How Do You Garden in Clay?

My vocation was in the food industry, but my avocation has been working in garden centers: one I did for money, and the other for love. After at least a decade in garden center customer service here in West Knoxville, the single most important question I’ve been asked is “How do you garden in clay?” Boomers are retiring into warmer weather, to Tennessee’s favorable geography, its central location, and discovering red dirt (aka red mud) or clay soil. The reddish soil color is due to the large amounts or iron…which combined with oxygen forms rust, reddish FeO3 in the soil.

You can garden with clay. Tennesseans have for centuries. Your yard or farm may have areas of several kinds of soil. In the 1930’s USDA made soil maps for farmers for free. My grandfather’s 100 acres had several different areas with very different types of soil. Along the Tennessee river was wonderful fertile ‘bottom land’, as well as along Sinking Creek beside ‘Lowe’s Ferry Pike’, now Northshore. I was able to obtain his map from the
and Carol found Elk Valley Farms online at ____.


But you have to realize there is clay, and then there is CLAY. Hope for clay loam. With careful treatment clay gardens well. You can’t work in it when it’s wet because it will compact and dry in hard clumps. This is murder on root development. If you squeeze a handful of your soil, and it clumps, refusing to break apart, it is too wet to garden that day. You will regret not giving the soil more time to dry. Those fine tender new plant roots appreciate easy movement through the soil as they seek water and nourishment. Remember, some roots start as delicate hairs.

Clay does need enrichment. Try to turn it into rich clay loam. Fertilizers, soil conditioners (gypsum or composted pine bark), compost, composted chicken and cow manure, and other sources of humus will provide the minerals, bacteria and fungi that plants need to flourish. With judicious water, your garden will grow even though it has properties of clay..




CLAY is another matter. Its best use is throwing wet pots. You will recognize it when you feel it. Remember your own or your child’s kindergarten clay? You may find an orange version of that in your yard, dredged up from the subsoil and molded by your builder. It needs work. You have to dig it, break it up into small pieces and mix it with soil conditioners, topsoils and sources of organic matter like compost and aged manures. I like to dig, or sometimes double dig, on dry days in late October or November, turning over the soil (CLAY) in shovel-deep clumps. Over the winter the freezing and thawing of the water in the soil will break apart the clumps.


(Your yard may have areas of loam, clay, sand, etc.
During a dry period in spring, mix in any and all of the above mentioned enrichments, and GO GARDEN. Remember, strive for FRIABLE soil: when you squeeze a handful of friable soil, it does not clump! (Examine the topsoil you purchase. It should be an example of friable soil.) Roots can go crazy in good friable soil. And you will get joy from the blossom or the tomato you have helped produce.