Turning Georgia clay into soil

ladybug_0820May 12, 2012

I live zone 7, Atlanta to be specific. For years I have read all I could on gardening -books, internet, radio shows, etc., and lots and lots of trial and error. All with varying degrees of success (I have pretty good success with flowers, shrubs, etc.).

My problem is that I want to have a humble vegetable garden (tomatoes, zucchini, beans, peas), and for the life of me I cannot get a handle on it. The area I want to use is about 4x20 feet, and is pretty much 100% red Georgia clay. I think that for any hope of veggies NEXT summer, I need to spend time now to get it ready, soil test it, amend, etc.

But I have NO idea where to start. Sending samples off of pure clay seems silly. So do I amend it with some things first, into the clay? Do I completely remove 6-8 inches of clay and replace it with something? Then send soil samples? Or just do a big raised garden?

I would appreciate some input, as I really want to establish a small but healthy veggie garden. So if I could get an idea of the steps I should take, I thank you.

Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

A disclaimer; I have no experience with gardening in the south. But I have some ideas.

Seems like trying to keep organic matter in the soil is tough to do in the south because it's warmer for longer periods of time, and the OM just doesn't last for very long. But I wonder if you started tilling wood chips into your soil now with the expectation that you would need to add a source of Nitrogen before you planted, if that would work out. Wood chips contain lignin and don't break down as readily as other sources of OM.

I would suggest fresh wood chips - fresh, as in, chipped the same day. You might only be able to get them into the first three inches of soil now, but as they break down, they will soften the clay underneath and you can work you way down. Mixing the chips with some soil will help them break down more quickly.

A slightly raised bed is a good idea; clay needs drainage.


    Bookmark   May 12, 2012 at 10:12PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

I'd go with a raised bed (or two). They're a lot easier than digging out or amending clay. You could get veggies this year that way. I used a combination of top soil, peat and manure all mixed in. Since this was a new bed I just used enough to support the veggies I planted. Next year I'll add more. I figure I'll have it filled next year or the year after.

    Bookmark   May 12, 2012 at 11:26PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Some years ago a professor of soil science at North Carolina State Universtity, Keith Baldwin, wrote the linked article for Tauntons Kitchen Garden magazine. While he did write about using Peat Moss, a non renewable resource, you can substitute tree leaves and other renewable, sustainable materials to do the same thing.
Building raised beds may be of some help, but, where do you get the soil to fill those raised beds? Is it the same thing you are trying to replace? What is the cost of doing this and is it worthwhile? Keep in mind that if you do build raised beds simply buying something called "topsoil" may result in disaster. Know what you want in soil before you start looking and do not accept anythjing less. "Topsoil", in spite of being something many people recommend, is nothing more than the top 4 to 6 inches of soil from someplace. iot may be good stuff or it may not be anything plants would grow in.

Here is a link that might be useful: Keith Baldwin on amending Clay soils

    Bookmark   May 13, 2012 at 6:41AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Zones were updated. We're now in zone 8.

Raised beds are ideal. Personally, I sheet mulch with cardboard and wood chips, pine straw, shredded leaves.

Other than that, look for plants that will tolerate heavy clay.

    Bookmark   May 13, 2012 at 8:05AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

I agree with you on the idea of starting now to make next year's garden better.

I like raised beds, but not everybody does (there is a little bit of cost n carpentry involved).

Another idea is to do some of the sheet mulching/lasagna gardening this year



There's no hard and fast rules about what to use for your layers, just so long as it's organic and doesn't contain any protein (fat, meat, or bone). Before I go any further, let me just say that the basics of making garden lasagnas are simple:

Don't remove the sod or do any extra work, like removing weeds or rocks.
Mark the area for your garden using a water hose or a long rope to get the desired shape.
Cover the area you've marked with wet newspapers, overlapping the edges (5 or more sheets per layer).
Cover the paper with one to two inches of peat moss or other organic material.
Layer several inches of organic material on top of the peat moss.
Continue to alternate layers of peat moss and organic material, until desired thickness is reached.
Water until the garden is the consistency of a damp sponge.
Plant, plant, plant and mulch, mulch, mulch.

    Bookmark   May 13, 2012 at 8:15AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

The fabled "red clays of Georgia" are the same as those here in SC. In the broad Piedmont region (including Atlanta) they are the exposed "B" soil horizon after more than a century of poor agricultural practices eroded and sent the much better top "A" horizon to the stream and river valleys.

A good friend in the Piedmont near me had brick-hard clay soil in summer in the area for his vegetable garden. He simply abundantly mulched with whatever organic matter he could most easily lay his hands on (animal-stall coarse sawdust, leaves, etc.), which at first just kept the soil a bit moister and softer for crop roots, but later he tilled the then-partially decayed mulch in before the next cropping season. It was only a matter of a few years before his "brick soil" had noticibly good tilth and good organic content. It was an amazingly large and quick transformation, just a few years. Tilling of cource just improves to the depth of tilling. He was pretty industrious. If I had a large garden in such soil and were of very serious intent I might rent a small "Ditch-Witch" for half a day and go deep at least once.

    Bookmark   May 13, 2012 at 9:34AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Forget tilling.

And an easy raised bed in our Georgia red clay is a wheat straw bale that has been allowed to sit outside for a few months, gouge a hole into the bale, add some compost, plant a tomato, smile.

    Bookmark   May 13, 2012 at 11:09AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
wayne_5 zone 6a Central Indiana

When I want to change the texture and tilth of my clayey loam in 1 day, I have added local peat moss. Adding som e medium coarse sand too and mixing it all several inches into my topsoil give me instant loose dream soil. Of course, I also add more organic matter such as leaf compost, leaf mulch, and horse manure [straw and hay bedded]. Even though kimmsr cannot hardly say peat moss with out calling it a non renewable resource [I definitely disagree with him there], it is long a lasting texture changer. There may be someone somewhere that has trouble in arid areas with it drying out, but here it stays supremely well hydrated.

About a quarter mile from the bog, the state highway has sunk, and they are scheduled to dig it out in two years...free moss?

    Bookmark   May 13, 2012 at 12:27PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

My soil, if you can call it that, does best with lasagna beds. I have no money for building raised beds, so I've used broken roof clay shingles, very large rocks, and the cut chunks of a tree cut down because it was dead, to mark out a circle or a square or any smallish shape. Then lasagne the heck out of it. Leaves, twigs, over my home compost, over a wet layer of cardboard. After two years, I've found earthworms. My climate is HOT and my garden is building rubble. I can garden! But you have to start out with smaller beds and compost in any event, slowly enlarging the beds as the soil underneath becomes soil and not crap. While this is happening, you might want to get some large containers for tomatoes and some other veggies, but they dry out faster and you have to watch the water. I collect water from my air conditioner, as water's expensive here. But a lasagna bed slightly raised would be my advice.

    Bookmark   May 13, 2012 at 12:58PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

The easy and cheapest method to create a raised bed is to manually fork in six to eight inches of compost where you want to plant. Don't need side walls. Work it in by rocking the fork back and forth a bit with each plunge. This will create at least a foot deep of amended soil and create a mound several inches high, ready to plant immediately. That's it. Nothing fancy, your red clay is way up on the food chain of fine soils, once amended. If I had your red clay, I'd be tickled pink. Sort of. I'd probably have to get rid of my kudzu patch, which I use for medicinal purposes. But I could also plant some moso bamboo, which grows taller in your soil than virtually any other place in the world. If I lived in Georgia, in fact, I'd be visiting kinfolk and eating cobbler, shooting a lot more squirrel, sampling some of the finest, unaged corn liquor made... ahhh, peaches and cream, I got Georgia on my mind...Louizy,

Here is a link that might be useful: I'm Coming Home Soon Baby...

    Bookmark   May 13, 2012 at 2:40PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
wayne_5 zone 6a Central Indiana

I agree with mackel in rocking the fork back and forth to let the amendments fall down into the soil.....great way to get things down deeper and I use this method. I also agree that a lot of expense and work can be saved by building beds without borders. I make my beds wider...much wider and since the soil is so loose, it doesn't hurt to walk on it a smallish amount.

    Bookmark   May 13, 2012 at 3:52PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Mackel I can send you all the kudzu you want.

The only thing I spray with Roundup is kudzu. And it won't kill it, just halts it's forward progress during my lifetime :(

    Bookmark   May 13, 2012 at 4:58PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

While this video is quite long, an hour and a half, it does give very good information about getting soils into good condition to grow strong and healthy plants. Add organic matter.

Here is a link that might be useful: Back to Eden video

    Bookmark   May 14, 2012 at 7:28AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

idaho_gardener,wayne_5,GoneBananas, I agree.
Friends at Iron Station, N.C. have red clay & use compost to work the clay topsoil in to shape.

    Bookmark   May 14, 2012 at 4:33PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo


I am having good luck with amending my clay with shredded newspapers. I tear them into 1 inch strips and shove the spade in 8 inches and work it in with an inch or so hanging out. It acts as a great wick for moisture. The worms are loving it too and I'm seeing a HUGE increase in earthworms and aeration tunnels from them this year. It helps to prevent the clay from sticking back together too which is our main desire:)
And it's free! I get newspapers from work and family. Just don't use any glossy papers because God knows what's in those!

    Bookmark   May 14, 2012 at 7:56PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
hortster(6a, southcentral KS)

First, peat moss is a waste of time, renewable or not. Breaks down only 2-3% a year, if that. Yeah, might loosen the soil for a while, but...wayne_5, the other OM did much more than the peat.
Next, everybody says, "Repeated tilling of soil destroys the structure." I call BS. Tell that to my RED CLAY that has been repeatedly tilled with a 3" layer of OM every other year for over 15 years (finished compost from the yard materials). Also tell that to my veggies of all kinds, oversized and healthy without chemical products. OK, a couple of holes in veggie foliages but they regrow so fast it doesn't matter. My red clay is now black (well, dark brown unless wet) and CRUMBLES THROUGH MY FINGERS when I dig them through. Keep the "natural" OM coming - may take time but will become what you are looking for. Compost rocks!

    Bookmark   May 14, 2012 at 9:33PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
rhizo_1 (North AL) zone 7

ladybug, I wouldn't try to mess with it too awfully much. "Georgia red clay" is some of the best agricultural soil in the land. Just look around you.

I have brick hard red clay soil here in Northern Alabama and wouldn't trade it for anything. We amended our planting beds, initially, with some compost but other than maintaining a good mulch on top, that's it. Trees that we've planted outside the large ornamental beds are installed directly into the clay, no amendments added.

Everything, from the lawn to trees have done beautifully.

    Bookmark   May 15, 2012 at 7:08AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
wayne_5 zone 6a Central Indiana

horster, When you say that peat moss only breaks down 2 or 3 percent a year, you have just identified one of its great qualities. It is a LONG lasting Soil Conditioner. I do not expect it to provide a lot of decaying organic matter ...that is where compost, leaf much, green manure, and horse manure come in. My local sphagnum has about 10% dark fines and is well hydrated.

I also agree that some people kind of get boxed in ..... gotta box the beds in; can't till. can't walk on the soil, can't use much fertilizer.....

    Bookmark   May 15, 2012 at 4:38PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
toxcrusadr(Zone 6a - MO)

I tilled my clay for a few years till I got some organic matter into it about a foot down, but people started talking about secondary porosity, and it made sense. Now the only reason I dig up an entire raised bed is the damned tree roots. I'd just as soon leave it alone and amend the tomato planting holes and use a lot of mulches (including compost).

    Bookmark   May 15, 2012 at 4:44PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

I have the 'same' soils here in NC, When starting a new bed a double dig compost and peat moss in. Subsequent years I just top dress with compost and mulch. Seems to work fine. You'll also want to amend with dolomitic lime since these southeast ultisols are acidic and depleted of calcium and magnesium.

    Bookmark   May 16, 2012 at 8:11AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

ultisols plural of ul-ti-sol
A leached red or reddish-yellow acid soil with a clay subsoil, occurring in warm, humid climates.

    Bookmark   May 16, 2012 at 8:02PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
yolos - z 7b/8a Ga.

I live in Brooks, Ga. (just south of atlanta). I read the above posts and had to laugh at some of the comments. When you first begin trying to amend the red ga clay, you can not use a fork to break up the soil. It takes a lot of muscle and a pick ax to break up the clay. After recently moving again, I gave up trying to amend the soil this time. I am now using the Square Foot Gardening method with raised beds and "soilless" soil (1/3 compost, 1/3 peat moss or coir, 1/3 vermiculite). What a pleasure to reach into the "soil" and feel the nice crumbly friable soil. No more pick ax needed.

    Bookmark   May 16, 2012 at 10:34PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

The "forking method" is not intended to break up the clay, it's intended to get some compost deep into the soil, that's it, with a minimum disturbance to the soil's physical structure. The compost does all the work. The fork I own has four tines that are very sharp, one just has to make sure the clay is not totally dried out and rock hard before commencing. I lived in your red clay and now I live in our white clay, that's the method I use so I'm not sure why you'd be "laughing out loud", so allow me the same pleasure. Your method, which is called "Mel's Method" is costly, and indicates you just might be a city slicker that don't know a lot about dirt, lol. I have lots and lots of raised beds and have tried a lot of methods. I have a four by four with Mel's Mix in from a few years back, still.. But, for most folks, if it's too much work, or too much money, it aint gardening...


    Bookmark   May 17, 2012 at 12:31AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
yolos - z 7b/8a Ga.

Mackel - No I am not a city slicker. I have lived in the country on 5 acreas of land for over 30 years. This is the 3rd house I have lived in with red ga clay. I am 62 years old and tired of trying to amend the clay soil. Yes it can be done. But it is hard, hard work. Even a tiller doesn't help much in the first year or two. It about jerks your arms out of their sockets trying to get it to dig into the clay. Yes you can wet the soil to help but if you wet it too much you then have a garden full of clay clods when the soil dries out. At my age, and given that I can afford raised beds, I am really enjoying planting vegetables this year.

    Bookmark   May 17, 2012 at 10:40AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
fairfield8619(Zone 8 NW LA)

Wood products will give the most bang for your buck. Lightly mixing them would be nice but you can just lay them on top and you will be amazed how that works. Whoever said PM only breaks down 2-3% does not garden where it is always hot and often wet. The soil here burns through OM incredibly fast. It never stops even in the winter. I have pulled the mulch back when the temps were in the 30's and the springtails were jumping everywhere. Still, peatmoss is expensive and we have lots bark and wood around, might as well use that. ANY organic is good and lots of it, it's not rocket science.

    Bookmark   May 19, 2012 at 5:58PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Totally amazing to me that people will talk about spending money to buy organic matter, peat moss, coir, etc., when they have large amounts of free organic matter readily available to them every year when the leaves fall from deciduous trees.
Peat moss does last a long time in soil, because the Soil Food Web will not digest it and peat moss contributes no nutrients to the plants growing in soils amended with it. Not only is peat moss an expensive non renewable resource, but it does not feed the plants so that requires the grower to add nutrients from other sources, usually also non renewable that add to the pollution of our world.

    Bookmark   May 20, 2012 at 7:04AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Wayne I couldnt have said it better myself. Nobody buys peat for the nutrtional value, they incorporate it into the soil because it helps dense clay soil become workable and last for years (I dont want to wait 10 years by rocking back and forth on a fork) I love using as many leaves and grass clippings and free municiple compost as I can, I do it like the farmers do, I till it all in and add water because you can compost that way a heck of a lot faster than shaking a barrel twice a month to get a wheel barrow full when I need 100 wheel barrows full.By tilling my garden (between the rows) I kill lots of weeds aerate the soil and incorporate all my neighbors(10 bags a week) clippings while they are green, they break down completely in a matter of weeks bacause they are kept wet when I irrigate. the beauty of it is all the nitrogen is in the soil.I think it would be beneficial if people when posting a question on here would give dimensions to thier garden and what they grow in them (type) it would be easier to respond or learn from the resposes. There is a big difference between a 60 x 60 garden and a 12 x 6 raised bed when dealing with cement hard clay.

    Bookmark   December 14, 2012 at 4:17AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

The soil I garden in is not Georgia clay but is luvisolic clay which is similar to grey concrete in it's natural state. Because our property is a mostly coniferous forest there was at most an inch of topsoil in the area around our house when I began gardening here.

This is a rural area and I have been limited by what is available so initially I bought topsoil, mushroom compost, peat moss, and DH hauled soil from around our barn, and tilled it all in. The barnyard soil consisted of manure, rotted wasted hay, and sawdust we used to provide a dry place for calves. The hoof action of the cattle had tilled it for us and it was a good amendment except for the perennial weeds and grasses that come with hay. I planted a mixed cover crop of field peas, and a couple of grasses which was a prepared mix from our local feed store. There are many plants one can use as a cover crop - annual ryegrass, winter rye, winter wheat, oats, white clover, sweet clover, hairy vetch and buckwheat are some. I highly recommend using cover crops and you might inquire with your local extension office which would work best in your climate and soil. What is best for building your garden soil depends on many factors - climate, budget, availability of materials, equipment, whether you choose organic or not, and your ability.

From what I've read recently I think the addition of wood chips can be a good amendment. If you have access to good compost in bulk that is a good choice. Of course any organic material such as leaves and manures can be used.

IMO tilling some amendments into clay soil is a good place to start. DH always tilled new beds at least a couple of times to incorporate organics deeply enough. Takes more than one pass in hard clay soil. He also double dug one bed but that's a lot of work in clay soil and works better after one has tilled and gardened in it awhile. Since the initial tilling I haven't had to do anything but keep adding organics. I also use alfalfa tea extensively as a fertilizer.

Encouraging earthworms is IMO one of the best things one can do to improve soil, especially in clay soil. They create holes several feet down in solid clay which helps drainage and moves organics through the clay. There was not one single visible worm when I started gardening here but there are now so many that in the spring I have a large flock of robins feasting on the worms. Whenever I move a plant I find many worms in the root ball.

Adding organics is not a one-time activity, it's necessary to add some every year at least. I make compost using sawdust/fine wood shavings as the 'browns' and kitchen scraps, UCG, and horse manure as 'greens' and have used it for top-dressing/mulch once or twice a year for many years. I'm now also using shredded bark as mulch as have found an inexpensive source and look forward to seeing how that affects my soil.

I would recommend amending heavily with as much material as you can get, tilling, and planting a cover crop as soon as possible. Then a few weeks before planting in the spring till it in. You may never again have to till altho I don't think it's as harmful as some suggest.

    Bookmark   December 14, 2012 at 12:19PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

This thread shows everything wrong with asking for advice on the Internet. You definitely get opinions, and some of them are great, but the beginner has no way to separate the wheat from the chaff. The idea that peat moss only breaks down 2% in a year is so monumentally wrong that you can only shake your head. I use peat every year, and I'm lucky to find any the next spring. That's exactly why I need to keep buying it! If peat really lasted that long, it would be perfect for amending soil. It's not there to provide nutrients, as any gardener with the slightest knowledge will tell you. It's there to hold mositure, and improve the tilth of the soil. It allows roots to penetrate the soil easily, and earthworms as well. Saying that peat only breaks down 2% per year is like saying the sun orbits the earth, or water runs up hill. An explanation for why someone would say a thing like that would take you far out of gardening, and into certain other fields.

    Bookmark   December 14, 2012 at 4:33PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Another vote for the Back to Eden video linked above.

In short, call a local tree trimmer, and ask them to dump freshly shredded tree branches and leaves in your backyard for free. Keep it damp when possible. Wait. Plant. Rejoice.

    Bookmark   January 6, 2013 at 5:42PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Jon, it depends on climate/soil interaction. In some cases the claim about peat moss or any OM could be correct.

    Bookmark   January 9, 2013 at 8:41AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Posted by kimmsr 4a/5b-MI (My Page) on Sun, May 13, 12 at 6:41

"Building raised beds may be of some help, but, where do you get the soil to fill those raised beds? Is it the same thing you are trying to replace? What is the cost of doing this and is it worthwhile?"

Well said, kimmsr.

About fixing the soil. It may take years of mulching with organic matter.

    Bookmark   January 9, 2013 at 9:55PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

One fall, at daughters southeast Ohio home, I piled up some of the leaves that son in law raked up on the tan clay soil commom around there and those leaves simply sat there all winter. Before pilling those leaves up you could not force a spading fork into that clay. The following spring I showed son in law how easy it was to insert that same spading fork into the clay under that pile of leaves, no effort needed. It may take months, but certainly will not take years if adequate amounts of organic matter are used.
Wood chips may take longer since they are not as easily digested as tree leaves are.

    Bookmark   January 10, 2013 at 7:13AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Yea your right. I just meant years will make an even better soil then just months. With in a few months your soil will be good, in a few years your soil will be really good! :)

    Bookmark   January 10, 2013 at 10:03AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Probably 8 or 9 years ago now, I dumped a number of those larger 3.8(?) cu ft bales of peat on a virgin plot that was formerly pasture to who knows what and had been grass for a while after that. Vehicle traffic as well, I'm sure. After bush hogging, ripping with a subsoiler (deep tooth behind a tractor, basically), and tilling a number of times to get it smooth, it was plantable fairly soon. That is now where I grow sweetpotatoes every year. It's about 30x100 feet. The peat was $2 per bale at K-Mart at the end of the season one year before or I wouldn't have purchased it. 20 bales.

Since then, I've quit buying peat (haven't seen it that cheap again or I might consider it) and use leaves and horse manure exclusively. And the rest of the 100x100 plot has kind of caught up to how the peat amended portion looks. That part is definitely still different looking in the spring when I till the whole thing. Far less clumping, for sure. I believe the peat does in fact last a lot longer than one or two years. I can see the difference when I look at it. I can feel the difference when I feel it. But the rest is quite nice as well after copious amounts of manure and leaves have been added and turned in. Not to mention all the veggie and weed plant residue.

    Bookmark   January 10, 2013 at 2:21PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Take the leaves away, let the soil sit in the sun for three or four days, and then tell me how easy it was to put a spade in that soil.

I have black gumbo, I can do what you did and yes I can put shovel in there and turn over a lump that will after a few days of sun be hard enough to kill someone.

I have put yards and yards of organic matter into the garden over years so your simple line is bs.
Mine is a very rich soil, but clay it was, and clay it will be forever unless I decide to start putting more than just organic matter in it and I have no intention of shipping in yards of sand or anything else.

    Bookmark   January 10, 2013 at 2:25PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
wayne_5 zone 6a Central Indiana

I too have some heavy blackish soil in a lower corner of a couple of gardens. After adding peat moss. medium/coarse sand, horse manure, leaf compost, residues from elsewhere, and leaf mulch, it is wonderful soil. I give the most credit to the peat moss and medium/coarse sand as it was immediately great tilth after adding those two.

    Bookmark   January 10, 2013 at 7:49PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Just putting wood chips on top of thick clay soil didn't help out my garden very much last year.

But in a test bed where I dug in massive amounts of wood chips the plants did great.

Here is a link that might be useful: pictures of roots growing in wood chip soil

    Bookmark   January 11, 2013 at 1:24PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

It takes more than "just putting wood chips", but not much more. My garden expands like this, first I hack down the weeds and leave them laying in place. Next I put a single layer of corrugated cardboard and wet it thoroughly. Finally I top dress with at least 2" of wood chips in various stages of decay. Then over the course of the year I throw down grass clippings, shredded leaves, partially finished compost or anything else that I think will contribute. Come next spring the red clay is easy to stick a spade into and chock full of worms.

    Bookmark   January 11, 2013 at 1:56PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

How far down?

I turn my soil over, with a shovel, to a depth of 16 inches. (not every year, and not the entire garden all at once. I did half last fall.)
It sounds like you are building up soil, not improving sub-soil.

I had intended to put several trailers of sheep manure on also but the week I was going to do it we had ten inches of snow that is still there.
I got stuck in the garden once about ten years ago and do not EVER intend to deal with that again.

    Bookmark   January 11, 2013 at 2:45PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

The thick mulching method requires a fairly moist climate, otherwise the mulch doesn't break down much or at all and the soil underneath is inactive from dryness as well.

That is a key factor that the currently very popular back to eden video ignores.

    Bookmark   January 11, 2013 at 4:15PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo


The depth of a spade, 8 - 12 inches? And this is on red clay that had been compacted by construction vehicles less than 10 years ago.


I do live in a very humid climate, despite the drought that has gripped the region on and off over the past decade. My neighbors give me strange looks when I water the mulch.

    Bookmark   January 12, 2013 at 7:15AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Yea, the water really helps break it down more.

This post was edited by TheMasterGardener1 on Sat, Jan 12, 13 at 10:15

    Bookmark   January 12, 2013 at 10:04AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Woops :)

This post was edited by TheMasterGardener1 on Sat, Jan 12, 13 at 10:16

    Bookmark   January 12, 2013 at 10:14AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

From your description you are adding at least four to six inches on top of the clay, so the clay is not changing by just laying there.

If you are turning over the soil then you are modifying the clay by mixing it with the amendments, not changing the clay by simply piling stuff on top.

The reason I am saying this is so many say: "all I do is pile stuff of top and magic happens to the dirt underneath", well that is poppy-cock, it is turning the extra material into the soil that makes the difference.

    Bookmark   January 12, 2013 at 12:27PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Just like the forest floor, laying leaves and NOT tilling them in will in fact change the soil under it. Some soils may take longer, but it will change without any till, thus 'no-till'.....

I layed crop residue and leaves in a few rows and let me tell ya' that soil was really loose with only a winter of mulching.

For the record I use the till method every year, but just got to see how well mulching works. Because I add new rows every year which I have to remove grass to do, I use the till method all the time with only adding little compost. My plants do need additional nutrition half way through the year so I know my soil will not give plants 100% of their nutritional needs.

    Bookmark   January 12, 2013 at 12:59PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Yes if I just lay leaves on my soil, in the spring if I remove them it is easier to turn that soil than where it was covered not.
After turning the covered and uncovered both will dry and turn into hard clumps one could use to hurt some one else.

If I turn the leaves in, in the fall and level the area, the next spring the area with the leaves were turned in will form less solid clumps than the area without the turned in leaves.

If I simply turn the whole garden over leaving large clumps on an extremely uneven surface, the next spring the entire garden is easier to work than if I had not turned it.

The soil can only be changed below the surface by what one does to it below the surface, not by what one does not do.

    Bookmark   January 12, 2013 at 2:18PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Yeah, 4 - 6 inches seems about the maximum, but I'm telling you, the worms do all the work below that depth. I can go to an area that hasn't been mulched, it's hard as concrete, if I can manage to get a fork in there I end up with big chunks of red clay, not a worm in sight. If I turn over a shovel full that's been beneath a layer of cardboard and mulch for a year it's like worm Disneyland and crumbles upon contact.

I'll make a video and it will go viral on YouTube.

    Bookmark   January 12, 2013 at 9:25PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
wayne_5 zone 6a Central Indiana

The question in my mind is....Would the mulched part turn hard if it was allowed to dry also? In other words, is the soil changed long term now?

    Bookmark   January 12, 2013 at 10:04PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

If you put mulch on your soil and leave it there, do not remove it, the Soil Food Web will eventually work that material into your soil and that will result in a workable soil that is easily tilled (if you want to do that) drains well, and retains moisture so your plants can grow better with less stress.
If you lay some mulch on your soil for a few months and then remove it, not enough organic matter has been worked in to make much, if any, difference and your soil wil behave as it always has, ie removing the mulch will allow the soil to dry out and become hard as dried clay, with too little organic matter, will.
Peat moss is expensive,as well as a non renewable resource, while tree leaves for many of us are free and can supply valuable nutrients to the soil that peat moss cannot. I know of mountains of bagged leaves within 10 miles and many other places will have the same because far too many people simply think of those leaves as something that must be gotten rid of and not the valuable, nutrient laden, renewable resource they are.
The last time I was in Georgia I saw a lot of deciduous trees although I did not take the time to look for mountains of them in bags that people threw out.

    Bookmark   January 13, 2013 at 7:48AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
wayne_5 zone 6a Central Indiana

The man who wrote Plowman's Folly said that when he worked whole leaves down into his clay soil that it did not work out well. when he left them on top, the soil became more mellow.

Kimmsr, you have again said that peat moss is non renewable. I have read that it is GROWING 70 times faster than it is being harvested. To me that is a tremendous renewable product.

Sure peat moss isn't to be used for high nutrient value, but I know of nothing else that beautifully changes the tilth as soon as it is added.

    Bookmark   January 13, 2013 at 5:08PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Never read Plowman's Folly, but it sounds like he dug in leaves and then did not mulch afterwards. That would definitely produce poorer results to mulching on clay.

I mulched a california clay garden for 3 year with leaves, needles and then this last year wood chips. Yes there were tons of worms in the bed. When I dug into it, I saw lots of worm holes throughout the bed more than a foot deep. The soil was easily tillable when wet.
The only problem was the vegetables in these beds produced hardly none at all.

In another bed I dug in lots of wood chips 1 to 2 shovels deep and mulched with wood chips.
The vegetables in this bed produced wonderfully. There were more worms in this bed and it also required less fertilizer.

Whether just mulching will work, depends on what soil you are starting with. If a new gardener thinks just putting a layer of 3" of mulch on the ground and waiting a year will produce a good garden, then he probably will be very disappointed.

The pacific northwest is the ideal climate for breaking down wood: moist and relatively warm. The soil there is probably good to start with.

The movie Back to Eden inspired me, but I realize after a year of many different trials, I needed to dig in lots of organic matter into my soil. Hopefully my efforts will yield a "no-till" garden in the future, but I'm too tired to keep gardening with no results; so I'll till in more wood chips again this spring.

Here is a link that might be useful: Digging in organic matter

    Bookmark   January 13, 2013 at 6:28PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Well assuming that is an eight inch shove, he is down about three feet or so.
Do that where my top soil is only down about two and one half feet, it gets much deeper the farther south of Hutchinson one goes, and one would be into yellow clay.

I buried parts of a Elm root that deep quite awhile back, it was already soft, but when I dug it up two year later to see what happend there was just yellow clay and the same tree roots.

THAT is why I have little faith in burying chunks of wood.\
Does not work around here, at all.

    Bookmark   January 14, 2013 at 5:01PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
wayne_5 zone 6a Central Indiana

RpR, In 1974 they cleared the woods on the home farm. A couple years ago a hole developed where they had buried a mass of limb/logs about 3 to 12 feet down. You could see the wood still laying down there. I would say that shallow wood would rot, but deeper wood in most areas would not for maybe 100 years.

The wood fence posts rot mostly in the upper 4 inches of soil where fungi, bacteria, and oxygen are plentiful.

    Bookmark   January 14, 2013 at 10:34PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

I certainly remember that red Georgia mud from my days at Fort Benning!

I have the same problem here in southeast Texas, except our soil is ugly Pleistocene clay. Its durability can be attested by the shards of native Attakapan clay pottery that litter the marshes here. Even more unluckily for me, my half-acre was leveled years ago with clay from who knows where. Most of it is black, but a lot of it is a dull, brownish gray, and some is red also.

Like you, I tried and tried for years to figure something out. Roto-tillers wouldn't work, they just balled the clay up and became mired down. I don't like to use them anyway, so I invested in a broadfork. Here's my methodology that has finally broken the clay barrier -

1. A few days after a good rain, break up your row with the broadfork, as deep as the tines will go. Takes some time and effort, but is well worth it. It's important that you wait until after a rain because the clay is easier to work when it's slightly moist.

2. Break up the clods with a mattock or whatever you have. I then go in and break the smaller ones by hand. It's not necessary to break up every single clod, just ones that would appear to block a plant root and enough to fill up the gaps.

3. Once your clods are broken up and you have a workable soil, spread a very generous amount of vermiculite on top of the row. Add a few flakes of hay or straw, and then add a few lawnmower bags full of freshly cut grass.

4. Mix everything together, being sure you get a very thorough blending of all the materials, throughout the depth of the bed. The grass will mat up and stay that way forever if you don't. As you mix in everything, spray it every once in a while with a good dose of liquid molasses.

5. Level out the bed, add a very thick layer of fresh cut grass as a mulch, and water it well. The grass mulch works wonders to hold in moisture, and the extra nitrogen is good to have in the already poor clay.

I let the beds sit for a few weeks after this to get stuff cooking and settled down. You'll find that all the hard work you did breaking those clods was not for nothing, as the soil will be loose, friable, and have that chocolate cake consistency you keep reading about in the books. I'm certainly no expert, all I know is that this works for me. Not sure if there's any difference between Texas clay and Georgia clay..



    Bookmark   August 5, 2013 at 3:31AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

My question is, if putting mulch on top of your soil makes it soft and workable, why would you want to remove the mulch so it can dry out? Keep the mulch on it and call it good. My compost is made from wood chips, grass clippings, maple leaves and kitchen scraps, it's good stuff and I don't till it in, top my beds with it every spring and fall.

My soil isn't clay though, Lucky me.


    Bookmark   August 6, 2013 at 4:51PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Cover crop. I recommend crimson clover, plant in the fall with just enough topsoil to encourage sprouts, They will aerate your soil fairly well in a season. Keeping OM in the soil is a continuing process, and I've used clover in my garden (also clay). Till it in before it goes to seed though or you'll be in trouble.

    Bookmark   August 7, 2013 at 7:20PM
Sign Up to comment
More Discussions
Is non-organic compost OK?
Hello, I am wondering if buying compost from a small,...
Planting in area covered with "playground" wood chips
I need some advice... I recently had a small playhouse...
rescuing a defunct flower bed
We bought our house a year ago and now want to replant...
Reviving old garden
At our home that we purchased last summer, there is...
Compost is wet and soggy. Can I use it? It's not done yet..
Hi there. My first compost is almost a year old now....
Mikkel Nielsen
Sponsored Products
Nourison Amore AMOR1 3'11" x 5'11" Aqua Rug
$190.00 | PlushRugs
$20.00 | Horchow
Dura-Trel Cambridge 6-ft. Vinyl Arch Trellis - Mocha - 11172M
$65.48 | Hayneedle
Habersham Biltmore Grand Approach Doorway Hutch
Type 1228 Floor Lamp - Lime - Anglepoise
$355.00 | HORNE
Timekeeping Giclee Glow Plug-In Swag Pendant
Lamps Plus
Christopher Knight Home Alston Click-Clack Oversized Convertible Leather Ottoman
Pre-owned Abstract Acrylic Painting
$900.00 | Chairish
© 2015 Houzz Inc. Houzz® The new way to design your home™