The Q&A Archives: making great soil from sand and clay

Question: I am moving to a house that is on a lagoon in NJ. That soil is nothing but hard packed sand and clay!!!! How do I amend this to make great soil, and what do I add to it? Should I just excavate the area to be used (it's in the middle of our yard, sort of a 20' x 20' sanctuary for me to retreat to while the kids play in the yard, so I don't think raised beds would look very good) and fill it with a few truckloads of compost and dirt or mushroom soil? We have a recycling program in our town and I have a dump truck and a back hoe so it wouldn't cost much and it wouldn't be much of an inconvenience. I also want to plant blackberries, black and red raspberries, strawberries, grapes, and blueberries. Is opposite ends of the space far enough to plant blackberries from the raspberries?

Answer: Both sand and clay based soils are improved by the addition of organic matter such as compost and/or mushroom soil and/or old rotted leaves and/or aged stable manure and bedding. Top soil is not a regulated material so I would not recommend adding that. You will need to loosen the existing soil down about a foot and work in the organic matter. This process will create a slightly raised area but it will settle over time.

Before you begin, it would be a good idea to run some soil tests to help guide your preparation process. Your local county extension should be able to help you with the testing and interpreting the results based on the plants you want to grow.

I should mention that blueberries have very specific needs in terms of soil, requiring a low pH and a texture that stays evenly moist yet drains well. I am also a little concerned that your space may not be large enough to accommodate even one or two of each fruit along with a small patch of strawberries. Please be sure to check the mature size of the specific varieties you want to plant. Your extension staff should also be able to recommend specific varieties that seem to grow best in your local area and soil type.

Enjoy your new garden!

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