How to Improve Clay Soil As You Plant

The best kind of soil amendment: compost with earthworm activity.

Soil

Other than that’s what a plant grows in, I didn’t give soil much thought in my early years of gardening. Too busy touching, smelling, trimming and watering what grows above. Add a little compost on top of the soil in fall to feed the plant and done.

I discovered that if I put a little more effort into the soil when planting something new, then add compost to the soil yearly while the plant is growing, my plant thrives. Makes me feel like a successful gardener!

My yard has three to four inches of topsoil with clay below that. Plants don’t grow well in clay. It is made of compressed particles that leave no room for air or water to circulate. It does have nutrients but plant roots have trouble making their way through the compressed clay.

New rule for my yard: When digging a hole for a new plant – amend or change the soil.

Tools Needed:

  • Measuring tape
  • A large shovel or spade
  • Gloves
  • Wheelbarrow

Digging the Hole

Before you begin you need to know how deep and wide to dig the hole. Caution: math skills at work here!

How Deep

To find out how deep the hole should be, measure the height of the new plant’s root ball (the batch of dirt surrounding the roots whether round or not).  With the measuring tape begin at the top of the ball where the stem goes into the soil and continue to the bottom of the ball. That measurement tells you how deep to dig the hole.

How Wide

Dig the hole two times wider than the root ball. Measure across the root ball from side to side. Multiply that number times two.  Dig the hole that width all the way around. This will give your plant roots plenty of room to stretch out and grow.

Two times the width is a general guideline. The tag on the plant often has directions for planting depth and width. Another place to look is online. Gardening books have information too.

Now Dig

Knowing the depth and width of the hole to dig, it’s time to shovel.

First dig topsoil from the top layer of ground. Put it in a pile on the ground to one side of the hole you’re digging.

The clay from deeper in the hole goes in a pile on the other side.

This makes two separate piles of material from the hole. It’s time to mix up “new” soil in a wheelbarrow using the shovel.

Creating New Soil

Three ingredients go into the wheelbarrow one shovelful at a time:

  • Soil from the first pile.
  • Clay from the other pile.
  • Compost from your compost pile in the garden or a purchased bag.

How to mix it:

  1. Using the shovel chop the pile of clay into very small chunks, less than ½” large. Put a shovelful of that in the wheelbarrow.
  2. Add a shovelful of soil from the other pile.
  3. Add a shovelful of compost to the mix.
  4. Chop and mix this all together with the shovel until it’s loose and fine. It’s ready to use for planting.

Planting With the New Soil

Put a shovelful of the newly mixed soil in the hole and spread it out along the bottom. Set the root ball of the plant in the hole. Now fill in all around the root ball with the new soil. Press the soil gently as you add it to eliminate air pockets. Water can collect in air pockets and rot the roots. Not good!

Finish by pressing down on the top layer with your hand if it’s a small plant like a day lily. Use your foot if it’s a shrub or tree. Water thoroughly – until the water quits sinking in, puddles and runs off.

Add a layer of mulch on top to keep the soil from washing away. Mulch helps keep moisture in too. In the fall add a one inch layer of compost to feed the roots for next year’s growth.

Reward

Amending poor soil like clay when planting has long term benefits. The plant gets off to a strong start with roots that can move through the soil, take in the nutrients that are available in it and receive water that drains well. Plant the best you can once and enjoy years of beauty.

 

Copyright 2018 Juli Seyfried

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juli

Juli gardens a small yard in an older suburban neighborhood. There is a lot of problem-solving and fun on a small property. She likes to share what she's learned. She learns from others too.

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