Real Men Sow

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Clay Soil


When I installed my raised beds earlier last year, I was delighted to be able to use soil from the house across the road (pictured). There was building work going on, and I was fortunate enough to be able to barrow up as much as I liked.

In Autumn, the soil looked beautiful – all crumbly and fine, and I was over the moon. It certainly didn’t look like clay, and it didn’t feel like clay either.

However, I should have paid closer attention. Yep, you’ve guessed it: I’ve bulked my raised beds out with clay.

So, I’ve now got three raised beds with several inches of clay, topped with leaf mould and seaweed.

Disadvantages of Clay
One of the disadvantages of clay, is that it stays wet long after rain. My is still heavy and very wet, and when I took a foot or so off the end of a raised bed to fit my workshop in, the squelchyness was very apparent.

When clay is wet, it’s easy to spot by grabbing a handful and seeing if you can roll into a nice, firm ball. If this happens, the soil is clay.

I’ve been careful to use a board when I do need to step onto the beds, as clay becomes compacted very easily when wet.

When the soil does finally dry out, the surface becomes like concrete, and cracks. This poses problems for sowing and planting out.

Advantages of Clay
However, I’m a man who likes to look on the bright side. A glass half full kind of grower. And therefore, all is not lost.

Despite the drawbacks, clay does have some things going for it. For example, where some say clay stays sodden, I say it retains moisture. In raised beds this is useful, as they dry out quicker than conventional beds. And because of this, plants growing in clay often deal with dry conditions better than plants in other soils.

Either way, I might not have to water as much and that can only be a good thing. :)

Clay is usually very rich in nutrients too, which reduced need for fertilising. Hungry plants such as tomatoes and courgettes will certainly not be upset about this. If the monster earth worms I found in my soil are anything to go by, there are definitely some good nutrients there.

At the weekend, I set about working my soil, and with all this in mind, I’m not completely unhappy with my gaffe.

The workability of the soil has already been improved by adding seaweed and leaf mould. Once the loosened soil had seen a bit of this lovely sun we’ve had recently, it dried out a little and began to look quite presentable.

Improving the Clay
I’ll keep adding soil improvers as time goes by, and once I’ve dug once, won’t do so again as I’m trying the No Dig principles in the raised beds.

With good nutrients, moisture retention and plenty of organic matter, I’m hopeful that I can turn these beds into a productive environment.

That was a lot of wheelbarrowing if I can’t…

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  1. @spadeforkspoonMarch 11, 2014 at 7:44 pmReply

    We’ve got clay soil, and like yours it’s still pretty damp. Adding in manure and other organic material like seaweed definitely helps over the years. I think you’re right about water retention. Although it hardens and cracks on top, it’s often more moist underneath the crust.

  2. Alan @ It's Not Work, It's Gardening!March 12, 2014 at 1:30 amReply

    There’s clay soil, and there’s CLAY! soil. If you have CLAY! soil, then there’s almost no amount of organic matter that you can add that will make a significant difference. A friend of mine is gardening in his grandfather’s plot. After 30 years of adding organics several times a year, he’s managed to change the light brown clay to a darker brown clay. :)

  3. JennyMarch 12, 2014 at 9:19 amReply

    Good luck with the beds. Most of our garden is clay and it doesn’t seem to do too bad, but one corner is CLAY (as Alan describes above) and we could probably use it to mould things out of! We haven’t tried to grow anything in that corner.

    • Jono

      JonoMarch 14, 2014 at 10:28 pmReplyAuthor

      haha, clay and CLAY. Love it. :)

      Maybe you could make a clay over Jenny?? :)

      • JennyMarch 18, 2014 at 10:14 amReply

        Joe has his eyes firmly on a pizza oven, but it’s somewhere on the “one day” list!

  4. HelleMarch 12, 2014 at 10:00 amReply

    I’m also gardening on clay and also taking the no-dig approach. Charles Dowding’s website is a goldmine of info. He also gardens on clay and finds that consistent mulching does have a very positive effect on the soil. And mulching will, of course, stop the soil drying out and cracking in hot summers.

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meIn 2007, I took on a redundant allotment plot with my gardening-mad mum Jan. As all good mums do, she went along with it, but I don’t think she held out much hope. However, over a decade later, and she now lets me do stuff without watching over my shoulder, so I must be doing something right. [ read more ]

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