Gardening on clay soil

Gardeners in Prudhoe will be aware after a short time, that the soil that they have to work with is good standard clay. This is why there were brick works locally in times past.

How to identify clay soil:

  • Clay soils feel slightly sticky and dense
  • Clay feels smooth (not gritty) when a piece is rubbed between finger and thumb
  • A moist fragment can be rolled into a ball and then into sausage shape with no cracking
  • If, after being rolled into a clay sausage the moist surface becomes shiny when rubbed, it is likely that the soil is especially rich in clay and is termed a ‘heavy clay’

Clay soils are:

  • Heavy to dig and cultivate
  • Drain slowly after rain
  • Warm up slowly as summer approaches, leading to delayed plant growth and ‘workability’
  • However, against this, clay soils hold water well
  • Clay soils are usually rich in plant nutrients
  •  If worked or walked on when wet clay soils lose their structure, and become puddled and compacted. Remedying this is slow and laborious; so damage should be avoided at all costs.

Techniques and tips if you garden on clay soil:

  • Dig in autumn and early winter when relatively dry. Once wetted by winter rains, clay soils often cannot be worked or walked on until mid-spring
  • Allow winter frosts to work on clay and break it down
  • Where digging is required, it is traditional in wet regions to dig clay into narrow ridges to allow more frost activity and better drainage
  • There is often only a brief period when clay soils are workable between waterlogged soils after winter and baked hard clay from late spring
  • Avoid early planting or sowing unless drainage can be improved by making raised beds or the ground dried and warmed in advance (for at least six weeks) by covering with cloches or clear polythene sheets
  • Although early vegetables are a challenge on clay soils, maincrop vegetables are usually heavy yielding and potentially of outstanding quality
  • Tree fruits generally thrive on clay soils, although some soft fruits, raspberries and strawberries for example, are more trouble

Source of information – Clay Soils by Royal Horticultural Society

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