Hard packed clay is just a big bowl of water!

ellenrosJuly 1, 2014

Help!!! I am trying to plant my fruit trees, but every time i dig a hole and fill it with water, it just sits there. For days. One has tadpoles in it now. We just built this house on 3 acres that has just sat growing wild for probably the last 20 years. My soil is so hard packed that i haven't seen an earthworm and i have been digging holes for weeks! I know that I need truckloads of compost, etc to improve the soil in general, but my immediate need is how to plant these trees without drowning them. Any ideas?

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Been there and done that. The main thing is to dig a shallow hole, like a dish, wider than deep, to a depth where about the top 1/4-1/3 of the root ball is above the original ground surface. Mound up the leftover soil around the root ball so it's covered. This way the roots will not sit in a puddle too long when it rains.

Mulch up over it but no mulch up against the trunk. If you have hot dry weather and you anticipate watering a lot, make a berm of soil around the outside of the mound to keep water from running off the mound and getting away.

Don't amend the clay very much - some say not at all. Otherwise the roots may not be able to penetrate out of the original hole and will go round and round in there.

Use organic mulches that will decompose and slowly improve the soil over time. Compost, partially finished compost, shredded yard waste, wood chips, etc.

Good luck!

    Bookmark   July 2, 2014 at 12:13PM
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In addition to the absolutely dead-on advice provided you by tox, be sure to roughen up the edges of your widely dished planting hole. This will allow the roots to more easily penetrate into the surrounding soil.

    Bookmark   July 2, 2014 at 1:33PM
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What tox said can be found at


I would make very shallow holes, with the top of the tree above grade. For long term amelioration, I would google

biological drilling daikon

Territorial has it


These will bring earthworms over time. I would even plant them in spring so they can go to seed and start a self supporting seed bank, until you are satisfied with the tilth (at which point you can start mowing).

I should mention that I started my orchard in the last three years, in similar clay. I had several spent mushroom logs. The trees that are doing better are those where I buried logs in the hole. A few died due to the harsh winter, on digging them I was shocked at how fine was the soil. It is called hugelkultur.

    Bookmark   July 2, 2014 at 5:46PM
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The link glip mentions above can be accessed below without a copy and paste operation.

Here is a link that might be useful: How to plant a tree

    Bookmark   July 3, 2014 at 6:32AM
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I got a suggestion to dig a 12 inch hole in the bottom of the hole with a post hole digger and fill it with gravel to improve drainage also. Thoughts?

    Bookmark   July 10, 2014 at 12:28PM
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nancyjane_gardener(Zone 8ish North of San Francisco in the "real" wine country)

I have horrible clay also. My brother gifted me with a cute little Fuji apple tree. We dug a huge hole, back filled with the native soil and it thrived.....until the 3rd year and it just DIED!
When we dug it out we discovered the roots just couldn't penetrate that clay soil! It turned into a clay bowl that the roots just circled and circled!
In that same yard a Liquid Amber tree and several oak trees have flourished! In the back yard (same clay) we have planted a mimosa and a black locust which are doing wonderfully!
Hard to say! Nancy

    Bookmark   July 11, 2014 at 2:24AM
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The suggestion to fill a deeper hole with gravel to improve drainage is not a good one.......it doesn't help.

There are two ways to deal with a poorly draining, heavy clay soil. One is to add copious amounts of organic matter over a period of years to lighten and loosen the soil. No sand, no gravel - they won't help. Planting deep rooted plants can help. Obviously, this is no fast fix.

The second way is to just deal with what you've got. Using wide, shallow planting holes, plant high (top of rootball above soil level) and mound removed or improved soil/mulch up to the top of the root ball, making a small berm. Or create a large berm or raised bed. Or select plants that will tolerate your soil conditions.

    Bookmark   July 12, 2014 at 2:33PM
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Clay soil particles are flat and fit together quite tightly so they do not allow water, or plant roots for that matter, to move around easily. While adding sand, silt, gravel, etc. may appear to be what needs to happen to improve things you would need very large quantities to accomplish much and then as time passes and the soil particles move about they will fill in those spaces and you get back to the same conditions you had before.
Some people will state that you will need to add organic matter every year, and yes you will. Ma Nature does that, and has done that for eons so why should it be any different for us.

    Bookmark   July 13, 2014 at 7:02AM
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Will any old log work in the bottom of the hole? Just throw it in and plant on top? And I threw some of my chocolate mulch in the hole with some perennials the other day, will this help break it up or is it just a waste of time?

    Bookmark   July 17, 2014 at 2:36PM
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