Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Gardening teaches you patience Part 1... Dealing with clay soil

When we first moved into the property that would become the guest house three years ago, the half acre of land around the house was an expanse of weed infested lawn and a couple of exotic plants. Dotted here and there were few indigenous trees and some fruit trees. 
We started with the beds around the house, and getting the weeds out of the lawn. This was the point where we realised we were dealing with an entirely different kettle of fish to the sand we were used to. The soil was hard as a rock and turning over a new bed required a pick axe, a garden fork and a lot of elbow grease. The clay was so hard we had to water it first before we could dig it over, and of course wet clay sticks to EVERYTHING, shoes included!

Clay soil has a bit of a bad rap, but there are actually some benefits!
Let's start with the good stuff:
1. Clay is much more fertile than sandy soil as the individual clay particles are negatively charged. This enables the soil particles to 'hang on' to other elements such as potassium, calcium and magnesium, the good stuff that makes your plants grow.
2. Clay soil also holds on to water better than sandy soil. While it can get easily waterlogged, it also means that you have to water less often.
3. Have you ever tried to get weeds out of clay soils? Man, those roots are glued down. This firm grip of the roots in the clay mean that the plants can survive extremes of moisture and temperature which they would not be able to do in sandy soil.

Along with these benefits there are also some challenges:
1. Clay soil is very hard to dig. When we dug our new beds we had to use a pick, a fork and a shovel, in fact everything we could to break the clods that formed.
2. Wet clay sticks to everything.
3. Water does not drain well. In fact, in the beginning we had puddles forming from all the rain.
4. Clay soil can form crusts that can make it hard for seed to get a grip. When the crusts are really dry, water just runs off..
5. Retaining moisture means that the air surrounding roots can be severely limited. While too much air around roots, as with sandy soil, can be dangerous, too little air is also not good. Choose your plants wisely depending on how much drainage you have in different spots in your garden.
6. Slugs and snails just LOVE clay soil as it remains wet for longer making it easy for them to move around. Believe me, this is the kind of wildlife I do not want in my garden.

So there. Part blessing and part curse. Now we just have to learn how best to deal with it. 

Stay tuned for the next post, How to fix the problem of clay soil.
My gorgeous lettuce growing in my modified clay soil.

If you have found this post useful, please drop me a line in the comment section to let me know. 


  1. I think we need to do a soil swap!!! Like a seed swap :-) I bring 1 ton of sand and take home 1 ton of clay :-)

  2. May not work. I think I will end up with concrete. Now if you want to bring a ton of compost......