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Here in the Cariboo, we have clay based soil that we are always trying to amend. I had never seen heavy clay soil before we moved here. It was pretty disappointing when we quickly planted a garden after we moved in, but over time we learned how to improve clay soil.
We came here at the beginning of June and maybe 3 days later, we had our first garden in. We planted mostly potatoes which are good for breaking up the soil.
I didn’t think we would have much of a harvest that year. But the garden did better than we thought it would and we had some beets, peas, salad greens and even pole beans.
The pole beans were a mistake here but I didn’t know that. Turns out we only have about 1 month frost free, so I had to put sheets over the pole beans every night.
Then I would remove them in the morning. A real pain that was.
One of the first books I bought about homesteading and gardening on a larger scale was Carla Emery’s book Encyclopedia of Country Living.
I am still often looking something up in this awesome book. It is full of widespread information about different aspects of homesteading.
This book covers everything I needed to know about growing food, preserving food and even raising animals. There is lots of information about the importance of building your soil.
And wow, did our soil need improving. Solid clumps of clay are hard to garden in!
How to Amend Clay Soil for a Garden
You can amend soil by enriching it. Use aged manure or compost. Grow some cover crops that are rich in the nutrients your soil needs. Getting your garden soil tested is a great first step.
Here’s what Carla said about using buckwheat as a form of green manure. Buckwheat works very well for us as we have a shorter gardening season (Canada Zone 3) and it matures so quickly.
“Buckwheat grows especially well in moist, cool climates and cold areas, from Pennsylvania north into Canada. But is grows acceptably well in many other regions.
Buckwheat is also a good grain choice if you have poor soil, especially if it’s sticky, dense clay, because buckwheat roots break that up and make it loose.
Buckwheat is not a good choice if you have nitrogen-rich soil. It will grow to tall and be likely to fall over. (p.156)”
How to Improve Clay Soil with Rye Grass
We have always used fall rye as a green manure for the garden. We sow it in the fall and in spring, once growth starts again, we till it in.
This has been a big help for us and we also use it in harvested areas of the garden during the gardening season. Rye grows quickly, although not as fast as Buckwheat.
If you grow Fall Rye just don’t let it get to tall before cutting. The stalks can get tough and that makes it difficult to cut down. There is plenty of nutrients in shorter Fall Rye.
There is a “grain quiz” in Carla’s chapter on Grasses and Grains, and here’s a bit more info on buckwheat.
If you just plowed up a pasture and want a plant that can wipe out any grass trying to come back, which grain should you plant? ANSWER = Buckwheat
Which grain can you plant in your garden in July, on ground free-up by harvesting vegetables, that will give you a good crop before frost? ANSWER= Buckwheat
Here’s an article on Buckwheat we wrote a few years ago. You can learn more about how to use Buckwheat to build up your soil.
In addition to the buckwheat and rye, we add as much manure to the garden as possible including pig, chicken and horse.
Adding old bedding from animal pens is done as well. The hay/straw breaks down and adds to allow air into the soil.
We get wonderful harvests from our gardens. Vegetables, berries, perennial veggies like asparagus and rhubarb.
We grow enough to fill our cold room and eat lots of great fresh food!
Each year the garden soil has improved and we can tell by the texture. It’s lighter and fluffier than last year, and last year was better than the year before.
The more compost, green manure, straw etc we add – the better the soil will become. And this has to be an ongoing project; otherwise, the good soil will again get depleted.
So now that you know how to improve clay soil, hopefully you can use these tips to lighten your soil and get better garden harvests.
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