Hard Red Clay

gypsy7866July 30, 2012

I just moved to North Carolina from Florida. My last home had nice black soil that barely needed any help to grow a beautiful vegetable garden. My new home has very hard red clay. I bought a heavy duty tiller that won't even break the top soil. There is a meager lawn, needs a little help. Any suggestions to get ready for a vegetable garden. I was hoping to be able to start a very small fall crop and start getting the plot ready for next season. Thanks for any suggestions.

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Mulch and compost. For the vegetable garden, cover the area with wheat straw in a thick layer. Organic materials attract bugs (like roly polies) and worms that will help soften up the soil.

    Bookmark   July 30, 2012 at 6:32PM
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Welcome to the piedmont. I got here seven years ago from CA where they also have dirt. I had no idea that not everyone did. I wondered how any Carolinians could grow anything. As it turns out, clay, with help, has some advantages. It holds water extremely well and (I have heard) it rains year round. The clay also holds on to nutrients but allows plants access to them. But the clay must be amended with organic materials as esh_ga said.

It would be useful to know your ambitions, location, urban or rural, and available space. Aside from our help, you should be able to get advise from your county agricultural extension agents.

Speaking of rain and your hard clay: I thought almost everyone got significent rain last week. I would have expected your soil to have softened enough for a rototiller to break it up. Did you get any?

    Bookmark   July 31, 2012 at 7:53AM
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Digging down is way too much work, build UP your soil instead. Mound store bought top soil and mulch at least 8 inches on top of your clay. Over time the earthworms and other critters will mix it up for you.

    Bookmark   July 31, 2012 at 1:32PM
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Don't let any oak or maple leaves go to waste. In the fall, many people bag their leaves and put them out on the street. Take them home.

If you are working on your lawn just spread them across the lawn and mow over them. The more the better. The spots where you completely cover the grass wil come back best in the spring.

For the garden put the leaves in a big pile and add kitchen scraps through the winter. They will compost slowly. Once spring comes mix in your grass clipings and you will have a very hot compost pile in no time. Red clay plus a few years of compost is just about the best dirt you'll ever garden with.

    Bookmark   August 1, 2012 at 11:29AM
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Be sure and check the leaf bags you pick up off the curb before you put in your garden area. My friend use to bring me leaves as she cleaned up yards but stopped bringing the bags because of fire ants.

    Bookmark   August 1, 2012 at 12:14PM
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woodywoodchuck(Wake Forest, NC 7)

I wore out a set of tines on the BCS starting my garden! Depending on your space buy LOTS of organic material and till it in, I went about a foot down.

To loosen the soil up wait until after a good rain streak, it will soak in and make it softer. If dry, it is like concrete. For smaller areas you can water for several days in a row, going slow and letting it soak in not run off. Water a little, come back in a little while and do it again, let it sit and water again� Little by little the water soaks in and loosens it up.

To release some of the great nutrients look into dolomitic lime. Test your soil and add it little by little until you see good results.

    Bookmark   August 7, 2012 at 3:29PM
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dianne1957(NC 7b)

Gypsy, everyone has their own recipe to augment the soil. I worked with the grey clay in the North and the red clay in the South. What worked for me is 2 part clay, 2 part mulched leaves (run over by lawn mower or leaf mulcher) 1 part peat moss (buy at lowes /home depot), 1 part sand (buy coarse), blend together in wheel barrow
(with hoe and shovel) dump in desired planting spot..7pfnlant.... .then repeat. Water thoroughly...... Mulch with needles or bark....Good Luck! It is a painfull process...but it works! When the growing season is over, lay down more Leaf mulch! Blend in for the following year.

    Bookmark   August 13, 2012 at 8:50PM
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I'm with Triangle john.
This spring i bought cinderblocks at HD they weren't expensive, and I bought 5 bags of garden soil. I also bought some cow compost.
I made a nice raised bed and planted my veggies.
They grew great!
This fall I will apply mulched leaves into the bed, and I really want to plant beets the first week of September.I can't do all that work, and you don't have to. Besides,even the cinderblocks were heavy for myself and my daughter to carry and my bed is rather small, but it's permanent as long as I want it, those things are heavy.

    Bookmark   August 16, 2012 at 10:52PM
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Google "lasagna composting." It's building up, as several have suggested. It also softens several inches down into soil. Clay is rich in nutrients. Your county ag office likely does soil analysis for free, so bring a sample to see if pH etc is ok. Tilling destroys the soil structure, and in 3-4 yrs, anything organic you tilled in will be gone completely. Google "no-till gardening." Gardening here will build your character and your skills.

    Bookmark   August 18, 2012 at 9:15AM
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I know this is an old post but I felt the need to chime in. I have the classic Georgia red clay and it's some good stuff if you know how to take care of it. It sure beats the thin eroded sandstone soils I grew up on in the ridge and valley of Alabama.
First huge mistake in clay soils is to till it. Not that it can't be tilled but that you have to constantly be aware of it's tendency to hardpan if worked when wet or crumble if worked when to dry. The next thing you are going to absolutely do is add as much organic matter as you can beg borrow or steal. This has a downside but easily dealt with. Most southern clays tend to the acid side and adding humus, organic matter, just adds humic acid and even more so if the source of the organic matter is hardwood leaves, tannic acid. Fortunately lime rectifies this so have your soil tested every 2-3 years and lime as needed.
I've beat myself half to death over the years with all sort of tillers trying to break clay and have come to some conclusions. Your far better off if you can get equipment in to have the ground broke with a good turning plow and disked than beat on it with a tiller. Barring that I have found a tool that I like so much better. THE BROADFORK. I brought a meadow creature broadfork lasy year to grub out some bamboo roots and because I had created some hardpan in my impatience. I really didn't think it would be one of those everyday use tools but just one of those when I need it tool. Boy was I wrong. I can work over my clay better than a turning plow and disk ever could. The closest thing that comes to it would be a subsoil ripper. I can turn my clay to a depth of 16" and the beauty of it is I get multiple years of benefit. I can literally go to the areas that I worked last year and push a probe to full depth still.
Of course this is also due to the fact that I have added organics each and every year so I am approaching a nice loam by now. I find it easiest to not keep a "clean" garden and at the end of the season let grasses and weeds take over. Let it lay over winter and hit with a mulching mower and turn it under with the broadfork. From this a single light pass of the tiller and she's ready for seed.

    Bookmark   February 2, 2013 at 6:19PM
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dottie_in_charlotte(z7-8 NC)

I agree with mccleod, what the above post calls a broadfork I think is what , up North, we call a spading fork. Even with good,decent soil I still use it to break the top 4 inches so I can haul it out and get the Mantis minitiller into the lower layer to work in rotted compost and lime.
A standard tiller will just walk all over the surface of hardpacked clay and a minitiller will with some effort dig a decent hole. It's easier to use some muscle and break the surface then go at it with the power tools.

If you're putting in your autumn leaves..not so good..they really need to be composted and crumbly before adding.

    Bookmark   February 2, 2013 at 7:06PM
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