Gardening in Clay
Clay soil is probably not as much of a problem for gardening as you think. Once you learn the benefits of clay soil and it’s properties, you can select plants that take advantage of clay.
Every soil type has its’ pros and cons. Knowing about how much and how nutrients are available to plants, how fast or slow water drains, acid or alkaline and how easily compacted soil becomes is very helpful for plant selection. Sometimes the property that creates an advantage also creates a disadvantage.
Clay soil is made up of the smallest particles. So the space between the particles is very small, allowing the soil to hold water very well. This can be a big advantage.
Clay soil’s water holding capacity may make the soil very slow to drain and dry out, which can be a disadvantage.
The tiny particles with very little space between limits the air available in the soil for plant roots.
The tiny particles with very little space between makes it difficult for roots to push through and expand.
Clay soil has a terrific nutrient holding capacity because of the tiny, tightly packed particles.
Clay easily becomes compacted and very hard when it does dry out.
Clay soil structure is easily compacted and destroyed if it is worked while very wet.
All pros and cons considered, clay soil can be very hard for the gardener, but it is often not all that hard for the plants. Plants get strong and adapt, and/or take advantage of the benefits to be healthy and grow vigorously. Certainly a gardener can turn in organic matter that will aide drainage and aerate the soil. (It is very important to note that adding sand to clay makes cement! Be sure to read about soil amendments).
If you prefer to work with your clay soil rather than fight it, you just need to know plant characteristics help them to thrive in clay soil.
Plants have to be tough and resilient
Plants have adapted to low oxygen
Plants will ideally have a taproot. A taproot is typically thick to retain water and nutrients and strong to push deep through tough clay.
Some plants naturally enjoy the wet soil and don’t seem to need a great deal of air for their roots.
Adaptable plants do well in clay. It is not uncommon for a plant that thrives in clay to also do well in dry conditions.
If you decide not to do battle with your clay, there really are a lot of plant options. Be sure to see the next page for several ideas.