly packed soil around it.
Most often the solution to poor drainage is to build raised beds, although care is needed because raised beds can be too well drained.

    Bookmark   May 28, 2011 at 6:44AM
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I've wondered about tilling but do not want to bring up ancient weed seeds for I've seen weeds come right through very well mulched beds. Not mine of course. Lol

Maybe I will go the high route and use a lot if the native soil mixed with a bit of the good composting material. I wish I could sit on this a few months with some good materials and let nature do her thing. But it isn't my yard and I'm committed now and did so because I'm usually pretty good at this. Never occurred to me that I would come up against something like this.

Guess it's time for a new lesson. I'm still open for any more suggestions. Thanks to you who have replied so far.

    Bookmark   May 28, 2011 at 8:52AM
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buford(7 NE GA)

Georgia clay veteran here. Your best bet is to make the holes wider than deeper. If you dig a deep hole in clay, all you are doing is creating a clay pot for your root ball to grow in. And we all know what happens to a root ball in a pot, it gets root bound. And now with the rain you have the 'swimming pool' effect where your clay pot is now filled with water.

When I moved into my house (new construction) there were 5 beautiful azaleas in my front bed. After 2 years they started dying. I thought it was because they were in full sun (what dope did that, the builder!). When I dug up the first one, the rootball appeared as if it was just pulled out of the pot, it was in the same exact shape as it was when it was planted. It had not spread out at all. And the hole was full of water.

I have since tilled the entire bed (don't worry about weeds, you can suppress them) amended the bed with organic materials, buried the down spouts so that the bed does not flood every time it rains, and planted new shrubs. In clay soil, the plants will want to spread wide, not down, so the holes I now dig are shallower and wider. You can't go down 4 feet and get rid of the clay, so just build on top of it.

In some areas, you can do grading to help with drainage, but for the most part, just avoid planting in 100% clay. I still use about 50-60% clay because with amendments it IS good soil, retains water and nutrients. It just can't be 100%. Also mulching is super important to keep the soil moist and soft. If you don't have mulch, the sun will bake your clay soil, even if it is amended, and turn it as hard as cement.

Just my .02.

    Bookmark   May 28, 2011 at 9:18AM
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The drainage problem could be caused by a variety of things. Was the soil wet when you dug the holes and the sidewalls and bottom got smeared? Does the clay have poor structure? Does the area receive a lot of runoff? I have NC red clay and compost and mulch goes a long way to improving soil structure and increasing drainage.

    Bookmark   May 28, 2011 at 9:44AM
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Hi top3cret,
As your original question only mentioned "3 holes dug in red Ga. clay the other day for my Holly shrubs", I am going to assume that you are not building a garden but simply trying to plant 3 Hollys, If that is the case, then (rain1950)reply is the best answer for your situation. Get an auger or a post hole digger and dig down 3' you will be past the clay layer and will not create a bathtub effect. As (Buford) said "still use about 50-60% clay because with amendments it IS good soil, retains water and nutrients."
Mix good compost with some of the clay you removed and plant your hollys, and also Buford said "Also mulching is super important to keep the soil moist and soft. If you don't have mulch, the sun will bake your clay soil, even if it is amended, and turn it as hard as cement. " MULCH like crazy around your hollys and eventually (takes forever) your surrounding soil can be improved by this.

    Bookmark   May 28, 2011 at 12:57PM
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Mulching soils that do not drain very well can cause that soil too hold even more water then normal as can amending a planting hole with lots of organic matter and leaving the surrounding soil as was so you create a pot with no drainage. Making soil with a structure that allows water to move freely in a soil with a structure that does not allow water to move is like planting something in a tub with no outlet.

    Bookmark   May 29, 2011 at 7:02AM
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Mr Hughs, your post was most interesting. If I auger down 3' or more, what will I hit? And what is there that will cause drainage improvement. I am looking into an auger this week. As far as the digging the holes wider and shallow, that is what I normally do with any planting. I understand about the amendments and all. Not to sound so hoity toity but I have been into gardening for over 30 years. It's just this totally non drainage is a first and most interesting to try and conquer.

Kimmsr I thought your input most valuable as well and was pretty much intending to build high and incorporate native soil back into the holes. And Buford, rest assured, I do mulch. I am the mulch queen of the south! LOL
I abhor hot dry cracked red clay.

This augering thing is really getting my curiosity up big time. We might all learn something here......Just hope and pray John Hughs will answer and stick with me here...

    Bookmark   May 29, 2011 at 7:39PM
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Hi top3cret,
This will be good for all to learn from, gardening is all about learning and growing (our minds as well as our crops)
I know, I know... I'm full of crop ;-)
But seriously ... you do it and then tell us what is below the 3' mark,at your place, my property, as soon as I get past 2.6' I hit dirt and rock, it is well draining and quite different from the water holding capacity of the clay, so I mix in 25% Pumice, 25% Decomposed Granite 25% Clay and 25% Compost, absolutely awesome mixture and everything grows like gangbusters.

    Bookmark   May 29, 2011 at 8:08PM
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If I auger down 3' or more, what will I hit?

Probably saprolite and then metamorphic or igneous rock.

    Bookmark   May 29, 2011 at 8:20PM
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buford(7 NE GA)

I've never gone down 3 feet, but when my neighbors pool was dug out, it was all red clay down to the bottom. I've hit grey and white sticky clay, more red clay, granite, and surprisingly on the east side of my house, some nice brown DIRT, which is a rarity around here. Maybe it was left over by the builders.

I could be wrong, but I think using a auger is just going to make a deeper hole that will still fill up with water, but I suppose it's worth a try.

    Bookmark   May 30, 2011 at 8:48AM
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I still am pondering the augering. It just feels right no matter what I hit. Should I do this, I will refill the holes with ammendments added into 55-60% of whatever comes out of that hole.

Now Mr. Hughs, as fine as a gardener as you are, I do see you are in Oregon. I believe the state of Ga. and for most of the south as far as that goes, has a much more tremendous red clay depth than you have up there. Buford is right when he says that down here you can dig out for a swimming pool and it'll all be red clay.

Hey! It is the birthplace of red necks. LOL I mean where do you think that title came from? Certainly not Oregon. Your pics were quite nice by the way. It sure did put an appetite on me to go play in the rich dirt and to eat as well. What a bounty! The only thing missing in the veggie pic was some fried pork chops!

I do have one question. Since I cannot get my compost pile over to the home of where I am doing this project. What do you suggest I can buy from Home Depot or any nursery where I will have to go with the bagged stuff.

Pumice? Decomposted Granite??? Are you kidding me? I have only heard of a pumice stone for smoothing the soles of my feet. I have never seen Pumice loose down here. Nor decomposted Granite for that matter. Now granite, we do have a lot of granite in Ga. :>) But decomposted?? Where in the world will I find that? Have any you want to send down?

There is the world's largest piece of granite that sits about 25 mi. east of me known as Stone Mtn. I would imagine it's been here since the beginning of time. And it sure doesn't seem like anything about that puppy has decomposed. LOL I mean how in the world does granite decompose anyway? Surely it must be in some sort of powder form.

Also, the shrubs tend to go for a lower ph. What you are recommending seems a bit high in the ph dept. for these. They are Sky Pencil Hollies. 3 gallon holes. Very wide holes......

Kimmsr. I sure am enjoying reading your other posts. I am learning a lot from you as well. Piedmont you are quite scholarly. I keep a dictionary by me when I read you. i.e., igneous rock. LOL You are all a wonderfully helpful team.

I would love to share a pic of my little bathtub of clay but cannot figure out how to upload pics on my post. Mr. Hughs you make it look so easy. How do I do this?

    Bookmark   May 31, 2011 at 2:00PM
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Hi top3cret ,
First your meat pic (my birthday dinner ;-)


Now, onto your other questions:

Posting Pics
Go to (free)
Start an album
Once you have your photos in your album, drag your cursor over a pic and this Pop-Up will appear

Cut and Paste the 3rd box down from the top (HTML)into your message... VIOLA You are in ;-)

    Bookmark   May 31, 2011 at 2:49PM
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Unless it was ABSOLUTELY necessary ,I wouldn't buy any "bagged" goods (just too expensive), I would find a local landscape supply company or any diary farm and inquire about compost, much more to my liking.

While at the aforementioned Landscape supply company ,inquire about Pumice and Decomposed Granite, there are alternatives but most alternatives are more expensive, and has already been observed, I am Frugal.

All of my amendments take the soil to neutral, so if you want to be higher or lower, you need extra amendments.

Dig down 3' if you find Jimmy Hoffa, let us know, but even if you don't, we still want to know what you find, I ain't buying the 10' Deep Clay all over story. It could happen, but my guess is that was man made by very large earth moving equipment. I think you will find it is only a few feet deep and then something that drains better.

    Bookmark   May 31, 2011 at 3:00PM
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buford(7 NE GA)

No John, it's Georgia. Where I live was unused until these homes were built about 11 years ago. I could have played the French Open on my backyard before I had it sodded (after importing 3 dump trucks of topsoil, of course). I suppose there may be spots that have a different make up, but it's probably either even thicker and uglier clay (the red clay is really the best) or granite.

I've found that peat helps, I've also used Nature's Miracle, composted manure (try Lowes and get Black Kow, it's the best) for store bought stuff. Of course shredded leaves and compost, but that takes time. I had spots in my yard that I couldn't dig into, even with a pick axe. So I just kept dumping mulch and compost on it and after 2 years planted some roses. Then after 2 years they started to take off.

Here are some pics of what we have to deal with:

The first two are from Lake Lanier (which I live near) during the drought where the bottom of the lake was exposed in many areas. The last two are from my yard before and while we were getting it graded and having the sod put down. It was nice enough to rain every day for a week after they graded it so we could have a clay mud wrestling championship. I won!

    Bookmark   June 1, 2011 at 7:04AM
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JonHughs! If I were a bettin' woman I'd bet you a thousand dollars that I will hit red clay 3' down that hole. But I'm not a bettin woman. HOWEVER! I will be fair and tell you the truth once I auger that hole. Your help in getting pics up here is priceless along with all the other things you have helped me with so far.

I will add though...........To put pics of lobster tails and whatever else that other met is was just plain out mean!!! LOL Happy birthday! And I bet you are an old coot! I am..... Soon to be 58 and lovin it and life! I have no truck to go to the dairy farm. Buford! Where are you??? Let's go to the dairy farm! I'm only an hour or so away from you.

I will search for the pumice and decomposed granite. Although those Pencil Hollies will need a lower ph. than neutral. Now the 10 Butterfly bushes that I am also soon to plant (waiting for the grass to die in that area where I sprayed RU) they might do well with a neutral ph.

I also have killed off 1/2 of my friend's front yard and will soon resod it. So if anyone here is a prayer, please pray for rain for we are lacking it greatly this spring so far.

I need to go and will return here soon with pics on hand. I could just hug you all. You are such great guys...

    Bookmark   June 1, 2011 at 9:09PM
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Hi top3cret,
Yeah, I'm an old coot 53 years old, six grand kids already, with more in the ovens ;-)
Get Buford to help you out, I would if I was closer ;-)

    Bookmark   June 1, 2011 at 9:26PM
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I noticed you posted a picture of Sting on the tellie, with some old coot standing beside him. "Don't stand, don't stand, don't stand so close to me". Yuk yuk yuk.

Red clay is highly regarded by the Japanese. The tallest of the world's temperate bamboos are found growing in red clay. On separate continents.

Bright colored soils all have one thing in common- the presence of oxygen, while gray clays indicate a lack thereof. There's hardly a finer soil, eventually, infused with enough organic material. Finished compost sitting on clay for a few years makes a dynamite root medium.

When people moan about red clay, I'm thinking, silly rabbit, grey clays of Texas is what I deal with, which is anaerobic, alkaline, expands and contracts enormously with moisture content and has high levels of salt. Red clay has none of these problems.

As a bamboo nut, I've toyed with the idea of moving out east of here and living me dying days upon red clay. Hidden from humanity on a patch of red clay, deep within an acre sized bamboo grove, seventy feet high. Can't be done in other types of soil.

    Bookmark   June 1, 2011 at 11:19PM
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For those that think making a planitng hole in dense soil taht does not drain well is a good thein this article might be of some use.

Here is a link that might be useful: Bathtub effect

    Bookmark   June 2, 2011 at 7:51AM
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Okay guys, here's my first try at uploading photos here. Wish me luck! John, you're a purty thang. But still love your mind more....LOL

Okay, I'm really screwing up here pic wise. Where do I paste it here?? In the URL bar or the "Link" bar? I did both and message was rejected. HELP!

    Bookmark   June 3, 2011 at 9:19AM
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@jonhughes--Where do you get the seeds that grow those nice shiny quarters? When I was little, my grandfather used to find dimes growing in a tree in his front yard every time I visited. I was never able to find any, but he found some every time he looked. He never found any quarters, just pennies (not ripe yet, he said) and dimes.

@top3cret--Just paste the HTML code directly in the message.

    Bookmark   June 3, 2011 at 11:52AM
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buford(7 NE GA)

top3cret, I'm in BUFORD! LOL. Right near the lake.

As for the butterfly bushes, they will grow in anything! They put down very shallow roots. I had some keel over after we had a snow storm and they were loaded with snow and all the roots just came out of the ground. That's the other thing about the clay, most root systems are shallow. Even Walter Reves, who is a local gardening expert had this in his blog after the big storm last week.

The Georgia Gardner

    Bookmark   June 3, 2011 at 9:30PM
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So are you saying that the Butterfly bushes came back? They grow profusely in my yard. They are now 8 yrs old. This is not my yard I am working on here. But thanks for the tip. I too enjoy Walter

Can't load pics from here I'm on the iPod Will be back soon with pics of these glory holes. Lol.

    Bookmark   June 4, 2011 at 10:14AM
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buford(7 NE GA)

Oh yeah, we just pulled them up and staked them for a bit and they were fine. We also had to do that for a few young pines a few years ago that were so weighed down by snow on the needle that they too were pulled out of the ground and flopped over.

Maybe you will strike gold with the auger!

    Bookmark   June 4, 2011 at 11:56AM
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