Thursday, May 11, 2006

Stuck on Clay

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
Tickseed Coreopsis
Coneflower Echinacea
Blazing Star Liatris Spicata
Black-eyed Susan Rudbeckia hirta
Bee Balm Monarda Fistulosa
Aster Aster
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).
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Here's another great gardening/nature blog - Thistle Hut

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19 comments:

theresa4624 said...

Very interesting!! Are you growing any cucumbers this year??

The ConCLAYve-Nan said...

When we bought our house it was August and a drought. When we moved in in October everything was great. When March came and the snow melted - we saw the horror that was poor drainage. Now we understood why the previous owners had no garden! Six years later and deer fencing - we finally get to grow things. Not bad for a city girl.

Pink Armchair said...

This was great! I wish I had a talent for gardening...plants cringe when they see me coming. And rightly so. *g* Really enjoyed this, and welcome!

Chexxxy said...

I love your blog! I wanted to link one of your articles in my blog but you are missing that option in yours. On mine it looks like this at the bottom of each article.

posted by Chexxxy at 10:48 PM | 0 comments links to this post

~ YSRN ~ said...

theresa... Hee!

I have the exact opposite of clay...dust. I have to amend and amend and mulch and... well, you get the idea.

For once, I would like to try rubbing the clay between my fingers to check for grit. Just sayin'.

I've got more of a clay-like soil in the back of the house, closer to the woods, and dust out front in the "orchard". I planted a Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus)closest to the woods with morning to mid-afternoon sun. It's done well back there. The first year was a little dwarfed, but it has since taken off. When it blooms this year, I'll be sure to take a few photos. Heuchera/Coral Bells have been successful for me in hard soils. I planted a small drift of the palace purple variety in a very root-bound, clay soil area and it seems pretty happy.

Look forward to reading more of your adventures with clay!

And thanks for linking me!!

TheClayBlog said...

I have a black thumb. And our soil is very clay-ey. It's not good Clay. Not like Clay Aiken Clay. I do have a plant. I think it's still alive. Do I have to water it occasionally?

purple_stapler said...

I started a vegetable garden. Now it needs watering. Before dark. F*ck it, I should get a dog as well. At least you can walk a dog after dark. Also, there is a lame groundhog roaming the neighborhood gardens. I *know* it's going to take a bite out of anything that survives my attempt to water. Also, I have a birdfeeder. Feeding birds are like feeding wolves. They're insatiable buggers. Grrr.

beauzzartz said...

purple_stapler, those insatiable birds always come BACK FOR MORE. I have two words of advice for you. Stamp Collecting. You know I love you.

theresa4624, considering the timing for our next gathering, I'm thinking of traveling with a bag of butternut squash and ghords this time around. The colorful textured ghords are particularly appealing, don't you think?

YSRN, I forgot about the Rose of Sharon, another clay lover for sure. Thanks! I love your blog site!

geekette said...

I'm in clay country too, in more ways than one. Heh. The clay's tough enough to deal with, but our sauna like summers (and concert travels) mean lack of water's more of a sticky point here.

One plant that's gone out of bounds in 2 years is a varigated wegelia. It's not supposed to grow to 6' tall and 7' wide! In two years! In barely amended clay!

I have a couple of Natchez Crepe Myrtles, which bloom in the summer when everything else here is prostrate from the heat. The bark peels in the fall leaving mottled cinnamon trunks. The beaver in the lake behind us come to snack on the closest one in the spring, though, so that one's more of a shrub, while the other's a 15' 5 trunked tree.

I dropped one cherry tomato in a hole a few summers ago. Now they come up every spring like weeds. Incredible. And I don't even like tomatoes!

purple_stapler said...

[b]geekette[/b] - sometimes, plants grow best when ignored. One of my garden beds are directly under the dryer vent. I had peonies in the bed for a few years, and they did really well. However, since they were ant magnets, they have been moved away from the side door of the house. Now I'm stuck watering them and hoping they don't die.

Also, if you let them think that you don't care if they live or die, they do particularly well. (Exhibit: wild weeds, onion grass, cherry tomatoes)

Yes, I am filled with credible gardening knowledge. Heh.

The squirrels in my back yard like red (NOT yellow) tulip petals, and planted sunflower seeds. They actually went through the planted bed, shelled the seeds, and left the shells in the spot where the seeds used to be planted.

I want wacky garden animal stories!!

The ConCLAYve-Nan said...

Well purple_stapler - this isn't wacky but before we put up deer fencing - we'd spend a fortune on plants only to have them constantly eaten. Nothing worked. No sprays, no urine, no Irish Spring soap - nothing, zip, nada. One time I had gone to the nursery and bought about $60 worth of plants. I came back and laid them out on the garden beds to see how they would look. Went inside to change to my gardening clothes. Gone maybe 15 minutes. When I came out --- every single plant had been eaten. All that was left were little plastic pots of dirt - some on their side - some upright. Eaten. Every Single One. Next IRS refund - Deer Fencing!

beauzzartz said...

I want wacky garden animal stories!!

ok, I've got one for you p_s.

A few years ago soon after we first moved, I glanced out the back door and what do I see not more than a few feet away? A big freakin' black bear.

Mr. Beauz was in the next room getting dressed. I tried to get his attention and in my distress the words that came out of my mouth went something like this.

"eeeeeeeeeeeeeeep! Oh. my. gawd. omg omg omg omg omg
come quick, hurry hurry, look at this. omg.
What on earth is taking you so long?!"


Mr. Beauz slooooowly saunters into the room. He says....

"are you watching those videos again?"

true story.

purple_stapler said...

Squirrels and Deers Gone Wild ...

There were these two afternoons last fall when a couple of deer decided to make my neighbor's garden (facing my kitchen) the Playboy mansion.

Seriously, there was no fazing those exhibitionists. Gawking, waving, noise-making - nothing would distract them from their festivities, which appeared to alternate between intermittent mating and snacking.

There was also the very sad case of the squirrel in my cherry tree. I've decided that it is the tragic case of a squirrel who can't find a mate. Nothing else can really cause him to make these sad squarking noises.

He'd start bright and early (around 7 or 8 am) on weekend mornings - there'll be these energetic chirp/squarking noises at precise 15 second intervals, which would slowly degenerate (over the course of about 15 or so minues) into these dejected wounded animal noises.

I swear that you can see him slumped over a branch at the end of these episodes.

Poor thing. Maybe even his paw rejects him?

~ YSRN ~ said...

Methinks purple_stapler needs her own blog!!!! Hee!

My neighbor brought her 87yo mother over today to peruse my yard. Mama Delores told me unasked and in no uncertain terms that I could get rid of my gophers by saving my own urine and pouring it in the little gopher holes at night. So, if you see me tiptoeing about under the moonlight, ya'll know what I'm doing!

theresa4624 said...

Hmmm -- big textured ghords. That sounds good to me. Can we paint funny faces on them?? I have no gardening stories (typical New Yawkah). One day I happened to turn on Martha Stewart and she was making something with rhubarb. WTF?? Anyway, Martha said that rhubarb is poisonous to deer and they know it, so she suggests planting it if you have deer trouble. It's a good thing!

beauzzartz said...

I could get rid of my gophers by saving my own urine and pouring it in the little gopher holes at night.

...but of course YSRN, that only works on European gophers. Oh come on, someone had to say it.

We have rhubarb and its huge stuff. My inlaws always made strawberry rhubarb jam and rhubarb pie but other than that I have no idea what to do with it. We don't have deer trouble but maybe that's because of the all the rhubarb!

geekette, I love the architecture and texture of crepe myrtles but unfortunately we live too far north to grow them. They are lovely trees. You have beavers? How cool! We have possoms (ugly creatures) fox, and a muskrat (only one that I know of, so no muskrat love goin' on here).

mba said...

Well you've hit on my favorite past time next to Clay. One of my life's greatest pleasures is turning up the mp3 player (filled with Clay) and losing myself in my gardening. *insert deep contented sigh*

I,too, have the clay problem. I've been told our entire community was built on clay. I'm impressed that you've chosen to forego the amending in some instances and can actually plant in your clay. I find that I can't dig deep enough because my clay is so hard. (I'm trying hard not to smut here, really.)

I have found that if I amend the soil in the fall with a few inches of compost I can dig deeper in the spring. But I'm going to consider some of your plant suggestions and give it a try.

aloil said...

Oh. My. Gosh. I have a problem with dense clay, too. It drives me cr-azy. But you know what I do? I roll rocks around in it. When you do that, some of the clay sticks to the rock, or the rock to the clay, if you know what I mean and I think you do. I love it when the clay sticks to the rock. I have my own term for the new type of soil. I call it Rock!Soil!Clay! It's fabulous and perfect for planting all sorts of things that grow.

But don't take my word for it, try it for yourself.

(No, I can't even keep my houseplants alive, why do you ask?)

~ YSRN ~ said...

...but of course YSRN, that only works on European gophers. Oh come on, someone had to say it.

Hee. All I know is if I start peein' gophers, I think I best visit an emergency room.

Rock!Soil!Clay! I have none. Hmpfh!