The first clay garden I had started me cussing like a sailor. I know how, too, because my daddy used to be a sailor. Sounds a lot like a lumberjack.
I was advised that clay is impossible and raised beds are the only answer. I believe raised beds are the worst answer if you live where it is hot and rains are irregular.
I lived on the Vertisol clay of North Texas. It does not take well to a plow, and unlike more domesticated soils it let’s you know quick. India has Vertisol clay and they know it is nutrient dense soil; they feel blessed by it. I had to check that attitude out.
How did I quit cussing and come to love that clay?
First, I acknowledged that Vertisol clay particles swell up to 14 times their size with water. Now that is something to contemplate when it 100°F in the shade and hasn’t rained for 3 weeks. This is the reason you do not want to build a bed raised above that moisture… it will doom you to endless watering.
Second, when the surface is dry, you can’t break that stuff up with a pickaxe. Heavy clay is so hard and impermeable that water sheets off and doesn’t soak in. It cracks open and breaks tree roots and foundations. Heck, I am a lazy gal and gladly give up pickaxe duty.
Third, I admitted that the minerals needed by plants (and me) are held in… you guessed it… clay.
Maybe just too much of a good thing and a lack of its necessary cohorts? Good prairie soil had deep humus and prairie grasses had 9 foot deep root systems. What turned it into pure clay? Poor farming practices that burned up the humus without restoring the soil. Turning depleted farm soil into subdivisions and compacting it with heavy equipment. Pretending that none of the above happened and telling people there is nothing to do about it. No kidding.
Adding enough organic matter makes it better, but how to work it in? I had a compost pile but moving a lot of cubic feet of finished compost and digging it into iron hard clay isn’t my favorite chore, especially when so much is needed.
My compost pile was getting bigger all the time as I begged for bags of leaves from my neighbors. As I was digging one side I realized that the soil under the pile was as rich and friable as a gardener could hope for. Full of worms and their castings too. Then I looked back at my pathetic rock hard flower bed.
It was fall and I decided to start a “new” bed. I layered cardboard down to kill grass, and piled 12-18 inches of leaves and such on top. I put pine bark mulch on top to keep the leaves from blowing away and watered it all down.
The following spring it was pretty flat. When I dug around, it was gorgeous soil.
I never looked back.
Composting in place saves a lot of labor. Kill the compost bin and pile your leaves right where you want compost added. Remember that 100°F heat for months on end? That composts in place like a dream. Even kitchen scraps (city) were run through a blender every day before I brushed the compost back, poured directly on the soil, and covered it back up with mulch.
Within a few months I had wonderful soil I could plant with a hand shovel. I also had enough clay to hold 14 times its weight in water and keep my plants happy on rainwater alone. I love when that happens.
I started using leaves to mulch trees and shrubs, and instead of being bare underneath, I started growing a lot of flowers. Rain? It does not sheet off composted and 3mulched soil, it soaks in and is stored by the clay and humus. This also brings your worms right where you need them, in your beds. They make aeration holes that allow water to sink in faster and to deeper levels around tree roots. They leave worm castings, wonderful nutrients for all plants.
If you have a slab on clay foundation in Texas, mulch it all the way around and keep it moist. No breaks.
Life is compost. Rich clay gumbo is awesome when you keep it full of compost and covered with mulch.
Now I have sand for my garden, what’s a gal to do?