We fuss about clay soil every season of the year--water runs off, digging is hard, and roots have trouble growing. So what are we supposed to do? For me compost (not sand) is the answer. We must not add sand to break clay soil down as sand and clay are the ingredients for cement. To make sand work, you have to add at least as much sand as clay in your mixture.

          Clay soil is made of tiny particles that contain and hold nutrients for your plants much better than sandy soil that drains so fast. The compost holds water and nutrients as well as air spaces for roots to go through. In small spots I dig a trench and fill it with compost or in many cases I just put in frosted and/or dead plants, cover, and then add water. By spring it has settled down and some decay has occurred which will continue as the roots go down. I do add a little nitrogen (lawn) fertilizer on top to speed the process. The next time I dig in that spot the soil is much better, looser, and easier to work with. This is called “trench composting” and it works for me. Some people do not like bulbs that have to be dug in the fall but after a few years of adding compost to the empty hole, the digging gets much easier.

          A good soil is 50% soil particles and organic matter, 25% air pockets, and 25% water pores. The parent material in soil was originally rock. Climate then determines how it breaks down. Rain and snow help the process but are responsible for working it deeper in areas. Alternate freezing and thawing breaks the rocks down and then the tiny soil organisms continue the process. Animals and plants release material by decay after they die or in manure while they are living.

          To improve your soil, add compost. It will (1) improve the ability to absorb rainfall, (2) add food for your “creatures” such as worms, bacteria, and fungous, (3) keeps nutrients in place and aerates you soil, and (4) reduces the need for so much fertilizer.

          In town there can be a great division of soil types from the digging of basements, moving rocks, and then moving it back mixed differently. Do you have sand? Silt? Or clay? Think of the surface space occupied by each granule. Clay can provide thousands more surface area to hold on to fertilizer, water and nutrients than the larger sand particles. Loam is a balanced mixture of sand, clay, and organic material, making it ideal for our gardens.

          You can check the drainage in your yard or garden by digging a hole one foot square by one foot deep. Then fill it with water. Let this water drain and then refill. Time this to see how long it takes to disappear. If you have well drained soil the water will run out at the rate of about 1 inch per hour.  If it runs out too slow or too fast, add organic matter such as compost. 

          One of our best friends here is the “earthworm” who digs tunnels that aid in drainage. So encourage your worms. And worm manure is a very good fertilizer, but it is expensive to buy. You can count your worms and see if you need to do more for your worms by digging up the soil one foot square by six inches deep.  Examine the soil and count the number of worms. Good soil matter should have at least 10 worms. If it does not, add compost and more organic matter to help them multiply.

          Mulching is a slower way to add compost and has many good things to say for it. It keeps soil from drying out as fast, absorbs moisture faster than dry soil, and keeps the roots cooler as it breaks down into food.

          The more you can do with your soil in the fall the better your crops will be in the spring.

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