I could just cry

pat_tea(PNW, Van,WA)April 14, 2012

I layed down cardboard and covered it with rotten horse manure 4", A layer of shredded leaves, coffee grounds and hoped to have planting area by spring. When I dug in to the "clay mud" below I found the worse stickey grey clay you can immagine.

I can't afford raised beds or the soil to put in them. The good news is the top four inches is worm rich.

Any help would be appreciated. My tears are that I will have to grow my plant stash in pots again this year. I soooooo want to get my plants in the ground so that they can start their sleep, creep, leap cycle before I get too darn old to enjoy this. It took me 10 years to do my Garedens in Calif. Another 8 to do my gardens in Vancouver only to leave them both for the land of rock and clay.

Sorry for the rant. . . I'm sure some one can relate.

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I've never had clay soil such as that, but want to say boo-hoo all you want! That's got to be disappointing, we gardeners have to be so patient and persevering.

    Bookmark   April 14, 2012 at 1:33PM
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docmom_gw Zone 5 MI(5)

I still think you'll be OK, if you continue to work on the amending as you plant. When ever you put a new plant into the bed, dig a larger hole than you normally would, and fill in with highly organic soil or container mix. This will help the plant drain, and add to the surrounding soil. Also continue to add organic material to the surface by way of shredded leaves, straw, compost, etc. The fact that you already have worms means the process is under way. And those worms will keep multiplying to keep up with the amount of organic material you provide. You might also plant each new addition slightly above the actual soil level, and mulch more heavily around them to keep them from sitting in the wet clay--just until the soil achieves a better ratio of organic to clay. Don't be so sad. You can make it work. Hang in there.


    Bookmark   April 14, 2012 at 1:39PM
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I find the best way to amend a really clay is to break it up with shovels and back filling them with your compost. The best way is of course the double digging method but it's incredibly hardwork. the next best thing which I used for my second yard is to use my shovel and stabbed the clay with it. Then using my rake I backfilled the stabbed areas with composts. You can begin planting almost immediately because the plants will continue the job of breaking up the soil and because the worms will also help do the job.

    Bookmark   April 14, 2012 at 4:55PM
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Pat, I know you are so disappointed, but everyone's advice is good. I do like docmom said. I'm just too impatient to wait to plant everything.

    Bookmark   April 14, 2012 at 5:33PM
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cyn427 (zone 7)

Be careful amending a hole for new plants (trees especially) when you have clay soil. You could create an even worse drainage problem when the water stops at the clay to create a wet soggy mess of your roots. Planting high is a good idea. Clay can be broken up if amended with gypsum, but work it and compost/soil conditioner in everywhere, not just in a new hole. You will need to do this every other year or so because clay seems to have a way of coming back. That said, I have not had much luck turning our clay here into something better despite lots of amendments with compost, gypsum, mulch. Still, things grow and look healthy and beautiful.

    Bookmark   April 14, 2012 at 6:33PM
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Cher(6 SW OH)

pat I think you would be surprised what all grows in clay. cyn427 advice is right on. You can create other problems amending soil with each plant. Ohio is the clay state. I don't amend period. I plant my stuff in it and it has to survive. I've had very little that didn't. I do mulch well so that it helps keep the soil moist. To help financially, be sure to check if you can get free mulch through your city if you don't already do so. Most cities that pick up leaves and allow you to dump off limbs etc will also provide free mulch they grind up.

    Bookmark   April 14, 2012 at 6:59PM
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I agree with Cher. It shouldn't be too much of a problem now that you have a nice layer on top. And on there is a bright side. Having dealt with amending clay in Virginia and amending sand here in Florida, I can say you are lucky that the clay will help retain the nutrients (unlike sand).

    Bookmark   April 14, 2012 at 8:30PM
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Clay needs sand and gypsum, not just organic material. Unfortunately, I find that there is no substitute for spading, which is best done in the fall so that the clay breaks up over the winter.

    Bookmark   April 14, 2012 at 9:36PM
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pat_tea(PNW, Van,WA)

Thank you all so much for your words of encouragement, validation and wisdom. I have gotten over feeling sorry for myself and back in the saddle. I have been warned before about creating "bathtubs" for the plants in hard clay. After reading all of your advice I think I can do a combination of things by building the soil up a little more, double digging and ammending the holes and planting high. Planting high and continuing to build up around the plants is a great idea.

The area I am working is the front of my house and is the only flat land on my property. I am doing an English cottage Garden with Hydrangeas, roses, lavender, etc. that require good drainage.

Thanks again for all of your help.

    Bookmark   April 15, 2012 at 11:43AM
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Pat, Yes, don't dig a deep hole to plant trees without breaking the surrounding areas so water can drain out. Clay is actually a good material that holds so many nutrients that are beneficial to plant. By adding amendments, you allow plants to access that nutrient. The goodnews is you have worms. If there are worms then it's not as hardpan as you may think, otherwise worms would not survive. I would rather have clay soil than sandy soil. In fact, my remedy for sandy soil, is to add clay and compost- so that there is a retention of water and something to hold on to nutrients.

Lavenders are best on a mound. For roses, break up the entire bed to 6 inch to foot deep. I had to double dig my yard to create the ideal bed and as I went along, I added bonemeal and composted manure to the mix. The worms moved in almost immediately.

    Bookmark   April 15, 2012 at 12:11PM
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freezengirl(3aMN and 5AK)

Excellent advice for dealing with clay soil by all of the posters! The only thing I can add is in my MN clay soil I tried to every year or so roughen up the first couple of inches before adding more mulch. It seemed to help the earth worms get a little more wiggle room to do all their work.

    Bookmark   April 16, 2012 at 3:22AM
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Pat tea- Alright, first of all...you live on the west side of the state...and it's too wet for me to plant yet. Clay soil cannot be dug up, when it's too wet or it's a nasty, slimy mess. Sounds like that might be your problem. If you had cardboard on top of it, I'm guessing it just held the water in that much more.

The good news is that it will be better next year. If you dug into the clay (if it's anything like our clay in eastern Washington) it turns into little bitty pebbles, as it dries. It will look like a mess and it won't break into nice soil again...just dry out into little hard pieces. That's okay! Just leave it alone, plant on top of it and don't turn it under next spring, until it dries out a bit. And, I would take the cardboard off and just add the amendments.

What I've learned about clay soil...it's slimy in the early spring, beautiful in mid/late spring...and it looks like cracked cement, in the summer. Clay is wonderful, if you can get it to stay the way it looks in mid/late spring. That's where the gypsum, sand and (in our case) extreme amounts of aged horse manure come in handy. You need to find a way to break up the clay, so that it will drain...but amend the soil so it doesn't crack, when it dries out.

For us, lots of aged horse manure has really made a difference. I tried the 'little amendments' here and there and it didn't do anything. We ended up digging out the grass and adding lots of manure. You will get weeds, but you'll also get the most beautiful soil that will grow almost anything!

Oh, and for lavender...try Hidcote. I water the heck out of them (they're in front of the roses) and they're not mounded...but they bloom like crazy. And, they even make it through the cold winters, so if you do have a cold snap, you don't have to worry.

Now...brush yourself off, let your soil dry out a bit and see what the soil looks like. If it's got good drainage, plant your roses and perennials. If it doesn't leave them in pots one more year and plant some veggies and pretty annuals. Either way, you'll have a very nice garden this year...and an even better one next year! That's the part of gardening that is sometimes difficult, but optimistic, too. There's always next year... :)

    Bookmark   April 17, 2012 at 11:47AM
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pat_tea(PNW, Van,WA)

Thank you Lavender. You certainly know the PNW grey slime. I only turned over a small section. I stopped when I realized how wet it was under all that beautiful horse and mulsh. I should have used newspaper instead of cardboard. . . oh well. In the meantime I am researching straw bale gardening for my vegies this year because last years efforts went into preparing the soil in front of the house. I pick up 15 strawbales on Saturday and will start preparing them for planting after mother's day.

Regarding the lavender I went to Squem Wa Lavender festival last year and I have both purple and pink Hidcote
along with others. I LOVE lAVENDER!!!

    Bookmark   April 17, 2012 at 1:26PM
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Tiffany, purpleinopp GardenWeb, Z8b Opp, AL(8B AL)

Great advice by everyone, I agree with every word. I've started many new gardens in OH clay and totally offer my shoulder for crying, keep those tears out of your soggy garden. It's frustrating to get started, but you've done everything right. Just needs more time.

If you are going to wait another year, I think it would be fine to leave the cardboard in place but stab it a LOT with a pitchfork and water it if it gets really dry later on to keep the decomposition happening as fast as possible.

If it were me, I would go ahead and plant the Hydrangeas and Roses when it's dry enough to do so. I would remove fairly large sections of cardboard from around them, leaving the rest in place and well stabbed/perforated. I've never had any trouble with these shrubs in new clay/lasagna beds when using good hole preparation methods. I'm not totally sure but I got a vibe that you had done the cardboard/mulch thing last fall. If so, that is what I would do. The stabbing I would be doing throughout the year, whenever it occurs to me and I have a minute to do some.

In regard to getting holes ready for plants, I like to use a pitchfork, dandelion fork, screwdriver, anything handy to make some long pokes down into the center and off to the sides at the bottom of the hole I've dug. I don't dig extra girth but I do dig extra depth which I fill with compost, some sand if I have it, and/or faster-draining soil. Helps combat that "bowl" effect, like a french drain, and gives the roots (and water) an easy start to go well beyond the hole. A root trim is essential as they go in, especially of any noose roots, those that go around and around and strangle the crown, fluff the edge roots.

The bowl effect is really the only thing holding you back from planting now, which is not hard to prevent. Larger plants should do fine, and even lavender. Though it's smaller, you can plant it a little high as suggested and it won't be lost in the extra thickness of your starting mulch/manure layer. If you're hands-on to the degree that you can tend all of these things in pots, it would only be easier if they were in the ground.

    Bookmark   April 18, 2012 at 10:56AM
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freezengirl(3aMN and 5AK)

Your straw bale comment reminded me-I have many times over the years laid down layers of straw from over-wintered yucky bales, covered that with a thin layer of soil (to get the microbes going) then the layer of cardboard with the mulch on top. Straw was always a lot cheaper then large volumes of soil especially when you are needing to establish a lot of beds. Here in Alaska (where everything is expensive) people use seaweed to compost into their gardens like we used straw (or spoiled hay) in MN.

    Bookmark   April 20, 2012 at 2:53AM
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I have been on this gyp hill for 45 years now, and never plant anything without adding compost,, milorganite, gypsum, alfalfa pellets, sulphur, and some kind of iron. the best iron I have found comes from rosecare.com. Oh, I don't know if I made a boo boo mentioning that or not, but it works.

    Bookmark   April 20, 2012 at 10:48AM
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