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Gardening in Clay or Poorly Drained Soil

Clay soil is one of the most difficult conditions a gardener can face. Dense and slippery when wet, it's even more of a challenge as it bakes brick solid when dry. Clay particles are extremely small and tend to pack together, leaving no room for air or water movement.

The first order of business here is to improve the texture of the soil with organic matter. This will be an ongoing process, but the benefits will pay off in the long run. Generously amending or top dressing with compost, leaf mold, composted manure, good top soil or other organic matter will gradually bulk up the texture of your soil, lessening the compaction. The good news is that clay tends to be much higher in nutrients than a sandy soil.

WE STRONGLY ENCOURAGE YOU TO CONSIDER RAISED PLANTING BEDS! A huge part of gardening is how well the soil is prepared.  But if you absolutely can't...

If you can’t amend and raise the whole bed, at least work and amend the soil in the planting hole and add enough material to raise the planting area about 4-6“.  Most PERENNIALS need a depth of at least 8” in which to grow. For quarts at least a 12” by 12” hole should have the soil removed and mixed with Compost/Amendment (mixed not replaced). The bottom of the hole should have a higher clay content than the top of the hole which should have a higher Amendment/Compost content. Notice the shading from light to dark in the Amended hole on the left photo -- more clay at the bottom, more compost content at the top. SHRUBS will ultimately need a larger space in which to grow than 12” by 12”. Use the ultimate size of the shrub as a guide.

The clay surrounding this planting hole will still not drain if it rains a lot (see photo on right). It’s still a water holding clay bowl. But by amending the soil and leaving the planting area raised above the clay, with half of the new plant’s roots completely above the clay level, the plant should do fine, even in a wet season. Mulch can ‘soften’ the mound, so that it blends into the rest of the garden.


Happy Gardening,

Pete and Debby Sheuchenko

Lazy S’S Farm



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Lazy S'S Farm Nursery

2360 Spotswood Trail, Barboursville, VA  22923