Clay Soil Treatment Methods – A Beginners Guide

Introduction to Clay Soil Treatment Methods

Clay soil is soil that is contained very fine mineral particles and not much organic material. The resulting soil is quite sticky meanwhile there is not much space between the mineral particles, and it does not drain well at all. The particle of clay soil is compact hence it tends to not hold sufficient air that is the basic requirement of many plants. So, not all plants can be grown using clay soil. Though, some plants can be grown using clay soil such as apple, ash, elm, willow, tamarack, and many other plants. These plants can able to grow themselves in clay soil because of the moisture that it contains. To enhance more, clay soil can be used for more other variety of plants by adding different gypsum and compost. These plants can then benefit from the nutrient and moisture content of clay.

A Step by Step Guide to Clay Soil Treatment Methods

Clay can be moulded into different sorts of shapes and structures when water is mixed to it. By adding water to clay soil malleable material is formed. Because of this reason clay soil is used for ceramics by ceramicists. Clay can be used to make pipes, pots, and other useful objects that can be used for household purposes. Clay is used for manufacturing ceramic tiles and also can be used for floors, counters, and walls. Clay soil is composed of mostly clay particles. Ordinary clay soil contains around 30% fine clay particles. Soil that consists of over 50% of clay particles is stated as heavy clay. Clay soils take a longer time to warm up in spring and clay soils are easily damaged when dug or walked on.

Guide to Clay Soil Treatment.
Guide to Clay Soil Treatment

The function of Clay Soil

Clay holds mineral nutrients and retains water better compared to other soil types. Because of these reasons, it can be very beneficial to plants grown in this type of soil. It does not drain quickly, though, which can be problematic after heavy rains. It helps with disallowing nutrient leaching as the water drains through the soil. Soils are made of a composite of sand, clay and silt. Clay is a very important part of healthy soil makeup.

Identifying Clay Soil for Treatment

There are some tests you can use to identify clay soils. If you rubbed between fingers, a sample of clay soil often feels slick and may stick to your fingers or leave streaks on your skin. Rubbed clay soil often takes on a shiny appearance also opposed to the rough texture you would see with other soils. Clay soils do not crumble well, and a sample of clay can typically be stretched a little without breaking. When wet, clay soils become sticky and slick; the soil may also allow water to pool briefly before absorption due to the slow permeation. Visually, clay soils appear solid with no clear particles and may have a distinct brown or red color when compared to the surrounding soil.

Clay soils can be easily identified by;

  • Clays feel dense and slightly sticky
  • They feel smooth when a piece is rubbed between thumb and finger
  • A moist piece can be rolled into a ball and then into a sausage shape with no cracking
  • If, after being rolled into a clay sausage the moist surface becomes shiny when rubbed, it is likely that the soil is particularly rich in clay and is termed a ‘heavy clay’

Characteristics of Clay Soil

  • Clay soils feel sticky and roll like plasticine when wet.
  • They can hold more total water compared to other soil types and, although only about half of this is available to plants, crops seldom suffer from drought.
  • They shrink when dried and swell when wet, so a certain amount of restructuring can take place in these soils based on weather conditions.
  • They lie wet in winter and so stock must be taken off the land to avoid poaching (the compaction of soils by animals’ hooves).
  • They are late in warming up in the spring because water heats up more slowly than mineral matter.
  • They are generally fairly rich in potash but are deficient in phosphates.
  • Clay soils generally need large infrequent dressings of lime.

Best Vegetables for Clay Soil

One of the best methods of growing vegetables in clay soil is to stick with veggies that like clay during the first few seasons of soil improvement. Lettuce, snap beans, chard and other crops with shallow roots benefit from clay soil’s ability to hold moisture. Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and cabbage often grow better in clay soil compared to looser loams because their roots enjoy firm anchorage. Late and mid-season sweet corn is a good choice, too, but some of the best vegetables to grow in clay are pumpkins and squash. As long as they are grown in planting holes that have been generously enriched with compost, small pumpkins and summer squash seem to do well no matter where they are grown.

Plants that like clay soil are;

  • Flowing currants
  • Hardy geraniums
  • Hellebores
  • Ivies
  • Japanese anemone
  • Lungworts
  • Paeonies
  • Roses
  • Snake’s head fritillaries
  • Snowdrops
  • Winter aconites

Advantages of Clay Soil

  • Even clay soil has some good qualities. Clay soil holds moisture well because of its density.
  • It also tends to be more nutrient-rich compared to other soil types. The reason for this is that the particles that makeup clay soil are negatively charged, which means they attract and hold positively charged particles, such as potassium, calcium, and magnesium.
  • Clay is usually very rich in nutrients too, which reduced the need for fertilizing.

Disadvantages of Clay Soil

Clay has the following negative qualities;

  • Slow draining
  • Slow to warm in the spring
  • Compacts very easily, making it difficult for plant roots to grow
  • The tendency to heave in winter
  • The tendency to be alkaline in pH value

Properties of Clay Soil

Particle Size – Clay has the smallest particle size of any soil type, with specific particles being so small that they can only be viewed by an electron microscope. This allows a large number of clay particles to exist in a moderately small space, without the gaps that would usually be present between larger soil particles. This feature plays a major part in clay’s smooth texture because the individual particles are too small to create a rough surface in the clay.

Structure –Because of the very small particle size of clay soils, the structure of clay-heavy soil tends to be very dense. The particles naturally bond together, creating a mass of clay that can be hard for plant roots to penetrate. This density is responsible for clay-heavy soil being heavier and thicker compared to other soil types, and clay soil takes a long time to warm up after periods of cold weather. This density also makes clay soils more resistant to erosion compared to sand or loam-based soils.

Organic Content – Clay comprises very little organic material; you often need to add alterations if you wish to grow plants in clay-heavy soil. Without added organic material, clay-heavy soil typically lacks the micronutrients and nutrients essential for plant growth and photosynthesis. Clay soils may be alkaline, resulting in the essential for additional amendments to balance the soil’s pH value before planting anything that prefers a neutral pH value. It’s significant to test clay-heavy soil before planting to determine both the soil’s pH and whether it lacks important nutrients such as phosphorus, nitrogen, and potassium.

Permeability and Water-Holding Capacity – One of the major problems with clay soil is its slow permeability resulting in very large water- retaining capacity. Because the soil particles are very small and close together, it takes water much longer to move through clay soil than it does with other soil types. Clay particles then absorb this water, expanding as they do so and slow the flow of water through the soil. This is not only stopping water from penetrating deep into the soil but can also damage plant roots as the soil particles expand.

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Treatment Methods to Improving Clay Soil

Improving your clay soil will take a bit of work, but the good news is that the work you do will immediately improve the structure of your soil and make it easier to work with. Most of the work is done upfront, although some annual chores are essential to extend the soil improvement.

It is best to improve a complete planting area all at once, rather than to attempt to improve the soil in individual planting holes as you need them. If you dig a planting hole in clay soil, then drop in a plant and nicely amend only the soil you are using to backfill, your plant will be happy for a little while. But you have done nothing more than creating an in-ground flower pot. Finally, the plant will start sending out roots that will be stopped in their tracks when they reach the clay walls of the planting hole. You will end up with a root-bound plant that it won’t grow as healthy or as large as it should.

Start by defining the growing area for your garden bed. If you are trying to improve an existing bed, you can dig out any plants you want to keep and set them aside in pots till your soil improvement is completed. If you are preparing a brand-new bed, you will need to go through the fundamentals of starting a new garden bed.

To improve your soil, you’ll need to add around 6 to 8 inches of organic matter to the entire bed. You can add any organic matter you can get your hands on and grass clippings (as long as they haven’t been treated with chemicals), rotted manure, shredded leaves, and compost is all perfect choices. Spread organic matter on top of the soil. The organic matter needs to be mixed into the top 6 to 12 inches of soil. Digging it in and mixing it with a shovel is the best way to do this, as it moves a lot of earth without pulverizing the soil particles the way tilling can. Though, if digging is just too hard on your back, using a tiller is a fine method.

When you are finished, your garden bed will be several inches higher than it was originally, but this is not a problem. Your garden bed will settle some throughout a season as the organic material breaks down. The soil structure will continue to improve as microorganisms in the soil work to break down all of the organic matter you have added. The bed can be planted immediately. Plan to add more organic matter in the form of compost once or twice a year. This will continue the process of improving the soil’s structure and offset any settling that occurs.

Steps to Improve Clay Soil;

Add Organic Material for the Treatment of Clay Soil

Adding organic material to clay soil will go a long way towards improving it. While there are a great many organic soil amendments, for improving clay soil, you will want to stick to compost or materials that compost rapidly. Materials that compost rapidly includes well-rotted manure, leaf mould, and green plants. 

Cover with Organic Material for the Treatment of Clay Soil

Cover areas of clay soil with slower composting materials such as bark, ground wood chips or sawdust. Practice these organic mulch materials and as they break down, they will work themselves into the soil below. Working these slower and larger composting materials into the soil itself can cause harm to the plants you plan to grow in that space. You are better off just letting them work in obviously over a long period.

Dig over your soil in autumn

Normally, the soil is not as damp in early September, so it’s easier to turn over with a fork. Don’t break up the lumps though. Allow the frosts and wintry weather to do this instead and it will give a finer tilth.

Don’t walk on your soil

As clay become compacted if, under pressure, it is important not to walk on it. Get into the habit of standing on a plank when digging and only work on soil in dryish conditions.

Improve the drainage

Be prepared to work at improving your soil by digging in coarse grit which will last for many years.

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