Good old North Carolina red clay. It stains your clothes, sticks to your shoes, mires up your car and generally makes a mess. Plus it is darned hard to garden in; rock hard when dry and a gooey mess when wet. But for many of us it is what we have to work with, at least in some part of our yards. So what’s a gardener to do?
It is necessary to amend your clay soil. For annual, perennial and vegetable beds where you are turning over the soil several times a year, amending with organic matter is the way to go. Aged, ground leaf mulch, grass clippings, compost, pine bark fines and aged manure are all good. These should be turned into the soil up to a depth of six to twelve inches. Don’t use sand or peat. Sand and clay is the basic recipe for brick. As for peat, clay holds water; peat holds water. This makes for too much water for your plants.
For the more permanent parts of your yard, adding organic matter into the soil is difficult. You can amend the soil when you are planting a tree or shrub, but as those plants grow and the amendments decay, you can’t add more without damaging the roots. In these areas it is better to spread your organics on top of the soil and let the worms, fungi and insects do the work of turning it into the soil for you. You can hide this under a layer of mulch, which will also feed your soil.
Digging clay is hard work. If possible pick your day to dig. Two or three days after it rains the clay can be broken up into smaller clumps, which are easier to mix with your soil amendments. Get a pickaxe or mattock and learn to use it safely. A hole dug just with a shovel has slick glassy sides that are hard for roots to break through.
Don’t place your plant all the way into the ground. It should be sticking up above the edge of the hole. You can mound up soil and mulch around it. Do not fill the hole with new ‘good’ dirt. Your plant will grow great until its roots hit the wall of clay, at which point the roots will circle helplessly, maybe for years, unable to break through to freedom. Mix at least half of the broken up clay back in with a soil amendment mix.
Don’t be daunted by gardening in North Carolina just because of a little bit (or a lot) of red clay. Embrace the soil, taking care not to get too muddy while you do.
Pat Brothers is a long time gardening enthusiast and loves sharing her knowledge of gardening with others. She can be found most days outside at Atlantic Avenue Orchid & Garden in North Raleigh.