This post contains affiliate links. If you buy through these links, I may earn a small commission.
If you’re looking for tips on how to improve clay soil, check out this guide for frustration-free ideas!
Here in the Cariboo region of British Columbia, we have clay based soil in our lawn 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.
How to Improve Clay Soil
Before I share how to fix your soil, here is a bit of history of what our soil (and first time garden) was like when we moved here to the Valley.
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.
This is something to keep in mind if you are breaking in a first year garden with hard, lousy soil. Plant potatoes! Plant lots of potatoes.
Head on over here if you want to learn how to grow potatoes.
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.
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.
Why is Clay Hard to Grow In?
Wow, did our soil need improving. Solid clumps of clay are hard to garden in!
Because of the shape of clay particles (flat and condensed instead of round, as something like sand, silt, or loam might be), compaction is a large problem, especially when wet or under any kind of pressure.
This prevents things like air, moisture, minerals, and nutrients from filtering in and out, which is a surefire way to stunt any plant growth.
Top dressing with components like pine bark, gypsum, mulch, or other organic materials like composted leaves or grass clippings is a great way to promote better drainage and aeration in clay soil.
How to Amend Clay Soil for Vegetable Gardens
There are a number of soil amendments you can make to enrich your clay. Use aged manure or compost.
Growing some cover crops that are rich in the nutrients your soil needs is a great way to use organic matter to improve soil quality. Getting a garden soil test is a great first step.
Here’s what Carla said about using buckwheat as a form of green manure. It 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.
It’s also a good grain choice if you have poor soil, especially if it’s sticky, dense clay, because the roots break that up and make it loose.
It 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 work it in to the soil by tilling.
If you don’t have a tiller, you can use a shovel or a garden fork instead, digging deep and turning over the entire root system. Leave the stems and leaves to decompose further into the soil.
This has been a big help for us and we also use it in harvested areas of the garden during the gardening season. It grows quickly, which is another bonus.
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. Cut it before it gets over 2 feet tall; there are plenty of nutrients in plants that size.
Solutions for Fixing Heavy Soil
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?
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?
The answer to both of these questions is Buckwheat.
Here’s an important article we wrote a few years ago. You can learn more about how to use Buckwheat to build up your soil.
In addition to these two valuable soil builders, we add a layer of 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.
Another Benefit of Using Cover Crops
Using some type of plant material to help improve your soil, has another benefit. That is keeping your soil covered.
Try to not leave soil bare and exposed to the elements; erosion will easily happen and whatever is good in your top soil will be gone.
Keep your soil covered (as in fully planted) and it will help not only the soil ph but will keep any soil microorganisms in better health.
If you can’t seed a cover crop for whatever reason, consider covering exposed parts of your garden with a layer of straw.
Homesteading Articles You’ll Love
- Want to learn about canning your own food? Read about how to use a pressure canner to can meats and also how to can fish.
- Water bath canning is the easiest way to start to learn how to home can.
- Here’s how to build a Greenhouse – we extended our growing season for under $200!
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.
Want to find out which are The 5 Easiest Vegetables to Grow?
Available only to subscribers; join our Newsletter!
originally published 2011; last updated July 2022