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Roanoke, VA
matnarshall
May 25, 2020 6:44 AM CST
Hello, first time gardener here.

I'm trying to get my garden started for the year but the soil is made of clay. I planted broccoli, lettuce and carrot seeds and nothing came up. It's a relatively large plot of land and has never been used for gardening before. I'm on a budget so I'm not interested in doing raised beds or dumping bagged soil. I've heard of gypsum but I'm not quite interested in that either. Is there a way I can just plant directly into the clay soil and still have a thriving garden?

Thanks,
Natalie
Bryan, TX
WAMcCormick
May 25, 2020 7:02 AM CST
You have taken on a big challenge. If the soil does not have any sand and/or plant material in it, it will be very hard to raise anything in it. The clay locks the seed into the ground tightly, and they cannot break through to come up. Even if they do come up, they can't develop roots in the tight dirt. Carrots pose a problem too in that they take so long to come up. I have not raised lettuce.
If it takes a long time to grow, remember that if nobody plants it, nobody has it.
Name: Lynda Horn
Arkansas (Zone 7b)
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gardenfish
May 25, 2020 7:15 AM CST
I struggle with clay. I understand about being on a budget, but to grow veggies in clay the soil has to be amended. I would recommend starting a compost pile now so as to have it ready for next year. Or try to source some cheap from your area. Of the three you mentioned planting, it is too late for planting lettuce and broccoli, because these are cool weather crops. In our zone lettuce and broccoli is typically planted in February/March, and is being harvested now.
If you want to plant warm weather plants , such as tomatoes, peppers and squash, You could buy plants, and when planting them amend the soil in each hole. I would be sure to amend the hole at least two feet deep and the same around.
Clay is sometimes fertile, but because of its composition doesn't release the elements easily.
I garden in containers and raised beds.

Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.
Mother Teresa
central ohio (Zone 5b)
PlantingOaks
May 25, 2020 7:37 AM CST
I agree

Vegetables are some of the most demanding plants as far as conditions go. They really won't be successful in unamended soil, particularly clay (or with less than generous light and water)

We have a good local source to buy compost, and after years of experimenting with mixing and raised beds and other shenanigans I've taken to just dumping the compost 4" deep on top of my clay and planting directly in the compost.

If you are really looking for a cheap solution, ask a tree trimmer to dump a load of raw woodchips near your garden. (they generally do this for free if they are in the area) spread it about a foot thick (they will decompose) and in a year or two they will be decent-ish soil for vegetables. You can speed the decomposition/improve the resulting soil by burying kitchen scraps you would usually compost in it or just spraying nitrogen fertilizer on it. Water it a little in the summer too to keep that decomposition moving.

To be clear: this is not as good a solution as real compost, it may not have ideal nutrient balance, it may have thorns and other unpleasantry (though tree trimmings don't usually have chemicals), and it takes some time to get plantable soil, but it is a way to get a lot of something better than clay, and easier to come by in a lot of places than a friend with spare animal manure (though if you have the later, do that too!)

I don't have experience with gypsum (I think it has something to do with improving salt-laden clays in desert areas out west?) I'm experimenting this year with sand and while initial results look good I will report back later. My primary use of non-organic amendments is to raise the soil level and improve drainage. Organic matter eventually decomposes and your bed ends up flat in a puddle again.
Bryan, TX
WAMcCormick
May 25, 2020 12:39 PM CST
If you are just wanting enough plants to have a few vegetables, I would second Linda's recommendation, but you indicated you don't want to invest in bags of compost. You could dig smaller holes, one per plant, and mix in potting soil, grass clippings, sawdust, sand, or anything else that breaks the compaction of the clay. Any way you go can lead to a lot of volume of admixture.
If it takes a long time to grow, remember that if nobody plants it, nobody has it.
Name: Sally
central Maryland
Seriously addicted to kettle chips.
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sallyg
May 26, 2020 5:52 AM CST
Good advice so far.
Just to check, you do want to dig and break up the clay before trying to grow. That will help loosen for a season. If you plant starter plants, and put organic mulch around them, that will start the addition of organic material that is so helpful to almost any soil. Cheap shredded hardwood, straw, grass clippings...
i'm pretty OK today, how are you? ;^)
Name: stone
near Macon Georgia (USA) (Zone 8a)
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stone
May 26, 2020 9:35 AM CST
I begged the real estate agent to show me land that had clay... sadly, they only showed me sand.

Clay is what I desperately wanted, because it holds moisture and nutrients.

The sand that I'm in... water it, and the water just washes through it, and washes out the nutrients.

The clay that you are in can be made to grow vegetables... of course, you are unlikely to grow cool season crops like lettuce, broccoli and carrots in the summer....

I've always gardened on a budget... which means that I try to use free materials.

Of course this means... a pick-up truck is an absolute necessity... can't garden without a truck...

When I was new to the area... i spent a lot of time and effort chasing down sources of manure and wood chips.

I used to follow the woodchip truck until the driver stopped... and then beg for the chips!

Once you find one person with horses... they can usually tell you the names of several others... Eventually, you are going to find someone with a pile out back where you can back up the pick-up truck to and fill it up...

When starting a garden... it takes a LOT of organic amending!

Thumb of 2020-05-26/stone/364b4d

Thumb of 2020-05-26/stone/8f5f0f

I once did some gardening for someone that couldn't understand why I was bringing in so much horse poop to their garden....

Sometimes... people just aren't going to understand....

As you get some experience with how not to grow a garden.... I trust that you will eventually try putting into action some of the advice that you've gotten, or, try growing stuff that won't mind being planted in the undeveloped plot that you have.

In VA, y'all get better rain than I do... you actually stand a chance of getting a crop in the soil that you have... Maybe try peanuts, and Jerusalem artichokes. Maybe some corn... some beans....
Name: Sally
central Maryland
Seriously addicted to kettle chips.
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sallyg
May 26, 2020 10:45 AM CST
Broccoli, lettuce, and carrot from seed is not the easiest things to learn on. Get a couple peppers and tomatoes plants from the big box, stick them in, see what you get.
i'm pretty OK today, how are you? ;^)
Name: Dr. Demento Jr.
Minnesota (Zone 3b)
RpR
May 26, 2020 10:57 AM CST
matnarshall said:Hello, first time gardener here.

I'm trying to get my garden started for the year but the soil is made of clay. I planted broccoli, lettuce and carrot seeds and nothing came up. It's a relatively large plot of land and has never been used for gardening before. I'm on a budget so I'm not interested in doing raised beds or dumping bagged soil. I've heard of gypsum but I'm not quite interested in that either. Is there a way I can just plant directly into the clay soil and still have a thriving garden?

Thanks,
Natalie


Will an application of gypsum improve a clay soil?
Answer:

Advertisements for gypsum sometimes claim that gypsum will help loosen heavy, clay soils and improve soil drainage. However, the addition of gypsum to Iowa soils is of little benefit. Gypsum is chiefly used to amend sodic soils. Sodic soils are found mainly in arid regions of the western United States.

Core aerification is the best way to improve growing conditions for lawns established on clay soils. The core aerifier should remove soil cores that are approximately three-fourths of an inch in diameter and 3 inches long. There should be 20 to 40 holes per square foot. April and September are the best times to aerify lawns in Iowa.

Vegetable and flower gardens can be improved by applying and incorporating organic matter, such as compost, well-rotted manure, or peat, into the soil. Work the organic matter into the top 8 to 12 inches of soil.

central ohio (Zone 5b)
PlantingOaks
May 26, 2020 5:59 PM CST
Very good point SallyG! I've still never grown broccoli or carrots successfully. (well, the carrots grew, but they tasted like dirt. I've stopped trying). Leaf lettuce, is somewhat easier, but it's getting too hot to really be starting lettuce now. (though mine just sprouted. Direct seeding my patootie Thumbs down )

And to add on, a cherry tomato is even easier than regular tomatoes. Indeterminate cherry tomatoes are practically weeds. You might be able to get cherry tomatoes growing from direct seeding them even this late. I'm farther north than you, but I just noticed cherry tomato seedlings popping up in my garden un-planted this week, and I know they will have taken over everything by fall.
Beans (or cowpeas) are also pretty forgiving places to start. There's a reason they give them to schoolchildren Hilarious! You could direct seed those now too.

Also, thank you RpR for clarifying on the gypsum! I knew it was for 'not my clay' but I couldn't remember the specifics.
Name: Lee-Roy
Bilzen, Belgium (Zone 8a)
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Arico
May 26, 2020 6:22 PM CST
The most productive veggie gardens are on clay because they hold on to moisture and nutrients very well, but only IF that clay soil has good structure and that means: enough pore spaces to allow excess water to drain and allow air to the roots + enough organic material to keep that structure.
So without adding organic material yourself you'll have a very hard time getting vegetables to grow. It's not just a matter of scattering seed, watering it in and leaving it.

There is no such thing as a maintenance free garden and certainly not a veg garden D'Oh! So unless you want to decide this isn't the thing for you, you'll have to bring in something organic to bring that soil into a good condition (being lazy doesn't help either).
Organic matter doesn't have to cost you a dime if you look around: kitchen scraps, wood chips from chip drop, straw, autumn leaves that people in the US so fervently bag up to be taken away (what a waste)...ANYTHING is better than nothing.

Also don't try to dig too much. Initial digging is good to break up any hard layers, to level the plot and start from a base to work with. After that minimize it to planting/sowing. This is more so important on clay because it compacts easily when walked on, especially if it's wet.
[Last edited by Arico - May 26, 2020 6:26 PM (+)]
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