Clay. One word that can evoke immeasurable pleasure for so many people or strike dread into the hearts of gardeners everywhere. I'll admit it, I'm a plant frea....enthusiast and clay has been my nemesis. A few years ago I moved from a soil rich, sunny, flat location where my gardens thrived with very little attention to a wooded hillside with limestone ledges and dense soil loaded with clay.
I've come to terms with this dense clay, but it hasn't been easy. Any seasoned gardener will tell you, it takes a lot of work to change clay into something you can grow plants in.
First of all, you have to determine if you have too much clay. The easiest way is to pick up a handful of your soil when it's moist, but not too wet. Squeeze it in your hand as hard as you can. After you release your grip, gently tap the ball with your fingers. Does it break apart easily or does it stay in a firm ball? If it stays in a ball, you have clay. Now try rubbing the clay between your thumb and forefinger. If it feels gritty, there is some sand in it and if you form a ribbon and it falls apart before it is a few inches long, you have a fair amount of organic matter in it.
So how does one manage clay? Clay particles are extremely small and tend to pack together, so there is really no room for air or water movement or for the plant roots to push out into the surrounding soil. I improve the texture of my soil by adding organic matter such as shredded leaves and composted manure which aerates the soil and helps retain water and nutrients. Over time the texture of the soil has bulked up and the compaction has lessened.
Now for the good news. Clay tends to be higher in nutrients. In the past few years I've discovered several plants that work great in clay soil. I've learned that instead of going through all the frustration and back breaking work of trying to change it, that I'd start collecting plants that thrive in a clay heavy soil. The gorgeous wildflowers that dot my wooded lot seem to go nuts in the stuff, so if the wild plants thrive in clay, well just maybe there are other plants as well. The plants I am listing here tolerate any clay, but of course the better the drainage, the better they'll grow.
Quamash Camassia leichtlinii
Bugleweed Ajuga reptans
Obedient Plant Physostegia virginiana
Flowering quince Chaenomeles japonica
Blazing Star Liatris Spicata
Black-eyed Susan Rudbeckia hirta
Bee Balm Monarda Fistulosa
Sedum "Autumn Joy"
Plantain Lily Hosta
Toward the end of every spring, I trade in my stage apron for my overalls, my drafting pencils for my gardening trowel, and delight in the drama and design of my hillside garden. I've learned to ignore the snakes, avoid the poison ivy, and appreciate the wildflowers. I've also learned to live with the clay. Sure, that beautiful manicured garden from my suburban lot was so much easier to care for, but this new one is much more challenging, unpredictable and exciting than I ever thought possible. I know now I wouldn't have it any other way. Gardening and art are my passions but it is in my pursuit of gardening that has taught me to be a more patient person and to be more accepting of new approaches to old ideas. For me there is nothing more hopeful or glorious than watching those first sprouts appear after a long difficult winter. This summer I will be devoting my blog entries to gardening, and one thing I have learned about both fellow gardeners and Clay Aiken fans, is that they love to share and celebrate life. I would really "dig it" if you would share some of your favorite plants to grow (with or without clay).
Here's another great gardening/nature blog - Thistle Hut