Seeds are flying off the shelves in stores and online, that means new gardeners, and new garden plots. Many people in the Northern Kentucky area have clay soil in their yards which can be challenging to work with but do not fret! There are very easy and FREE ways to condition your clay soil to help your garden grow. Clay soil is very dense and holds water. This is both a great thing and a terrible thing. Water retention is very helpful during summer months and really high temperatures but many plants need well drained roots to thrive. Conditioning your clay gives you the best of both worlds. There is still plenty of time to condition your soil. Most vegetables can be planted as late in the season as June 15.
1 Turn the soil before planting anything.
This means flipping the soil upside down with a garden fork or a shovel, or using a rototiller. Do this at least once before planting but strive for twice. I like to flip my soil a day or two before a big rain because it helps the soil settle and helps break down some of the huge clumps of clay.
I prefer a garden fork because I like the exercise and find it easier than a shovel. Using a rototiller is great but make sure the soil isn’t too wet or it’ll be a sticky mess.
2 When you turn your soil, do not remove any growing grass or weeds.
Leaving the vegetation helps fertilize your soil as it rots from being turned over and no longer getting water and sunlight. This also helps break up the clay and promotes drainage.
Worried about weeds growing in the garden? There are weed blockers, and even methods of layered newspapers and mulch that can help. You can also cover the area with cardboard anchored down with something heavy to prevent weed growth until you come back to it.
Honestly, I just leave mine alone.
3 Add grass clippings and yard waste.
After you have turned your soil before planting anything you can throw grass clippings and green yard waste in your plot. This helps aerate the soil and in an organic garden method to put nutrients into the soil. When you turn your soil a second time this green yard waste will mix with the clay and help create channels for water drainage.
Watch out for vines, I’ve learned some of them will take root so I no longer mix them in my garden plots.
4 Rotate your crops.
Growing tomatoes in the same place year after year isn’t the best idea. Each plant is different in what it puts into the soil and what it takes out. Rotating your plants into different plots and if possible letting a plot sit a season out is one of the best ways to condition any soil. If you let a plot sit a season out, throw green yard waste and grass clippings in it all season as a method of organic fertilizer.
I do this every year, even in raised bed gardens. I pick one plot not to plant at all and rotate my vegetables.
5 Add top soil and/or compost.
This can be done two different ways. You can add top soil or compost to your entire plot after it has been turned once, and then turn it again to mix the top soil or compost with the clay. This can get expensive if you have large plots.
You can add top soil or compost only to the hole you dig to plant your seed or plant directly into the soil. This is economical as you will only be fertilizing the areas with plants versus space with no plants.
Written By Cathy Craig, Outreach Programmer for Kenton County Public Library, and amateur micro-farmer