Living with Clay

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
Living with Clay

Many gardeners living in the Western part of the United States are all too familiar with sticky, globby, heavy clay soil.

The kind that will suck a shoe right off of your foot as you walk across a muddy area.

Unfortunately, many first-time gardeners are tricked into thinking they can go ahead and plant their spring vegetables and annuals in the wet and somewhat workable clay, only to realize that once the soil dries out it’s as hard as concrete. These poor gardeners watch as the months tick by and their plants languish, barely growing an inch. And if bulbs were also planted, forget about it – they’ve most likely rotted away while sitting in soggy soil for months at a time.

Sound familiar? Don’t despair – there is something that you can do to remedy this gardening nightmare.


First off, what exactly is clay soil? In a nutshell, this is soil that consists of unusually high amounts of clay particles that are very small and compact. How do you know if you have clay soil? Most gardeners already know the answer if they’ve ever tried to walk around in a muddy area (ie: mud clumps on their shoes that are impossible to break apart). You can also grab a handful of damp soil and squeeze it together. If it forms a tight ball that doesn’t break apart, that’s clay. Another test is to dig a hole and fill it with water. If the water sits there for a long, long time – you have clay.

Why does clay soil hurt plants? Plants need air, nutrients and water to develop healthy root systems. Excessive clay prevents air from reaching a plant’s roots that, in turn, stunts the plant’s growth. And while clay tends to be higher in nutrients that some other soils, it can be very difficult for roots to extract these nutrients (especially when they’re struggling just to breathe!).

Clay soil also retains moisture – a lot of moisture. While this can be a benefit, too much clay means the soil remains wet way too long, causing roots to rot. And because clay soil retains so much moisture, it’s critical that you not walk on it when wet. Walking on wet soil squeezes all the air out of it, and when dry, it’ll form an impenetrable, concrete-like barrier surrounding the root ball of your plant.


Now that you’ve determined you have heavy, clay soil does this mean gardening is out of the question for you? Absolutely not! You’ll just need to become familiar with composting, realizing it’s your garden’s new best friend. While other gardeners might be able to get away with composting once in awhile, if you have heavy clay soil, you’ll need to do this throughout the year.

When adding compost to your garden it’s important to add it to your entire garden, not just in the hole that you dug for your new plant. Amending just the plant’s new hole will create a temporary situation for the plant. It’ll be happy for a while, but because the roots will never be able to penetrate the surrounding concrete-like soil, the plant will always remain stunted. Instead, mix a 6-10” layer of compost in the top layer of your entire garden. The goal isn’t to completely replace the clay soil in your garden with brand new soil, but rather to help break it up so it’s workable for both you and your plants.


If you compost throughout the year, as it decomposes it’ll not only provide much-needed nutrients for your plants, but it will break up the clay as it sinks deeper and deeper into the ground.

Compost consistently for a few years and one spring day, as you head out to begin a new season of gardening you’ll discover the shovel slips easily into the crumbly soil and the soles of your shoes are clay-free.