Soil and Compost forum→How to manage clay based soils in terms of water?

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Houston, TX
Mar 8, 2021 4:54 PM CST
Hi- I have a pretty clay soil in my backyard and I've always had issues growing stuff (veggies are mainly are the only thing I usually plant). Recently found out my backyard is a largely clay soil which could be affecting why I can't grow stuff that well because when I water, it retains moisture. So....

1. Should I water less?
2. How do I know when I should water with a clay soil?
3. Are there certain veggies that don't do well in clay? I just planted tomatoes, squash and cucumbers.
4. Any other tips for clay like soils? Fertilizing? Etc?

OR, should I just resort to gardening beds instead? I'd like to give the ground another shot but I also don't want another failed year- I might try both out this year.

I'm starting to think watering less may be what I should start doing..since it's so hot in SE TX I would water frequently in bw rains, thinking that was necessary but evidently not. I met a neighbor recently who said out area is mainly clay so she just uses garden beds in stead and that's where she's found the most success
West Central Minnesota (Zone 4a)
Mar 9, 2021 12:54 PM CST
Add lots of organic matter to the soil and mulch your plants deeply. I think gypsum is a soil additive that helps loosen clay. Clay soil holds water for a long time so water deeply and not so often.

I don't know if I'd do raised beds where it's really hot. I made a raised bed for my strawberries last year so I had something on which to attach bird-netting hoops. The strawberries died on the hot, south side. It's a lot hotter in Texas than in Minnesota where I am. I honestly don't understand spending a bunch of money building raised beds and filling them with commercial potting soil.
Minnesota (Zone 3b)
Mar 10, 2021 12:35 PM CST
Do you fertilize?
Do you roto-till?
Does your land puddle?
As Rubi said, adding organic matter, a lot, is your best solution.
Over the years, decades, adding such material to my garden has raised it several inches.
Houston, TX
Mar 11, 2021 5:32 PM CST
@RpR New to gardening so I don't fertilize however I will definitely look into how to properly fertilize! No I don't roto-till. And yes when I water it easily puddles.
Houston, TX
Mar 11, 2021 5:35 PM CST
@Rubi thanks for the insight! I thought this would be the way to go because a lot of people that I've seen online at that seem to be able to garden abundant produce seem to be using a garden beds but I personally don't have any experience with them and honestly I don't know what location they are in either so maybe in their part of the country garden beds make more sense where I'm at in TX.

I'm just outside of Houston & it rains a good amount here. Which makes me think that since the soil is so clay I really shouldn't water in between rains and I should just wait for the rain to water the crops for me. that said, how am I supposed to know if I should indeed be watering? let's say it hasn't rained in awhile how should I know that I should probably water? Should I stick my finger in the soil and if it's dry and hot that means I should water?
Minnesota (Zone 3b)
Mar 11, 2021 6:46 PM CST
What do you grow?

Dig a hole, or if you know some one, borrow /rent a post hole digger.

Make a hole at least two feet, three is better, and see what is down there.
If it rains, see how long it takes for the hole to dry, IF it drys.

How big is your garden?
You should heavily till it at least once just to break it up, that twill also raise the level for while.
If you can get some one with a plough and plough once then till that.
Add mulch , hay/straw bales, leaves veggies the grocery store is tossing, coffee grounds from coffee houses and till that in.
Houston, TX
Mar 12, 2021 3:23 PM CST
@RpR currently I have planted squash cucumbers & tomatoes. So essentially, after I have dug the hole, I should water every time it dries up?

And do you recommend all of the above, such as coffee grounds, as a replacement for fertilizer that I could buy from the local garden center, such as gypsum?
Minnesota (Zone 3b)
Mar 12, 2021 5:44 PM CST
NewGardener95 said:@RpR currently I have planted squash cucumbers & tomatoes. So essentially, after I have dug the hole, I should water every time it dries up?
And do you recommend all of the above, such as coffee grounds, as a replacement for fertilizer that I could buy from the local garden center, such as gypsum?

No the hole will tell where you water level is and how well the soil drains.
The items I listed are for working into your natural soil to improve it but if it is a slough, you will have to raise it so the roots are never in the puddle zone.

If it holds water and never drains, you are going to raise the entire area or use raised beds that are well off of the ground.

For what you grow , squash and cucumbers simply need the roots to not end up in water so there a small, in area raised bed would be fine, you could put down straw to keep the fruit out of the water when it puddles but tomatoes, depending on how many you plant need to be well out of the ;puddle zone and the trunks need support .
[Last edited by RpR - Mar 12, 2021 5:50 PM (+)]
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Name: Thomas Mitchell
Central Ohio (Zone 6a)
Mar 14, 2021 7:16 AM CST
NewGardener95 said:No I don't roto-till. And yes when I water it easily puddles.

Hi. There. Yay that you don't roto-till. So I would recommend raised beds. You don't have to bring in all new dirt to fill the beds. You don't even need to make an enclosure for the bed. I simply mean, adding organic matter to the top of the bed rather than tilling it in, which you don't, or even shoveling the organic matter into the soil. Both of those destroy soil structure. I've been using raised beds since Square Foot Gardening became a thing a long time ago. When I bought my own house and built my first garden with raised beds, I brought in 'top soil' to fill the beds. The soil was perfect loam... so easy to plant in. Until the end of the season. The loam turned back into hard clay which is what the loam was when delivered. So I'd buy compost/make my own compost, break up the soil every spring, add the compost, till it up with a tiny tiller and see all the worms that were cut up. Next year the soil would be the same hard as brick clay. About 20 years ago I didn't have the time to shovel and till and just dumped the compost on top of the beds, a few beds received the compost in the fall as part of fall cleanup. At the same time, I started putting 2-3" layer of leaves under the oak trees where the grass doesn't grow. Previous owners used wood mulch $$$ which gets placed down in the spring, raked up in the fall with leaves, and then bought the next spring to be placed down again. The following spring, I noticed a couple things. The leaves under the oaks were almost loam and the beds that had the compost added in the fall seemed to have a lot more life in them. Those beds also did better through the growing season. Wish I would have learned that season, but I didn't and failed to add compost to the beds in the following fall. However I did add the 2-3" shredded leaves under the oak trees. The next spring I was raking up some sticks under the oak trees and noticed roots. I figured great I just created a huge weed bed, BUT, the roots were from the oaks! Another season goes by and I again do not add compost to the raised bed in the fall, rather in the spring, but add the leaves under the oaks. Same results. That following fall it dawns on me, I could be adding shredded leaves to the raised beds. Yeah that didn't work as well as hoped. Very little decomposition though there was some. Big benefit was the soil was warmer due to the insulation of the leaves. Following year comes around and I'm thinking add the compost!!! So I added the compost to top of the beds in the fall and the layer of leaves to the oaks. The following spring, the roots to the oak trees were gone. Got concerned that the oaks might be dying. Dug down through the layers of shredded leaves. Couldn't find more than one layer which was from the previous fall. Everything else was loam. Kept digging with only my hand and I could easily dig down 6+" Now you might think that makes sense because I added around 10" of shredded leaves over the years at that point. However, an inch of shredded leaves might break down to .25" after composting. The soil organisms had taken the shredded leaves through the soil column and I was digging through the clay crap that the builders left after construction of the house 30 years ago. The clay had turned into loam! The raised beds looked better as well. So I stopped digging, stopped tilling and realized that I needed to feed the life in the soil rather than the veggie I was planting. I use a hand trowel if I need to dig s small hole to plant a pepper plant, but mostly don't need the trowel at all. I've moved on and replaced all the pathways in the garden with cardboard straw or shredded leaves. I had landscape fabric underneath straw for a long number of years. I ripped that up two years ago and have left it in a pile in my way that I have to walk around to remind me. The beds are not islands of fertility, they are part of the ecosystem. Do I get weeds in the pathway? Sure I get some. Mostly they are volunteer herbs that come from self spreading plants and are easy to pull up.

Likewise with the puddling. I used to have ponds, lakes after a heavy rain now with the improved soil structure from all the shredded leaves, the water might puddle but it doesn't stick around long.

I know tl;dr but this stuff gets me growing....
Everyone has something they can teach; everyone has something they can learn.

"America is the most grandiose experiment the world has seen, but, I am afraid, it is not going to be a success. "
— Sigmund Freud
Bellevue, NE
May 12, 2021 7:55 PM CST
Late suggestion but I have clay as well and managed to grow a jungle of a garden last year. My garden is somewhat sloped. I created "trenches" around my plants, about 6-8 inches away from tomatoe and pepper stems and down the middle of the space between rows of beans. I then connected the trenches. The trenches allowed water to sink in slowly rather than run off quickly. I mulched with a thin layer of grass clippings, adding more as it decomposed. In the fall I added a few inches of mixed grass clippings and shredded leaves. Worms loved it. This year it was a little bit easier to dig in the top bit of soil. I just mixed in a few bags of garden soil. My plan is to repeat what I did last year, but add compost with the grass and leaves in the fall.

For watering, I mostly did it by hand. That allowed me to do a little at a time and let it soak in. Then repeat until I felt it got a good soak. I learned to not let it get so dry that water couldn't soak in. I found using fertilizer that could be applied when watering worked well.
Name: SoCal
Orange County (Zone 10a)
Lazy Gardener or Melonator
May 16, 2021 8:40 AM CST
I have clay soil too, and I pile compost on top now. Years ago my husband used to break up clay with something, not anymore, we don't have time and it takes effort.
2022 wishlist: Pastelorama, Pastelegance, and Blonde Vision.

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