Clay Soil and Citrus Trees

kuinut(11)July 18, 2010

Hi Everyone,

As you can probably guess, I am planning to plant a citrus tree, but my concern is with my very dense clay soil.

Specifically, I would like to plant a Meyer Lemon tree, hopefully grafted onto something that will stay nice and small. I haven't purchased the tree yet because I am still digging up the area I want to plant it in. My soil, however, is very very dense only a few inches down. I tried digging it up with a shovel, but only got about 5 inches in until I hit what is basically dried out dark chocolate. I am going to take a soil sample to my University's Cooperative Extension Office to get the composition tested and see if they have any advice.

I would like to amend the soil and do a lasagna garden, but as I understand, that takes a few years to have something to really work with.

Does anyone have any suggestions or experience planting citrus trees in this kind of soil? From what I've read so far, it sounds like the tree would be ok being left in a pot for a while, but I would like to move it into the ground. I just don't want to try to plant it if the clay is going to choke out the roots... granted that I can even dig deep enough to get the root ball far enough in.

Thanks in advance,


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My thinking is the other way around to your thoughts.

I'm planting trees in exactly that type of soil to mitigate those conditions.

I should have made the holes bigger but it was a struggle make those. Planted a pomegranate, a lemon and, an acacia. Back filled with a bunch of compost and some coffee grounds for the worms. Plant so everything sits high above the ground because it's all going to settle when throwing in a lot compost.

The lemon was stunted from the get go from being in a pot for too long but is doing fine. Same for the other two. The acacia is branching out and getting height. The pomegranate is flowering and I expect fruit this year.

I have tasked these trees to send their roots out and penetrate the soil. I expect the trees to start the process so when I get around to removing turf and planting natives, the soil will be somewhat ready. I expect a decade to go by before the ground truly accepts water and not let it run off after watering a short while.

I will add compost and other organics as I go along. After the turf is removed, one day, I will mulch to the teeth. It will be a long road. I cannot offer you anything better without a lot of work and drastic action.

A landscape guy offered that I dig trenches and back fill with a lot of compost and let the trenches become organic sinks where the organics will migrate and feed the rest of the yard. I have done that with a couple of small holes and have stopped a couple of bad water runoff spots.

to sense

    Bookmark   July 18, 2010 at 2:24AM
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Many times you will hear that before planting anything in soil amend it with lots of organic matter, but in clay soils if you do that you essentially create someplace where water can flow into freely and then cannot move out easily, so amending the soil just around where you will be planting is not something you want to do. If you can amend a very large area around where you will be planting that would be good, but you do not want to create a "bathtub".
Test your drainage by digging a hole 1 foot in diameter and 1 foot deep and fill that with water and allow that water to drain away. Then refill that hole with more water and time how long it takes to drain. If less then 4 to 6 hours you can add lots of organic matter to the planting hole, but if more than that, while organic matte is needed, it is better to lay that OM on the soil and allow the Soil Food Web to move it in, a process that takes much longer but gets the OM into the soil better than tilling.

    Bookmark   July 18, 2010 at 6:59AM
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Thanks rott and kimmsr. I'll keep in mind what I'm learning from you two.

-rott: Actually, I don't think I have enough organic material to amend the entire yard area that's been designated as a future garden. I actually had no idea that the tree roots would be able to develop so strongly at such an early age to break through all that clay. Only problem is, I doubt I can dig a hole deep enough to get far enough down to stick the root ball.

-kimmsr: As I mentioned to rott, I doubt I can dig a whole that deep. I was actually considering a pick axe at one point... I have been trying, but as it stands right now, those few inches down are holding on to water pretty badly. I'd like to let it dry out, but the weather's been pretty overcast and drizzly for about two weeks now...

    Bookmark   July 18, 2010 at 6:47PM
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I recently planted I lime tree on heavy clay - I didn't bother to dig a hole. I just plonked the root ball on top of the soil and built a mound of compost and mulch around it. Too soon to say how the tree is faring, but drainage seems to be excellent and the underlying clay should improve over time.

    Bookmark   July 18, 2010 at 9:48PM
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Yeah I kind of ignored the bath tub effect. I've had these trees for a while and they needed to get into the ground. At the same time, I figured the trees would do more for the ground than what I was doing at the time which was close to nothing.

I'm kind of hoping the bath tub effect to allow water to percolate deeper and the roots to chase the water. It's dry country here. I'm betting it's dry enough to mitigate the rot in the bath tub effect. We'll see. A lot of planting is done in the fall for the winter rains in these parts.

Used a pick axe to dig those holes. Not as deep as I was thinking either. Good thing it wasn't a hot day.

to sense

    Bookmark   July 22, 2010 at 2:04AM
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I think that raised beds are the way to go in this situation. I would raise about a foot with a nice sandy mix and plant in there. If drainage is a problem, then I would also make sure that you have trifoliate orange rootstock and not just a Meyer Lemon cutting (Meyers are usually propogated by rooted cuttings rather than budded or grafted).

It sort of depends on where you are located as well.

    Bookmark   July 22, 2010 at 11:22AM
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Only problem is, I doubt I can dig a hole deep enough to get far enough down to stick the root ball.

Shovels aren't the best digging tool. There's a reason they call it "Pick and Shovel" work. Use a pick-axe or a mattock to break up the dirt and the shovel to move the loosened dirt.

You need a hole that is NO DEEPER than the root ball and about 3 times as wide. Dig, fill the hole with water, let it soak in, and then plant the tree.
Backfill with native soil, no amendments ... then water as needed. Clay soil is very easy to saturate, so be cautious.

    Bookmark   July 22, 2010 at 3:53PM
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