How should I heal some barren hard clay soil?

lakedallasmary(8 - North Central TX)April 15, 2006

I am having some 12 foot tall photinia bushes cut down because, I do not this is an attractive plant. We as also trying open up the back yard. There is a dog run in our yard about a 20 X 45ish area. The bushes are there to block the chain link fence. This whole set up was here when we moved in. The chain link fence is coming down too. It is being free cycled.

Anyway, due to the shade, these tall bushes created soil that is barren of life. It is dry hard clay. I live in noth central texas. A little further away from the hard clay is some short weeds then a typical wooden privacy fence. The soil is also doing poorly since I kept stealing leaves from under the bushes for mulch since I knew the bushes where coming down and the bushes would not need them anymore. I forgot about the soil. I am new to all this. Plus, I had no other source of mulch as it was winter and the garden beds needed some mulch. Sometimes I walk down to the park and gather some oak leaves, but these break down so slow, soI don't do that much now.

Here is the question part.

I was first thinking to plant some native grass there, and in the fall some easy to grow wild flowers. I have started to read gaias garden, and he talked about pioneer plants, got me to thinking. But not sure what plants are pioneer and native. I do not want to disturb the soil and I would prefer to plant native seeds. But due to the hard soil do you think the soil would need a bit of raking to loosen things up, or would that do more harm thatn good? I am at a bit of a loss on how to proceed.

I like purple three awn grass after I saw it growing in a field on a walk. I was told bermuda graa will take over buffaloo grass, so I guess that is out. I was thinking sunflowers would grow there where not much else would.

I was thinking this summer to plant the purple three awn the sunflowers and possibly some black eyed peas.

In the fall I was considering the following wildflower combination: blackfoot daisy, indian blanket, and gloriosa daisy. But these are all in the same family. Is that a problem? I know I need drought tolerant flowers, as it is very dry here and I plan to let nature water them. I have some left over blue flax seed I might plant there too.

My first idea was to get some hay and mulch the area until is is healed, but I am not able to get out due to illness and my husband already has enough of my outside errands to do with out asking for more. I already asked him to get a bag of waste veggie scraps from the healthfood store, but he won't. He thinks I will have enough with grass clippings. Maybe, but then the lawn will not get any! I have already seen the damage done by stealing leaves from one area to help another. So outside sources of mulch are not possible. Not sure where I would get rotten organic hay anyway.

What are your ideas on healing hard clay soil, with no plant life at all?

In the future, after the land is healthier I would like a few apple trees and a fig tree.

The other option is to let nature do the healing. Let what ever nature wants to grow, there grow. Not sure how long that would take though.

Any ideas would be greatly apreciated.

I have a seed trade wish list, but for now, I don't think these things will grow in that kind of soil. Not yet anyway

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gardenlen(s/e qld aust)

g'day lakedallasmary,

in a nut shell heaps of gypsum applied over the whole area use dolomite lime at required rate if ph is too acid, you cannot overdose with gypsum.

try to open uop the clay pan if it is compacted this allows oxygen in and water along with some organic material, you would do better to concentrate on getting the micozoria and bacterias in the soil working along with the worms of course. these thing will help improve what you have well actually they will do the whole job in time.

use loads of mulch my preffered mulches are used mushroom compost and spoilt hay's ie.,. lucerne hay & pasture grass hay.

for garden beds use raised beds too easy hey??

see our page for ideas glad to help where we can.


Here is a link that might be useful: lens garden page

    Bookmark   April 15, 2006 at 8:50PM
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pablo_nh(z4/5 NH)

A few options- plug aerate the $#!& out of it and add compost.

Gypsum and compost.

Lasagna garden.

Scrape it up really well with a steel rake, and plant something that will help break up the soil. A big bag of sunflower seeds for feeding birds, or several of the native options that you mentioned would help.

May be a language thing, but compost is a great amendment, but a poor mulch. spoilt hay after seeding helps maintain moisture- fresh hay or straw works as well- just don't go too thick.

A good source of greens to add is bunny food or alfalfa meal. This will encoursge the fungi that Len talked about above. Compost will as well.

In short- if I was you and didn't have compost- I'd scrape that area up well with a steel rake, put down seed of your choice, add 20# bunny food (20# per 1000 sq. ft- about what you have- a 50# bag costs about $10 at a feed store), step over the area to press the seed in, add hay, wait. The worms will love the bunny food and help break up the soil. The plants will break up the soil as well.

Add the other half bag of bunny food late summer/early fall.

Good luck!

    Bookmark   April 15, 2006 at 11:24PM
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lakedallasmary(8 - North Central TX)

Bunny food, sounds like a good option. What sort of bunny food? What is in it? I am glad you like the sunflower seed option, it is cheap!

Keep the ideas coming. I am all ears.

Also if anyone knows what would grow in this stuff and has deep roots and or would break up that soil a bit.

I do like the sunflwer idea since it will provide mulch the area needs after it is all done and the birds will come to the feast and leave their um, stuff, and seeds they have gathered from the area.

Thanks for all the suggestions so far!

    Bookmark   April 16, 2006 at 10:22AM
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pablo_nh(z4/5 NH)

Rabbit pellets are normally 100% alfalfa. They provide nitrogen and supposedly have a natural hormone that enhances plant growth.

If you get a 25# or 50# bag of rabbit pellets- they will be alfalfa.

    Bookmark   April 16, 2006 at 11:29AM
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joel_bc(z6 BC)

Depending on the geological and human-use history of the place the clay you're describing might be a deep or shallow deposit. Deep clay can be a stubborn problem. I have some friends who have clay at least 20 feet deep on part of their 32 acres (but their upland bench, on which they're farming field crops, is sandy). You haven't mentioned what you find when you dig down a foot or two.

Some people in larger clayish fields than you are working with bring in equipment like sturdy tractors and a chisel plow to break up the clay - if not every year, then wnenever needed.

The advice the others have given about lime/dolomite, compost, mulch, and so on is good advice for several reasons. What you want is to do is break up the hard crusts and clumps, and get some mositure into your dry clay, which can be nearly like set concrete.

I think the biological approach of increasing the micro life (bacteria, fungi roots, worms, etc) and planting the pioneer species is great, if you can move to that stage. If it's just too compacted and dry, you'll probably be better to do something else first (like get the site tghoroughly damapend, wait a few days, then get a heavy-duty rototiller in there). You might want to hire somebody who knows a lot about running rotary tillers and knows something about using one in very heavy clayish soil. The pure moister-and-bilogical approach might work, but might take you years. Tilling first might expedite the process.

Good luck...


    Bookmark   April 17, 2006 at 1:23PM
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lakedallasmary(8 - North Central TX)

I did dig down once about 1 foot and found some odd stuff down there beneath the clay. It is like the texture of modeling clay, and I think just for fun I might make something with it. The color is a greyish white.

Does that make a difference?

    Bookmark   April 17, 2006 at 3:20PM
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joel_bc(z6 BC)

Well, it sounds like nothing other than clay down a foot. But a foot is not a very deep dig, so we have to guess what's down below that. If you just have deep clay soil, it will always be at least somewhat limited as to what you can grow - you can improve the topsoil aspect, but you won't have good drainage, and very many plants want good drainage.

If you have a very deep clay, I think that your metaphor of "healing" this soil may be misleading you. There are a bunch of American "pro wrestlers" who can't be "healed" into championship long-distance runners. (Conversely, a guy who is 5'4" tall and weights 100 pounds cannot be healed into a basketball center or a heavyweight boxer, though he may make a decent throroughbred rider and jockey.)

What you seem to know now is that you have a clay soil that runs at least a foot deep in some places.

Go to a good libary and find a basic soil text, and look into the differences between clay, silt, and sand. Also look into the differences between the various "soil horizons" (a crude concept of which includes top soil and subsoil). Maybe the on-line Wikipedia has a decent basic article on soil - not sure.


    Bookmark   April 17, 2006 at 4:32PM
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pablo_nh(z4/5 NH)

If it's really deep then you may want to 1) look into plants that don't mind "wet feet", and/or 2) try a raised bed filled with material that drains well.

    Bookmark   April 17, 2006 at 6:49PM
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gardenlen(s/e qld aust)

for the main most clays respond to treatment with dolomite/lime and gypsum.

to test the viability get about a desert spoon of clay and soak it in some water for around 24 hours if it softens and dissolves then the lime/gypsum methods will work if it doesn't dissolve then you have problems, from my knowledge i can't recall you can do much about that situation, but as i said the absolute main is that we ahve clays we can work with.

if you have the other then you need to plant all things in raised beds, and let the worms look after the rest as best they can. also if you ahve clay it is mostly going to be clay right down to bedrock, unless it is alluvial/sedimentary clay that has been deposited it then can be over whatever the original soil may have been.

might be you would then bring in truck loads of good soil?


Here is a link that might be useful: lens garden page

    Bookmark   April 18, 2006 at 7:33PM
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joel_bc(z6 BC)

Len, you've recommended getting the fungi and bacterias in the soil working along with worms, and specifically using loads of mulches (mushroom compost and spoilt hay). In your experience and from what you've observed on other people's land, how deep a clay body will this approach be effective on?

I'm wondering about that, respecting gypsum and lasagna, too.

I've used pretty well all these techniques, but I've also seen clay go 4, 10, 25 feet deep.

Just curious...


    Bookmark   April 19, 2006 at 10:22AM
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lakedallasmary(8 - North Central TX)

My view is, you do not have to worry about how deep the clay is.

The roots don't go that deep for most plants.

Most of the roots for a tree are in the top 6-8 inches.

The most useful soil microbes (for your plants immediate needs) live in the top layers not so much feet down. That deep, you have the anarobic microbes. They have their purpose too.

Clay is not all bad. It holds moisture, it also contains way more minerals than sand. Ever see much plant life on the beach?

I believe the goal is to build organic matter on the surface not
have a layer of humas 4 feet deep. Nature does not even do that. It is all a matter of balance.

The stump grinder guys came today, and with all that grinding,
it created a lot of loose soil that I can rake over the surface of the soil. Solved a lot of problems. Probably created others too. I may get mushrooms with all that wood debri, but at this point it is not moist or dark enough. I love mushrooms, so not a problem.

I am going to plant purple three awn grass, which is very happy on dry clay alkaline soil. Three awn likes full sun. Which what I have plenty of. No trees in that area now.

I am also going to scatter sunflower seeds amoung the existing weeds. I think it might be best to avoid over seeding the three awn area, since three awn does not like compitition.

Thanks everyone, for all your help.

My major hurdle is locating some three awn grass seed. I have been e-mailing sites that even mention three awn, and asking for help. Anyone that has a source where I can purchase enough seed to cover about 1000 sq feet would be greatly appriciated. I already have bird seed (black oil sunflower)

I already have black eyed susan and blue flax that I will
use this fall. I plan to purchase some firewheel, which is inexpensive and readily available. I think the combo will be lovely. I willl take pictures an post when they come up. Where
is the best place to post pictures?

The sunflowers should be great for organic matter.

    Bookmark   April 19, 2006 at 3:26PM
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joel_bc(z6 BC)

I wish you the best of luck, Mary...

The issue at hand is drainage dwon through the subsoil (which very many plants require), not the depth of the topsoil. Topsoil 6" deep is nice, though.

Again, all the best.


    Bookmark   April 19, 2006 at 4:05PM
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lakedallasmary(8 - North Central TX)

oh, I misunderstood. I am new to gardening, and so I do not
have much real experience with this, just book knowlege.

We once dug a hole to plant a tree. I read you are supposed to fill the hole and wait to see if it drains. Surprisingly it did.

Our clay soil is well drained. I think there may be more
than one type of clay.

I plan to work with what I have. I think trying to make my soil
compatible with european plants is not the way to go. I plan on focussing on drought tolerant plants.

I would be nice to have some of the moisture loving plants, but
not in the cards yet anyway.

Again thanks for everyones help.


    Bookmark   April 19, 2006 at 6:07PM
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Belgianpup(Wa/Zone 7b)

Purple three-awn is considered an invasive plant in most of the states west of the Mississippi River (see link). It may take over your whole property. Or, if you change your mind, it may simply be close to impossible to remove it.

Why not call your local Cooperative Extension Service (usually listed in the phone book under County offices) and ask for advice? They know your area, soil conditions, etc. Maybe they will be able to provide some suggestions that are workable for you.

Dallas County Cooperative Agricultural Extension Service, Horticulture
(214) 904-3053


Here is a link that might be useful: Invasive weed of TX

    Bookmark   April 19, 2006 at 10:30PM
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In Dick Raymond's book, " Joy of Gardening", he says that the very best thing for clay soils is buckwheat as a green manure. It grows off very quickly and has hollow stems that aireate the clay. It will need to be turned under however. It doesn't sound like you have a tiller. If you choose this route it will require that you find a source tilling, perhaps a landscaping company will do that for you at a reasonable cost. The buckwheat can be grown and reseeded in several crops and turned under 3-4 times over the growning season. Then you can have reasonable soil next year. Bush beans are another option as they are legumes and will put nitrogen in the soil. I would suggest that green manure crops of some description will be your best bets. Good luck and let us know how it goes. Plantinfool

    Bookmark   May 7, 2006 at 9:40AM
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brendan_of_bonsai(4b AK)

Just a thought, but I don't think stealing one seasons worth of leaves really had that much of an effect, I think that there are two other much larger contributers, aside from the Clay, one being that the previous owners probably werent that big on permaculture and two being that you removed several Large bushes from the area, I'm pretty sure that the bushes that you took down probably had more nutrients in them than one seasons worth of leaves.

    Bookmark   May 9, 2006 at 5:30PM
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lakedallasmary(8 - North Central TX)

The bushes are gone,

the fense has been freecycled about 2 weeks ago,

I raked to level the surface a bit.

I scattered purple three awn grass seeds over the grassless area.

I scattered sunflower seeds in a triangle pattern nearest the fence.

I sprinkled hay over that. the ground is still visable. Not sure how much to use? I located a farmer that gets hay deliveries and lets me have the hay that falls from the bails as it is stacked. I wonder why she can't use it?

I did not water. Is now upper 90's to 100 daily and I felt watering would be a more than once a day affair due to the heat!

Should I wait til it is cooler to water, or let rains come and take care of it?

How long does native grass take to establish once rains come?
I want to make sure that is established before winter comes.

I was also thinking of scattering buffalo grass too, since purple three awn is a bunch grass, and it need to be filled with something.

Come fall, I will be scatteering wildflowers. Native and drought tolerant. I think indian blanket, not sure what else at this point, possibly scarlet globe mallow, maybe black eyed susan.

I will post pictures when I get them.

    Bookmark   June 10, 2006 at 7:38PM
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pablo_nh(z4/5 NH)

"I wonder why she can't use it?"
A few reasons- but one of the main reasons is that if it gets water or dust on it, it may spoil or be less desireable as feed. It's harder to handle out of bales, as well.

If you water, then you will need to keep watering until well established, then back off to 1" water once a week if there's no watering ban. If you water and get seeds to sprout, then stop- some of the plants will die before roots are established.

Look at when those grasses bear seed in your area. Find out when they normally germinate and water just a tad early then. Then let the rain take over. That area may be small enough to cover watering with a single rain barrel.

I don't know where you live, so that's as specific as I can get.

    Bookmark   June 12, 2006 at 1:53PM
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lakedallasmary(8 - North Central TX)

this land it healing up nicely.

I planted three awn. a very pretty grass.

I also planted Indian blanket. I thought that did not come up this spring, but our weather was so bizarre here in north Texas it appears to be coming up now. No flowers yet though.

I sprinkled sunflower seeds but none came up. Either conditions were not right, or birds ate them all.

I have blue flax in bloom now in that area. Those guys seem to love it here.

I think the best thing that is happening is, that nature is healing the land mostly on her own. Lots of various weeds are coming in to cover the bareness. Also mushroom are growing in the area of the old roots. I just love mushrooms. I love weeds too. Many are so pretty.

All that worrying for nothing!

The hay I scattered out here, did bring in a lot of new weeds I have never seen before. a good think in my mind. Winter grass was one of them. I think that stuff is great, it breaks up the clay when no much else wants to grow.

enough for now.

    Bookmark   June 6, 2007 at 12:36PM
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gardenlen(s/e qld aust)

that's great to hear, giving nature a helping hand then letting it takes its course, the best results that way.


Here is a link that might be useful: len's garden page

    Bookmark   June 6, 2007 at 2:11PM
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pablo_nh(z4/5 NH)

That's all great news! I hope we were a help.

You're right that weeds are one of the best ways to get an area going again. Getting something that CAN grow to grow in the area is the first step.


    Bookmark   June 7, 2007 at 11:46AM
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lakedallasmary(8 - North Central TX)

yes, you were a great help. I would not know what to do without all of you at garden web

    Bookmark   June 7, 2007 at 9:53PM
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If you're truly in the Lake Dallas area, you more than likely have some white rock under all that clay that is helping you with drainage.

Bonus - the sunflowers will also leach lead from the soil. Not sure how old your house is, but planting sunflowers under the drip apron of older homes is a cheap, pretty and very effective way of removing lead from the soil that is probably there from the eaves being scraped of old paint.

    Bookmark   June 25, 2007 at 8:20PM
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lakedallasmary(8 - North Central TX)

What is white rock? Is it a rock? This stuff I have you can cut off, and ball it up and probably make a clay dinosaur out of it. I rarely dig (I am a no til gardener) that deep except to bury a bean pole, but next time I do I make make a clay?? type bowl and put it in the oven.

I am no expert on soils or rocks. I do wish I did knew more on the subject.

I do love my sunflowers that tend to volunteer from birdseed that the birds drag off better than the ones I plant!

From what others say, I think my soil is pretty good. I did a perk test once to plant a tree, and was surprised it drained out of the hole. The hole was in a wettest part of the yard too.

To missinformation,

do know of a good website or book I can get that will tell me all about local conditions or the soil and the like? Are from this area too? Yes I could do a web search but unsure what to search for. And the thousand of hits out there it takes weeks to do research on a topic.

I had tons gardening bookmarks , but lost them all a few weeks ago due to a computer glitch. It is depressing. I had lots of source of seeds I intended to buy one day, links to soil health sites, no till gardening, history of veggies, link to weeds I have in my yard/garden. Links to photos of trees and wildflowers I would like to get. links to neat looking trellis designs, neat sites of other's texas gardens. I had so much fun stuff. Not sure all what , but gone now.

    Bookmark   June 26, 2007 at 2:10PM
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The white rock is likely to be Caliche, a type of limestone and limestone-clay. It is very alkiline and makes intersting pottery (but it's not very sturdy pottery unless you mix in some sand).

I'm glad things are workingout for you. If I'd been here to offer yo advice last year, I would have suggested sheet mulching (there's an explanation in Gaia's Garden). In fact, I'm thinking that even the issue with needing to till in buckwheat wouldn't really be an issue if you just sheet mulched on top of it after the fourth mowing.

County Extension Offices are always a valuable resource. Although the people there are not Permaculturists and sometimes have a bias in favor of chemicals, they can always answer your questions about Local Soil, Local Rain, Native Plants, Locally Invasive Weeds, etc. Also, they often keep lists of local garden clubs, and a garden club is a great place to meet people who have years of experience with gardening in your local area. I have learned many Permaculture-compatible tricks from my elders in the local garden club.

Enjoy the flowers!

    Bookmark   June 28, 2007 at 9:38AM
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gardenlen(s/e qld aust)

missed some earlier posts,

just to respond to joel, the depth of the soil is of no concern i've found when using raised/lasagne beds when the soils structure improves the organisms will improve to whatever depth they work, i don't think they affect too much past the 1 meter mark.

like where i am now is all built on acid sulphate fill, but everything in the raised beds grows well and produces, do the raised beds and enjoy pretty much care free gardening and without all the toil.


Here is a link that might be useful: len's garden page

    Bookmark   June 28, 2007 at 1:59PM
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Contact your county extension office. They'll know more than I can guess. We're in east Dallas, but it's totally different even from one neighborhood to the next in this part of the state. You could have clay, caliche, black gumbo... hard to know, but the extension office can tell all probably just by looking it up in their files. Or you could always bag up a little and take it to them.

    Bookmark   July 22, 2007 at 10:16AM
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