Organics Can Loosen Clay Problems | News, Sports, Jobs

Q: I have clay soil. Can you tell me how to improve it?

• Marilyn from Canfield

A: Improving soils is difficult, but not impossible. Soils that contain a large amount of clay character have always been a challenge for gardeners. When wet, clay soil tends to be sticky and difficult to work; when dry, the clay soil will be hard and full of lumps. The reason for these properties becomes clear when we examine the particles that make up the soil.

Soils are all composed of particles of sand, silt and clay in different proportions. Clay soil particles are distinguished from larger silt and sand particles by their size alone and not by their chemistry. Where sand particles are visible without magnification, clay particles are so small that they are not visible even under magnification under a light microscope.

If the clay particles were as large as the sand particles, a single sand particle would become roughly the size of a billiard ball. This large difference in particle size is reflected in the resulting soil properties.

Large sand particles lead to a very porous soil which will have large air pockets and will not hold water. Due to the small size of the clay particles, the tiny pieces pile up tightly and the resulting soil has very few air pockets. Due to this tight settlement, water flows very slowly through the clay mass. In addition, plant roots will find it difficult to penetrate such dense soil.

It may seem reasonable that adding sand to clay soil could provide a more exploitable soil. However, this addition alone is more likely to lead to a more cement-like consistency of the floor.

So the best way to improve clay soil is to add organic matter (OM). Compost, leaf mold, animal manure, and green plant material (eg from a cover crop) are particularly effective in modifying the structure of heavy clay soil.

The addition of these organic materials combined with agitation as simple as turning with a garden fork or using a tiller, can form aggregates (clay + OM) which are structurally much larger particles than the ‘clay alone. As a result, the soil will contain relatively large air and water spaces between the particles and the soil will allow easy penetration of plant roots.

As a bonus, the suspended clay particles and organic matter in the aggregates will bind together and release valuable mineral nutrients for your plants, resulting in healthier plants.

To learn more about improving garden soil with organic matter, visit http://go.osu.edu/improve.

To learn more about choosing soil amendments, visit http://go.osu.edu/amendment.

For more information on taking a soil sample to determine your organic matter levels and more, visit http://go.osu.edu/soiltesting.

Snyder is a volunteer master gardener at the Ohio State University Mahoning County Extension. Call 330-533-5538 to submit questions to the Plant and Pest Clinic. Seasonal clinic hours are 10 a.m. to noon on Mondays. More details can be found at go.osu.edu/mahoningclinic.

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