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What I Learned From Gardening in Clay Soil

Discover the secret to gardening in clay soil. Clay soil gets a bad rap, but it’s easier than ever for gardeners to grow abundantly in it.

Tomatoes have been picked from a garden and are being held.

This year was not my very first year ever gardening. But I still learned quite a bit this time around.

We have lived in our current home for a little over a year, so this was our first opportunity to garden in our backyard. Overall, I learned so much from gardening. Especially since this was my first time gardening in clay soil.

I admit that I did read some gardening books before buying seeds and planting anything this year.

It had been years since I helped my mom in her garden, and I honestly needed a lot of direction. That being said, I also knew to take this information with a grain of salt. What works for some may not work for others in their garden. I knew I’d just have to learn by trial and error, too.

Clay soil, for example, is notorious for being more difficult to garden in—but it sure isn’t impossible.

Preparing for a few issues may change your whole perspective, and maybe you’ll be willing to try it out eventually if you just so happen to have this type of soil in your yard.

I think that reading and digesting a lot of gardening information can seem overwhelming to some. For an information junkie like myself I felt empowered learning so much. It helped set me up for success by teaching me all the basics.

I read both Beginner’s Garden and Vegetables Love Flowers. They’ve inspired me to learn more about companion planting and organic gardening. Next year, I even plan to use permaculture practices in my gardening techniques. I’m already excited to start planning the next garden.

Now, without further adieu, let’s talk about my first time gardening in clay soil…

My first time I’m gardeing in clay soil I am growing grapes. Here on the vine, they are climbing a trellis.
Grape vines beginning to vine around a trellis.

Tips for Gardening in Clay Soil

Clay soil can be tilled… but it’s not always necessary.

We will probably buy a tiller next year because that’s the most efficient way to prepare soil. This year we just used a hand tiller for a small section of the garden, though.

Then for the larger garden bed, we just dug about a 6-inch space for each seedling we transplanted, leaving grass and soil undisturbed around it. It worked out okay this year, but I do think it is much easier to spot sprouting seeds and young plants when you have all your land tilled.

Nutrients turn over in the soil, too. (Just make sure to give it a break after tilling once—clay soil can be overtilled which can ruin future crops.) We did what we could with what we had this year, and I have no regrets because we still got to harvest crops! With a little care, gardening in clay soil can be done with minimal digging, though.

Water plants lightly (and often) so they don’t get waterlogged.

Honestly, waterlogging doesn’t happen often if you’re careful and strategic. I initially had a concern that my plants would get waterlogged because clay soil is so dense and can really hold water longer, taking longer to dry out.

However, in my opinion, I didn’t have any issues with watering. The plants that grew flourished in this soil, and I could sometimes go 2-3 days without watering them. I did have a routine of at least checking my garden nightly to water, after the sun had set.

Check soil daily to see what needs to be watered and act accordingly. The fact that I could sometimes skip lugging around a heavy-duty hose around the back, side, and front yard on some hot, sticky summer evenings was always a win for me! Appreciate the days you don’t have to.

White pumpkins grow in a garden.

Clay soil is very nutrient dense and will likely need little intervention.

You hear it all the time. Fertilize tomatoes with this and squash plants need that, but honestly sometimes less is more, at least when it came to my clay soil gardens.

I was initially concerned about nutrients in my clay soil. I’d read how fertile clay soil could be, but I’d often found the weirdest things in my yard when digging (we’ve done lots of outdoor projects since buying our house). I wondered how our soil could be healthy at all. I mean, I’d literally found old nails, old baby spoons, and random plastic pieces in the yard. We learned quickly not to be surprised by what we’d find. But it did make me nervous about how healthy our garden would be.

Nevertheless, we carried on with our mission and most seeds I planted did well. (Except for most flowers I planted, but that’s a story for another day).

Our plants grew thick and tall, though I did notice melons and marigolds growing much slower and producing much smaller blossoms and fruits than the norm. I happen to think that had more to do with being transplanted and experiencing shock, which I will discuss later.

Overall our clay soil was very fertile, though, so I won’t be investing in any expensive fertilizers next year. I will, however, start using the compost we’ve been producing once I start next year’s garden. I am very excited for this!

My first time gardening in clay soil I’ve grown watermelons, tomatoes, and pumpkins.

Sunshine is everything.

At least for the type of plants I grew, which were basically all full-sun varieties. This particular component wasn’t so much dependent on the clay soil, but more so on the surrounding trees from our neighbors’ yards. (My husband and I often joke that our next door neighbors have a jungle in their backyard—it’s a bit scary.) 

Early in the season when I was transplanting young seedlings and direct sowing seeds into the ground, we had plenty of sunshine most of the day. As the days grew longer, the trees grew more foliage. By July, only half of our backyard would have enough sunshine at any given time. It was hard for some of the plants to get their much-needed light. 

This year I am marking the best sunlit areas in our yard with bamboo sticks. This will remind us next year where exactly we get full sun most of the day. We will know exactly where the sun-loving plants will go!

A flowering plant is being pollinated by a bee.

The Ruth Stout Method is not pretty or practical.

The Ruth Stout Method is basically a minimal dig garden where hay/straw/compost just gets constantly added around all plants. This kills the grass and weeds surrounding them while decomposing and naturally fertilizing the soil for optimal plant health. 

In theory it’s brilliant, but it also has its drawbacks. 

We spent nearly $100 on straw to cover the entire garden with. A month later we would’ve needed to spend another $100 just to keep it going another month. 

The straw made it very hard to detect the first sprouting seeds, too.

The wind would blow the straw around and make such a mess of the garden. My husband, after the first couple of months, got tired of all the weeds still sprouting through the thinning layer of straw that he mowed through the weeds and straw, which was a lot of work for both him and our mower. All those thick weeds developing along with the straw made for an unsightly view. 

I will probably never use straw like that again. And I can’t forget how messy it was to haul in our vehicles! Next year, we will just till with a standard tiller and weed by hand. I suppose for a farmer with a property full of straw/hay and plenty of scraps to compost this would be perfect. Not so much for the suburban homesteader like me. 

Organic roma tomatoes grow in a garden.

Plan for some of your plants to die off.

This is true regardless of the soil you’re gardening in. Even during a good year and with plenty of experience, you will still have some plants die.

When I planted my first set of plants I was meticulous about spacing them far apart. Then in mid-June when I planted pumpkins and more melons, I was a bit lazier with the details and less precise. This backfired later. In September, even though the weather was still perfect for growing, the plants all started dying off due to powdery mildew on the leaves, which spread like wildfire. This occurs when plants are not spaced far enough apart and don’t have enough air circulation. Lesson learned. 

A pumpkin patch grows near a cottage.
Cinderella pumpkins naturally have a beautiful veined pattern on their leaves.

You need flowers planted nearby if you want to harvest even more vegetables.

This isn’t specific to clay soil either, but an important reminder to all gardeners everywhere. Vegetables love flowers. 

Flowers are beautiful to look at and will also attract more pollinators. You can still get plenty of bees around without them, but I noticed that in areas of my yard with more flower varieties, there were significantly more bees and much more vegetables growing on plants. They can also help prevent pests. Marigolds, for example, are a great flower to grow to prevent pests. Their scent deters many pests and can be a godsend for organic gardeners. 

Flowers also double as the perfect centerpiece for a dining table and other areas within the home for the best summer decor. It’s a win-win situation planting flowers throughout your garden bed(s).

Marigolds grow in a garden.

Start only a few plants indoors first.

Otherwise it may be a waste of time. I started SO MANY plants indoors first. Then when I was hardening them off outside, we got crazy weather and I had to hold off on transplanting for a week or two, and some of my plants may have become root-bound. 

I think because of prolonged growing in a tiny container, some of them had trouble adjusting. They just went too long in their little containers, and the big, bad world outside was just too much for them. 

Next time I will be more strategic about this. Melons and pumpkins and tomatoes grow wonderfully planted directly in the ground by seed. Many flower varieties can be planted when the ground is still cold in early or late spring.

There are exceptions, of course, but most plants do just fine straight from the ground. Next year I’ll only start a few things inside first because it’s too hard to time things just right when transplanting, with weather in Missouri being so unpredictable. 

I did find it beneficial to add too soil to my clay soil when I was transplanting seedlings and direct sowing, too. I’d recommend this for clay soil gardeners. The looser soil makes it easier to plant at the right depth. It worked for me anyway.

Mini white pumpkins sit next to Roma tomatoes and marigolds in a glass jar on a table. This all happened the year of my first time gardening in clay soil.

Although it was a lot of work with little reward this year, I am confident we’ll have a much higher yield of vegetables, fruit, and flowers next year.

Although it was my first time gardening in clay soil, I have no regrets because we learn from mistakes. Sometimes you have to fail forward and just keep going in order to make progress. It’s the most effective way to learn how to properly do things.

I’m just happy I am so much more equipped to garden next year.

Whatever you do, don’t give up.

Remember, even if your garden wasn’t spectacular this year you can always try your shot again when next year comes.

Take notes about how each plant does and what worked well and go from there. Be diligent about recording important events that may happen during the season, and don’t be afraid to seek advice from gardening friends online or the experts at your local nursery.

Lastly, follow your gut.

As unscientific as this seems, sometimes you just have to put a little trust in Mother Nature and let her do her thing. Let things run their course. You will drive yourself crazy trying to control too much.

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