Making the most of clay soil

During last weekend’s warm and dry weather, I finally had the chance to turn over and work up part of my garden plot at the Ash Street garden. To my disappointment, I discovered that my plot is full of heavy, sticky clay. I suspect the soil had been disturbed when the three houses that used to reside on the garden were removed. If you’ve ever worked with heavy clay soil, you know that it can be quite challenging. On the other hand, it offers the chance to use some good gardening practices to turn poor soil into productive soil… if you’re up for it.

When working with clay soil, it’s important to add and incorporate A LOT of compost and avoid working the soil when it is too wet. Adding compost improves the structure and tilth of the soil, which improves drainage and makes it easier for the roots of your plants to spread and grow. Working wet soil (whether clay or otherwise) damages the structure of the soil by reducing its natural air pockets. You know that you’ve worked wet soil when it dries out later and you’re left with rock hard clods. To know if soil is dry enough to work, loosen a small patch and take a handful and gently form the soil into a ball. If it breaks apart when you poke it, or is otherwise crumbly, it is generally dry enough to work.

Typically, at least in the first couple of years, it may be necessary to either turn the soil over by hand and then run a tiller through it or turn and work the soil entirely by hand with a sturdy garden fork and hoe. I can promise that the first couple of years will be challenging. It will take more labor and time to prepare your beds and your yields may be somewhat reduced. However, over time, the work will get easier. I once made great improvements over the course of three to five years in a garden of mine in Kansas City. After starting with some really poor, disturbed, clay soil in raised beds, I was eventually able to turn the soil over with very little effort. In places, I didn’t even need to use a tool. The soil was so light and fluffy that I could simply use my bare hands to prepare the beds for planting.

For more information on improving clay soils, check out this Fine Gardening article at