Vegetable gardening can be one of the most rewarding experiences in life. Eating your own fresh vegetables picked straight off the plant or fresh from the ground with the real taste still intact beats store brought produce every time.
I know growing up as a child in North Carolina, we grew everything that you could think in our gardens – and I do miss some of the vegetables from that zone that we can grow upnorth – my favorite that I missed is Okra. But where I am now it’s sandy soil but just across the river here in Wisconsin Rapids – they have clay soil and I hear all the horror stories that my gardening friends go thru so thought I’d give you a few pointer when you are trying to garden on hard clay.
Clay is one of the most difficult mediums to grow plants in. The particular mix is so fine that oxygen and water have a hard time getting to the roots of any plant. Hard as concrete in the dry and waterlogged in the rainy season. Without special preparation you will be lucky to even get weeds to grow.
To prepare the garden a maddock was used to break up the clay into smaller pieces. It is actually better to do this when the clay is dry, rather than waterlogged. Its just heavier when wet and sticks to the maddock. This is time consuming back breaking work. But take a small patch at a time and come back after a rest. Take several days to complete the vegetable patch, gardening is to help build the muscles, not destroy them. Whilst doing this task many times rock was hit, however most rock on the Gold Coast shatters when hit and breaks into smaller pieces. While many of these were removed pieces smaller than half the size of your fist were left in on the advice of garden manuals. Why? It is said that small rocks help drainage and add minerals to the soil over time. So long as the don’t make up more than 5%-10% of the soil, leave them in. Eventually a base of the patch was laid out.
To further soften and break up the clay store brought clay breakers were added. Easily available at your gardening or hardware store they are added to water and sprayed on the garden though they work best over a period of time.
Next Gypsum was added. This comes in large bags and is easy to spread out by hand, mix in with the clay and it too will further help ‘relax’ the clay.
Some would say, why not just buy a bunch of topsoil and dump it down. Well for a couple of reasons, you still would have a drainage problem at the root level. Most just provide sand with a minimum of organic material mixed in – just enough to darken the sand. The sand is actually poor draining because it is much too fine. Some argue that you can help clay soil by adding sand. But unless the sand is a fine to small gravel I believe you are wasting your time. Sand that is too fine, acts just like a clay soil, it repells short spells of rain or irrigation or becomes waterlogged during a tropical downpoor or solid irrigation. The second reason why I don’t just buy the topsoil is because if the topsoil is not mixed in and bound to the subsoil it will just wash away.
To really bring the clay soil up to grade you need to add bio matter. Quality top soil is made of plant and animal materials decomposed or in the state of decomposing. Compost made of of shredded leaves, wood, grass clippings and vegetable/food rubbish is good. But the best material I had available for this garden was straw and chicken waste. With a pen of twenty chickens plenty of nitrogen rich matter was produced. Every three months the coup was cleaned out, the straw smelling strongly of ammonia. However once put on the garden the smell quickly went and the straw and its ‘added’ contents quickly broke down into the soil. I can recommend nothing better to add to the soil. If you must add something else to quickly create a topsoil and can’t wait for compost or have no chickens then I recommend products such as worm castings or 6 in one products (includes blood and bone, fish compost, etc), they come in 20kg plus bags and range in price between $5 and $15. Several of these, or if your budget handles it 10-20 of these really help to condition the soil.
Poor soil should not hold you back, it merely presents a challenge. Some gardening friends have tackle the poor soil a different way with raised beds and actually I enjoy raised beds – to me I feel they are less work, can grow alot in smaller area and easy to work in. Here are some pictures of raised beds and the higher one would be great way to be able to try vegetable gardening on hard clay. Once the raised bed is made (many materials now adays to choose from) you can fill your bed with nice rich composted soil which here in our town you can get free from our local dump sites. With raised beds like this you can put your crawling plants on the edge and let them trail over the side.
With the price of food going up this might be a year to grow your own vegetable. You can garden no matter what soil you have – good luck everyone.