Home of the Practically Perfect Pink Phlox and other native plants for pollinators

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Wordless Wednesday

Here's the thing! I can't remain wordless, it's just not possible!

A new visitor/good person has stopped by with a comment; basically, a series of excellent questions about amending clay soil. I want to open this up to anyone who wants to join the discussion....especially you folks in the midwest who grow on this challenging soil!

Here is a site with directions for making leaf mold...including the bin and one on lasagna gardening.

There are dozens of sites on these techniques and these are just two I stumbled upon. Please feel free to leave a site in the comments section and I will post them.




  1. Hi,

    I am new to your site. My name is Leanne and I live about 60 miles south of Chicago, IL. We moved into a newly constucted house late last fall. I have clay and limestone to work with.

    I have read a lot of conflicting thoughts on how to work with this soil. I have spent hours reading books from the library or articles found on-line.

    Many of the sources suggest amending the soil, however, the methods differ greatly.

    What do you do? Do you spend a lot of time and money amedning your soil before you plant? I have also researched "clay buster plants". Which plants have you found to thrive in clay?

    Any advice you could give my would be great.

  2. Gail - I live in Franklin and wanted to make sure you knew about GroWild, a native plant nursery here in Fairview. It's mostly wholesale, but they have a great day in the spring when they're open to all, and I believe their website says you can visit by appointment. If you love native plants, it's the place for you, and a beautiful site to visit, too.

    Honestly - after over 15 years of trying to garden in this clay, I've learned to dig it out, replace it, and get down to business! In the end, it's cheaper and more rewarding than watching plants die a slow death.

  3. Leanne,

    Welcome to my blog and also to gardening with clay and limestone...the bane of my existence! It is also the soil I have come to accept.

    In the beginning, I didn't amend at all. Most everything died! Then I bought bagged topsoils, composted soils, mulches and made do with it as soil. It worked because I basically was replacing the soil....I have since added leaf mold and compost to improve that soil.

    Really leaf mold and compost added to clay is key. The thing is...you will always have clay soil...you will just be improving it, maybe making it a bit loamier! There is nothing wrong with clay soil...if you add compost and leaf mold regularly.

    If the builder has hauled off all your top soil and you are left with thick gooey clay...I mean it is near white/yellow in color. You might consider raised beds! I have had to do this in one or two places... again, I replace the soil.

    There are a number of plants that seem happy in this soil but, aspect...how much sun or shade you have, also plays a part.

    A good many of the plants I grow are native to Tennessee and like clay soil...they are endemics to cedar glades and the nearly neutral soil we have...lots of exposed rock and limestone.

    Good luck.
    Just a few of my plants!
    Day lilies
    So many wildflowers
    Christmas fern
    Shooting Stars
    butterfly weeds

    The list is long...the claybuster plants are terrific and they will even love amended soil!


  4. Karen,

    Welcome to Clay and Limestone! I am glad you joined the conversation!

    I love Growild and Terry and Mike are the best...

    You are so right, sometimes it makes sense to have new fresh soil! Where did you get yours?


  5. Gail - We compost and add leaves every fall as well, but I like Rick's compost in Arrington (compostfarm.com) and have also had some soil brought in from Greathouse Landscaping. Rick (at the compost farm) brings the soil and you till it in. Greathouse does all the work, but obviously charges for it. They do a great job, by the way. We have added several beds over the years, and part of our problem is rocky soil and boulders just below the surface; that's why we have hired landscapers to do some of the work. Once the good soil (royal soil is one name for it) is in, you can do all the work thereafter. By the way - I really enjoy your blog!

  6. Now Gail, You know you don't have to entice me to visit your blog. I visit daily (when new posts) and comment always. Of course I will join in!

    Your advice was right on. Compost, if all else fails, raised beds just like Karen said. Compost is the magic pill for all that ails your garden. Leaf mold is a form of compost and works just as well. The important thing is to do it, and do it often. I am not sure if everyone can truck in compost, but if so this is a great idea. If not, an easy way to get a good start is to put a shovelful of homemade compost in the hole for any new plant you place in the ground. I do this always. I was out there doing it this morning. I also add a shovelful of compost to holes left from dividing a perennial. It helps to rejuvenate the soil and plant.

    After about 4 or 5 years you should see a difference in your clay soil. It does take a long time but when you think about, the soil (clay and limestone or not) took a long time to get to where it is too.

    One last thing for clay soil, mulch it. Any type of organic mulch over newspaper will help with working the soil. Not much can be done about rocks though. Gotta dig them the hard way.

  7. Karen,

    Thanks and I love that you have commented! I am going to look them up and see if I need order something!


  8. Leanne,

    Do you have a blog? I see you have a profile but no link to a blog...also there are several bloggers on my blogrole from Illinois..Mr McGregor's Daughter is one...she will have more links to folks in your neck of the woods.


  9. I live in Virginia, but we struggle with clay soil as well. I know it's a lot of work, but I agree that the best strategy is to dig it out, work composted materials into the bottom of the bed, and then fill it in with good soil--I use a combination of 2 parts top soil to 1 part compost or humus to 1 part peat moss. We can get decent compost and topsoil at a good price from our county extension service, but sometimes I just buy bags at Lowe's or Home Depot. Good luck--digging is GREAT exercise!

  10. Love that sign! Think positive! No thoughts on clay soil except compost. Love biennials and also the green post is most excellent. Why don't you pack up and come to RI to visit your son? I am sure he is lonely! I have an extra room here and Tucker wants to meet you.

  11. Tina,

    But thank you anyway! You have lots of experience and good ideas!

    I have come to accept clay soil with help from compost and mulch and then I stay away from some plants.

    Now I've a new source for organic compost...and they will deliver on my sloped driveway! Thanks, Karen.


  12. cosmo,

    If only I had known 23 yrs ago, what I know now...I would have dug it all out! There weren't sources for compost like there are today....and I certainly didn't have the money.

    Oh well, now I add compost and mulch, mulch and mulch!


  13. layanee,

    I love the sign..it's above the door on my porch so all friends and clients can see it when they enter the house!

    Oh, I would love to visit! My son has been too busy doing field work for a visit from mom! He has been all over the beaches and some other sites on the bay. I will continue to ask!

    Would Tucker mind that I might have cat hairs all over my clothes?


  14. What an interesting conversation this is. We have clay too, but without the boulders underneath, in our yard anyway. Compost plus mulching is the key. Ground up leaves when you can get them. I have often thought about grabbing those bags of leaves people place at the curb in the fall, but fear there might be something else in the bag besides leaves. ;-> Truck loads is best, but is so much work to wheelbarrow up the hill, it just can't be done anymore. Tina was full of great info as always too.

  15. Hi Gail, I know you've commiserated with me about my clay soil! To dig a hole in the ground around here means you jump on the shovel to get it into the ground and jump again to go deeper! ha. You've had (and offered) the best advice. I'm going to tell you how I approach gardening around here. I continue to buy pickup loads of good, composed dirt from local garden centers and make mounds and raised beds. When I plant anything, I still must dig into a certain amount of clay, but I make big holes, mix the two soils, add compost and granular slow-release fertilizer. Every Spring and Fall I add shredded leaves, a little more compost and dirt and dig around between the plants a bit. Eventually things really improve and you have happy areas for your plants. :-) Doug's gardening recently sold an organic lawn download. His advice (which I'm following) is to, every Spring and Fall, lightly sprinkle new soil on your lawn and overseed!

  16. Poor Gail. Not many thoughts on clay since I've never gardened in it. My sandy rocks seem to be doing rather well for my plants this year. Maybe my soil was better than I thought?

  17. We have some clay in spots but mostly sand and dirt mix. I really cannot complain…

    My mother in law lives in VA and she has nothing but clay. Moans and groans on a regular basis. She was telling me that back in the early settlers days, they looked for land with a Black Walnut tree, (I think the walnut tree) If you had this tree, then you had a good soil for planting. If no walnut, then more then likely you have clay soil! She said she should have known when they bought their house and did not see any walnuts, she was in trouble! But living on the lake won them over! She works mostly in raised beds. But dont you know those darn moles will dig in that clay as if sand! Beats all I have ever seen....

    Love the sign… I need one that reads, “I see dead flowers”! I spotted a few today… Darn drought!

  18. Hi Gail, and all ...
    Fortunately we only have a few small areas with clay in our gardens, but our foolish neighbor who demolished and old house across the street and then had the whole area filled with clay (and a nice boulder bed too, he's the one who gave us ours). We've tried to help him plant things to make up for his stupidity (yeah, I know that sounds harsh, but he wants a lush garden like ours!), and have found that a few things do quite well in clay.

    Plant plants with a large taproot. Mallows do particularly well over there and we got him some hibiscus and Prairie Mallow, which are doing fine. Also, Coreopsis doesn't mind clay, nor does Dicentra (in shade of course). Rudbeckias do quite well too, but every coneflower we've ever put over there has died a miserable death.

    Ultimately, I think you, others and Shady are on the right track ... you have to amend, and amend again. Compost, shredded leaves, peat and maybe a bit of sand seem to be the best way to go based on our experience. We always have a nice supply of compost which we apply as needed given the particular spaces.

    Ironically, I've switched planting peppers in a more "ordinary soil" bed this year. The last several years they have just not produced in the compost enriched veggie garden where we have the tomatoes, onions and corn.

    Oh, and this year we inadvertently have a pumpkin patch! We put the pumpkins (w/seeds, they were never carved) from last Halloween in the compost pile and we have a bunch of plants now growing out of it, lol. We're hoping we'll not only get pumpkins but corn stalks for our fall decorations. :-)

  19. I wish I could help and comment on this issue, but I don't know much about clay. the sign is funny though.

  20. Frances,

    I think that a good portion of Tennessee has clay soil. Probably the farm sections have loamy clay soil.

    Those leaf bags are tempting aren't they but as you say...what else is in them! Maybe the leaf removal services would give us the leaves! What am I talking about! I have dozens of trees with more leaves then I can handle.

    Speaking of hauling mulch up your hill...I saw a garden photo in one of the specialty issues of Fine Gardening (Fine Design latest issue) that made me think of your hill garden. It was a shade garden but there was something about it. I did think that your garden was magazine worthy, too.

    I hope that this discussion is helpful for Leanne...clay in its worst forms is a nightmare and as she says it can become expensive and time consuming. Then there is the frustration....sometimes you just want to garden and grow flowers, not look at the soil and go, what!


  21. Shady,

    Isn't that the truth...I was using that technique yesterday to dig and remove a grass...Zebra grass that has gotten out of control and needs to go into the compost pile! Wow those grasses really develop a mean root system!

    My birthday is coming up and my DH asked what I wanted and I said...one of those turns easily compost tumbler thingies. Aren't I a romantic! But then composting might be quicker and easier to get.

    Oh I wished I'd had your wisdom and a truck 23 yrs ago! One of the earlier posters told me about a place that sells composted organic soils etc but you can't pick it up they deliver and then...not on a slope like I have..Darn! But they sell bags of it that we can pick up
    those up!

    We are lucky there are so many plants that tolerate clay soils...right now the daylilies are blooming and so are some of those clay buster plants Leanne mentioned!

    Thanks, Shady.


  22. cinj,

    Wonderful news that you have good soil! What have you planted recently?
    I will be around later today...my computer is up and down lately...the cable guys have been here more than some of my friends. I even have their phone numbers! They think they have the problem fixed this time! BTW, that is a good looking award you have recently received!


  23. IVG,

    Very helpful comment. He can grow coneflowers...there is one with a taproot! Tennessee Coneflower and internetnurseries are selling a variety called Rocky Top. Now if you are a Tennessee fan...I mean Volunteers not Titans, you will know all about Rocky Top! But I am as usual digressing, This coneflower is amazing, and coincidentally, I have them in my cedar glade like garden! Cedar glades are all about, clay soil and limestone...They are sweet flowers but they don't like too rich a soil!

    I can amend my soil till the cows come home and still I have to deal with the reality of my yard....limestone close to the surface! So I embraced the limestone and planted even more plants with a taproot. (That is why mullein is so happy here! He is now over 7 foot tall! Still flowering and no seeds yet, so we are watching him!) Those taprooted plants are fabulous about finding cracks in rocky places and growing. Have you seen Acquilegia canadensis growing on a rocky cliff, it is a thing of beauty. Juniperus virginia is also a tap rooted tree...and now there is a cultivar that is a beauty and a replacement for some of the non native junipers..Grey Owl....a lower growing shrub that has wonderful silver sage coloring. Surely it would grow in zone 5 in Illinois for Leanne. Are you zone 4 or 5 in Iowa?

    Isn't this fun! Blogging has certainly allowed me to ramble on about plants with wonderful people who don't mind at all.

    Oh, a pumpkin patch! How delightful.


  24. skeeter,

    That is an interesting story about the walnut tree...I have often wondered what settlers said when they came upon land in and around the cedar glades...there was no way they could farm in that limestone!

    My neighbor across the street has a charming raised bed garden and the chipmunks and voles have moved in. They seem to love her soil and the rock walls. Such destruction.

    I am sorry you are having such a severe drought...we aren't as bad off as you but we never seem to get rain. Clouds move in and out just as quickly. Pretty but no rain.


  25. What a lovely way to greet clients and other visitors! Love the sign.

    After the first foot of nice, loamy soil in our garden, I hit the heavy clay. I remove the clay chunks and amend the soil in planting holes with leaf mold, mushroom compost, composted manure, my own garden compost, or a combination of the above. I like to homogenize the amendments with the soil as well as possible. Amending the soil seems to improve the health, hydration, and vigor of new plants and divisions, especially when they're getting established.

    Best wishes in your new home and garden Leanne!

    p.s. Gail, there's an award for you at my place this morning!

  26. Interesting topic. I've learned to work with my clay soil here in northern Illinois. Clay retains water better than any other soil so that is a huge plus in my area of frequent drought. Since I am always lacking in rainfall, poor drainage has never been a problem (which it can be in some places).

    Over the years I've tried a lot of things to keep the clay from compacting and hardening during dry spells. By far the easiest and best has been 'lasagna gardening method'. (There are a lot of internet sites about this method.) Absolutely no digging--ever! It improves soil texture, retains moisture, increases fertility, and encourages earthworm activity. It can be used to create a new garden or modified to an existing one.

    The important thing is to never stop adding the organics. Every year you need to mulch with another 4-6 of organic matter/paper.

    I learned that most plants have their primary feeder roots in the top 6 inches of soil. I concentrate on that and let the deep tap roots search for water in the lower layers of clay.

  27. Linda,

    That is surely the best advice...sometimes we hope that it's a one fix solution and it is never that way..in life and in the garden!

    Aren't you kind for thinking about me!


  28. Marnie,

    Your comment is absolutely perfect. I do love the lasagna metaphor and it has been how I started a few beds. Thick newspaper and layers of good stuff!

    One thing I would add is that if you use the cheap bags of soil from big box stores be sure to amend them with leaf mold and compost or it will dry out in a matter of hours no matter how much you water, then mulch. Much of it is sand; when you compare all the cheaper products, topsoil to composted manure, it all looks the same!

    I recently started buying Black Cow which seems a superior topsoil but even then I think humus is essential.

    has anyone posted on leaf mold and leaf mold composting? Wouldn't that be a good post...


  29. Great post! I make leaf mold by putting the leaves in garbage bags, adding a bit of water and shhaking the bags once a month or so. After 6 months the leafmold is ready for use.

    I garden on heavy clay and what I find helps breaking up that soil which turns to concrete during a dry spell in summer is using compost, leafmold and growing potatoes for a year. That way the soil gets more lose and crumbly and plants thrive.

  30. Yolanda Elizabet,

    I like your plastic sack method for making leaf mold...it is certainly easy and doesn't take up precious garden space. I am going to use this method this fall...thanks for the tip.

    Potatoes...now that is another good tip, crumbly soil and potatoes, too.

    Compost and leaf mold seems to be the universal solution for clay busting.


  31. Thank you all so much for your responses!

    I will take your advice straight to the back yard.

    I knew that I was really in trouble when I dug about 87 holes and I never saw one worm. I have solid clay and many stones. My husband, Mark, was working along side of me and we were joking about opening a small business. We thought it would be a stitch to have a pottery class in the back yard with the clay we dug out. But seriously, I wanted to cry. The soil is all clay and I did dig the holes somewhat large, unless we were getting too tired or lazy. I we purchased soil to mix in. The soil was from a local nursery that I am told was a mixture of compost and top soil. They tell me it had mushroom compost in it which I now hear is controversial...

    I am concerned about the way in which water sits and sits. When I would pour water into the hole I dug, the water just sat there. The clay is solid and the water is very slow to drain. I did mix in the soil and tried to dig pretty deep for each plant but I am nervous. No, I am scared to death that all my plants will die.

    I will look at the lasagna method sites. And next year I may consider raised beds.

    Thank you all again,

  32. Oh yeah, I forgot to answer the question about if I have a blog.

    This is all new to me. The first time that I ever posted a comment...was yesterday. I do not have a site. I don't know anything about starting one up. However, I really enjoy yours.

  33. Gail, you and your commenters have given Leanne a lot of good advice! Adding compost and letting mulch gradually turn to soil is what you have to do with clay soil. In Austin we're advised to dig holes for trees and shrubs as wide as you can manage but just barely as deep as the root ball, and also to keep the holes "ugly" - with rough irregular sides...never smooth and round. Too neat and you've just made a basin out of the clay soil.

    It does take time and patience.

    Leanne, as IVG suggested, there are many kinds of perennial hibiscus that should grow for you - they go dormant in winter, wake up in late May and put on an amazing show. Sometimes a little bit of flash and gaud can be theraputic ;-]

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    Hugs to you, Gail - a wonderful mentor!

  34. leanne,

    Boy do I know the water stays in the hole for way too long sick feeling in the stomach! That was when I realized that on top of having Clay soil I also had no topsoil. I lost plants and started over..then I amended, raise bedded and composted.

    If you haven't planted just dug those small ponds ...you could wait till the fall and then really go to town amending the soil, or replacing or lasagna-ing it! I say fall because it is a bit cooler and it may be a better time to plant. Not sure if that is the case in Illinois?

    I am so glad you and Mark were working and laughing together...a sense of humor is necessary with gardening. There are always disappointments and bad weather and a good laugh can save the day.

    Now if you want to blog...Blogger is a 3 step process and if I can blog...anyone can blog! We would love to have you join us!


  35. Annie,

    Aren't bloggers just the best; really warm and generous people. I have only met a few gardeners that I would refer to as unkind; those are such rarities in the gardening world.

    You know they all had solid advice and information for Leanne...and Leanne, how exciting that she jumped in for help.

    Your hug and kind words are very appreciated. Thank you,


  36. Me again,

    I would like to learn more about this blogging business...I feel a little out of the loop.

    Unfortunately, I already dug and planted. I did try to mix in soil to most of the holes as I went. I guess now I will just water and wait. The strong will survive and I will shed a few tears over the plants I lose.

    In the fall I will pull out what appears to be lost and start again. I will not give up on this. I am more stubborn than the clay, believe it or not, just ask my husband.

  37. Hi Leanne,
    Don't despair! You can conquer this! Just remember that every time you plant, amend, amend again, and again! If you can dig down far enough before you add your amended soil (peat, sand, topsoil and compost, leaf mold, whatever) try to anticipate where the roots of your plant will maybe go. And focus on plants with big taproots (e.g. any of the mallows, rudbeckias, coreopsis, et. al.), let ANY dandelions have their way for a while. Yes, they're a pest and we dig them up, but they do wonders to break up clay!

    Good luck, and diligence will ultimately save the day!

    Hey there everyone else! Thanks for the Hibiscus props, Annie. :-)

  38. IVG,

    Great advice, as always. I appreciate the thought and care you put into all your comments!

    Here's my question! What is your composing method? Bins? Tumbler? Piles? Carol, May Dreams, reviewed a tumbler type compost maker that sounds good and will save some wear and tear on my aged back!
    It's on my to get list along with two or three more rain barrels and Zeke the handyman (Dick, Jane and Sally's friend). Good handymen are hard to come by!

    You have your mallow and I have my Practically Perfect Pink Phlox, which is still blooming in one spot! Kind of sad looking but still blooming!

    Speaking of all things Malva...Common Hollyhocks were my mom's favorite plant...she especially liked the old fashioned ones. So I am planting them when I find them and trying to get them established! Wish me luck! and, here is a site that lists more malva plants then I ever knew existed with photos! There is an adorable Sidalcea robusta that is a wonderful pink.



  39. leanne,

    As frustrating as it is...that's all you can do...just keep adding leaf mold and compost to the top few inches and soon all will be lovely in your garden.

    Just go to Blogger.com and take a tour. Blogger provides everything but the name, yours posts and photos. If you wanted to use a different blogger program there are folks who tutor you on how to set them up! Maybe the winter would be a good time to start when your garden is asleep and you still want to garden! Just some thought.


  40. I have brand new beds that I knew had to be worked before anything was planted. I worked in leaf mulch and mushroom compost. In the fall, I'll put down cow manure and mulch. Mushroom compost and mulch in the spring and cow manure and mulch in the fall. That's my routine and I've had lots of success with it. Breaking up the soil with leaf mulch and fine bark chips initially has been my key to success. I hope that helps someone. I have the kind of clay that is slimy and you can make bowls out of for cooking.

  41. Hi Gail (and Leeanne!),
    I try to help out where I can confidently! Our compost is very ad hoc (as is most of our garden!), and we just have a cinder block defined area we should expand more ... perhaps later this summer, since the worms and garter snakes already make it their home! And that punkin patch, LOL. We're hoping for great things from that!

  42. anna,

    hello dear!....i remember when you had to amend the soil in your new beds after the construction was complete. Your garden looks good and your techniques work!

    Are my comments registering at your site? I thought I signed on but can't see them!


  43. Bombs. Many many bombs. I got mine from the local air force base--they had a sale to help support lack of funding from the federal government and to buy armor for our troops since we can't seem to do this for them. Well, I should stop being snarky. I have clay, and amending is fine, and you should do that, but taproots--coneflowers, bluestem....


"Insects are the little things that run the world." Dr. E O Wilson