take advantage of Georgia clay

calypsobloomerMay 19, 2010

As you know red Georgia clay can be an incredibly annoying to deal with when you want to plant a garden. Its a little late to start a garden this year but for future reference I would like to share a method for dealing with clay hardened soil.

You will need a few things.

1. A 5 lb. mattock for digging and breaking clay

2. Scott's organic topsoil - about $2 per bag

3. Coffee Grounds - free at starbucks

4. A sunny spot for gardening with way to much clay.

This method will efficiently help you with a relatively small garden. Basically its simple.. You can till a garden into clay soil and mix it with 80 dollars worth of topsoil but it will still harden up into clay when it bakes under the sun. The best way I have found to deal with this problem is to take a 5 lb. mattock and dig out a hole for each plant, we will use tomatoes for example. You want the hole to be about the size of a bag of topsoil. You are going to need an entire bag of topsoil for each plant so this is were the idea becomes expensive if you want to plant a large bed. Pour the bag of topsoil and mix 3 fist fulls of coffee grounds into the hole and tamp it down because the soil will settle. Plant your tomato in the soil the same way you would normally plant a tomato and pull about 2 inches of clay back over the soil. Create a basin around your plant and voila. The clay retains mositure and when it soilidfies it will create a natural oven around your plant roots which will grow like crazy in their loose topsoil wrapped in a clay envelope. The best part about this method is that after about 3 years of doing this in the same spot the top soil breaks down all of the clay and it naturally does away with the bad clay problem. Hope this helps.

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That approach can also lead to creating a "bowl" effect that leads to poor drainage. Yes, the clay is very effective at retaining moisture, but it is slow draining and you could have your plant sitting in a bowl of water while that happens.

There is no professional that would recommend doing this.

The linked thread below has some of these points (by professionals, which is not me).

Here is a link that might be useful: Another thread on this

    Bookmark   May 19, 2010 at 8:01PM
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girlgroupgirl(8 ATL)

I never recommend adding simple top soil to the soil. Esh is right, it will simply be eaten by the top layer of soil and then the hardpan clay will be left underneath.

If I want top soil, I use fairly narrow, at least 2' tall raised beds filled with topsoil (and other amendments) for correct drainage. Frankly, I prefer deeper than 2'

    Bookmark   May 19, 2010 at 11:17PM
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I recently read an article...basically saying what esh and ggg are saying.

The article talked about how "ammending" the soil never works and why it doesn't work (drainage;root system will develop only till the area soil is ammended and not beyond etc).

What was instead suggested was to loosen the soil (till it) and top the soil with tons of mulch (several inches of mulch) and keep adding more mulch each year.

The natural organisms (such as earthworms) will do the rest of the job of softening/loosening the clay soil.


    Bookmark   May 19, 2010 at 11:44PM
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lrvjim(7 to 8)

Amending the soil works fine for small vegetable gardens or beds of seasonal color, anything that will be in and out within the course of a season.

But I'm with you if your planting an oak tree.

As to the OP's idea, hey, if it works for you, go for it. But I'm not sure that's the way I would go about it.

    Bookmark   May 20, 2010 at 8:12AM
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buford(7 NE GA)

I did the same think when I first moved here. Of course, it was in the middle of a drought and the clay was as hard as cement. So digging a hole in it was effectively having clay pots in my yard. But as others have said, if and when it eventually rains a lot, the hole of topsoil will be flooded and will not drain.

The method you have may work for awhile and for annuals like tomatoes, but for long term plants and shrubs, it's not workable. I had to dig up and replant almost all of the shrubs that came with my house because they were planted in tiny holes in the hard clay. What I do now is double dig the clay to break it up, add in amendments and mix them together with the clay. Then every year add new mulch and compost which will eventually break down and create a good top soil. The mulch also helps keep the clay moist and pliable.

It can take years to get a bed to the point where it's 'dirt' and not clay. But it will happen.

    Bookmark   May 20, 2010 at 8:33AM
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woody_ga(7a GA)

I agree wholeheartedly with esh and girlgroupgirl. The only solution is organic matter. And by that I mean a lot of organic matter.

Georgia clay is actually good soil, except that it's packed too close together. The organic matter makes the soil useable.

But I'll admit that I have done something similar to what calypsobloomer suggests. Part of my yard was so hard that I had to use a pick to dig holes. It was like rock! So I dug my holes (made 'em big and deep!), planted my plants, covered the entire area with newspaper and cardboard (thick too!), and then put down a think layer of mulch. I now have good soil there, but it took several years.

I was inspired by a lady named Ruth Stout. Google her. She never tilled her garden, just mulched. It might not work exactly the same in GA, but the ideas can make work easier.

Here is a link that might be useful: Ruth Stout

    Bookmark   May 20, 2010 at 11:44AM
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Georgia clay is evil stuff. I've been working my slowly-growing garden area for six years now, adding a (roughly) 6x10 section every year using raised beds and compost from the previous year.

I have a large compost bin (that I originally built out of landscaping timbers - which I don't recommend because they rot) that I process everything in - kitchen scraps, yard cuttings, ash from the fireplace - everything that's not meat. In late winter I dig the clay and rotten rock out down to about about a foot below ground level and set it aside. I then build a wall up about a foot (out of stone - which I do recommend because it doesn't rot), then move all the mature compost I have to the new bed where I mix it in with the demon clay that I set aside.


I've got a nice garden going and I just might be done (finally... maybe) - but it has been expensive and tedious. If you don't really enjoy the labor, don't do the way I have!

Don't even get me going on planting a tree! Digging out an appropriately-sized hole for a tree is more like mining than gardening. You need a jackhammer, not a mattock.

It is heavy, hard work - and I'm (frankly) tired of reading about Georgia gardeners who have an easy go of it. The way I see it: if you want to garden in this area of Georgia, you'll either need to do a lot of work or buy a house from somebody who already did it. But phrases like "turn the soil" seriously misrepresent what's going on. Seriously. To the point of being fraudulent.

Georgia gardeners need to invent a word to use instead of "till". "Tilling" doesn't involve explosives and jackhammers. When striking the earth with a mattock creates a whiff of dust and a few bits of hard-pan-shrapnel: you are NOT "tilling".

    Bookmark   July 19, 2010 at 2:00PM
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girlgroupgirl(8 ATL)

voodootree, do you think maybe you are doing it the hard way?
Georgia Clay is nutritious and delicious and full of vital minerals and good things. Only the structure is difficult. There are ways to get around that, it's some effort, but you work when the soil is not a rock, and not in the dead heat of summer (in the day). I just dug and turned quite a bit of solid red clay today, put some "rocks" (broken cement chunks = free) around the edge, added compost and covered with mulch then planted. I know I'm going to have some awesome veggies! :)

    Bookmark   July 19, 2010 at 9:16PM
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buford(7 NE GA)

voodoo, all you need to do is wait for rain. It's been raining a lot for a few days, so now would be the perfect time to dig. I just pulled out a bunch of weeds and it was so easy.

Gardening - you're doing it wrong!

    Bookmark   July 19, 2010 at 10:07PM
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Voodoo -- you are cracking me up! I dug a 100 foot long dry creek all by myself with a shovel and mattock -- I have lived your pain! Those hardpan clay boulders are the worst!

If you want good drainage, you definitely have to get through that layer. This isn't the most environmentally responsible tip, but when I ran into a particularly large and hard "boulder" -- I filled the hole with water and waited. And waited. Dug out some of the dirt around it. Added more water. Even did a power blast of water to help shoot through some of the dirt.

It is such hard work, but so rewarding when you've done it. I dug the dry creek 2 years ago, and I'm still bragging about my studly self! :) hee hee!

PS -- 2 years later, we FINALLY ordered some rocks!!!!!!! I'm excited to start making my big drainage ditch look pretty!

    Bookmark   July 20, 2010 at 11:57AM
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girlgroupgirl(8 ATL)

bagsmom, I use the water trick all the time, that's how I got the soils at church (around the building, all horrible clay/builders clay mix) broken up and planted. I'd dig, fill with some water (there are rain barrels though), let it get moist, dig more. It took a long time but it wasn't back breaking. I'd have just done a raised bed there but because of the lay of the land I could not.
At home I just raise everything, it's much less work!

    Bookmark   July 20, 2010 at 2:43PM
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Bumblebeez SC Zone 7

I do what trivedi says and it has worked beautifully for me the past ten years. All that extra digging and expensive dirt are not needed.
I did do that for the first 5 years of my gardening life and lost plenty of plants to the bathtub effect.
Bags of Fafard to no avail.

Now, I keep an area where I toss old potting soil and use that in small quantities to amend planting holes. I heavily mulch and topdress the mulch yearly.

    Bookmark   July 20, 2010 at 6:10PM
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