The problem with clay soils - rain or drought

I have a pear of unknown cultivar/rootstock inherited with the property purchase.

The pear is 24/7 in swampy muck created by what I suspect is an underground spring. It’s not growing at all and looks to be hanging on to dear life with a lot of dead branches sparse foliage. The tree is actually 2.5 inches in caliper and 10 feet tall, so it’s definitely had some normal growing conditions in the past, which leads me to believe there were functional drainage tiles by the tree in the past. Maybe the drainage tiles got clogged at some point, saturating the soil. Maybe the roots of the tree clogged the tiles…

I thought about moving this tree out of the muck, but given its size and state of health, it doesn’t seem worthwhile when I can just plant a new tree or graft onto one of the wild calleries around. I might dig it up to check if it did clog some drainage tiles.

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i have the same problem here. only way they will flourish is to plant in mounds. lay down 4ft wide of cardboard. put a stake thru it. put your tree on it . tie to stake… cover with well draining soil. mulch well and water in. in 5 or so years the soil will break down and the mound will be flat.


I have clay soil, not super dense, but if dig a hole and it fills with rain it will take ~ 3 days to dry/ drain. My difficulty is than the fenced in part of the yard is about half with a very gentle slope that will flow water off while the other half is gets a lot soggier. Of course it is the soggy part that gets full sun and the ‘dry’ part that is only in partial sun. I plant primarily in the sunny part.

The apples are on mounds ~1 ft tall. The extra soil to make the volume of mound is purchased top soil. Of course I try to well mix it with the clay. The rootstocks were chosen to avoid things like M26 that are said to be soggy sensitive.

Things like haskap, hazelnuts and elderberry are planted at grade with only a little extra soil. I have only a handful of years doing this so it is quite unclear what would survive a very soggy spring. The oldest hazels (hybrids from Oikos) been with us the longest- almost 7 years. They seem to have established well. On the other end of things the haksaps have been slow to establish. Every fall up until this one I have paraphrased to them from the Dread Pirate Roberts, “Well little haksaps you have survived the season and even managed to grow a bit. Have a good dormancy. I shall most likely pull you out in the spring.”


Clay soil, plenty of standing water. Luckily, the field I’m planting in either my grandfather or his father before him put in rolling terraces, what permaculturists would call swales, to slow and retain the water drainage. I plant in the high parts and the water soaks in in the low parts. Most of the year it is pretty wet here but in the hottest months or driest periods it’s a help. It must have been a huge task.


Would you like to try a tillage radish (daikon) cover crop, planted around July 20? they will go down ten feet, but then die in winter and leave you with a drainage channel. worth a try. tree root channels are filled with the live root and do not drain.



Once the trees get large they correct the soil. Found that out in places I have established now. Trees rebuild the soil to a point you would never k ow clay was there. Establishing trees is a big problem. A neighbor once cut their terraces and plowed up their grass to plant new grass. There was water swamping me for over 2 years from that. Once the grass grew back the swamping stopped. Trees are the larger version of that and far better than grass. If soil is exceptionally mucky one trick you can use is to plant willows on the property. They have a huge rootsystem and suck up the water quickly. Willow are a huge problem around underground lines as they are notorious for blocking septic tanks. A row of willow can dry a wet area on the edge of an orchard in a waterway. The problem most of us have is the soil itself unfortunately.


Sounds like your soil is just like mine. We use many of the same tricks! There are parts of my property literally even the toughest trees get sick but I’m not giving up!


The same here water stands in those holes! What do you use for apple rootstock mm111?


That was a big help that work your family members did. That must be good to know your families blood and sweat went into that property!


Never considered using Daikin in that way it’s a very interesting concept.

Here is how I’m using a 4 or 5 year old callery in clay soil. That’s Harrow delight grafted to that rootstock. This is after a big storm yesterday. As you can see I’m making these rootstocks work for me. Knowing that this was a poor location thats autumn olive on the right and callery on the left. Turned a worthless location into an area that produces fruit. The yields are frequently not as good. Trees don’t grow as fast or do as well in clay as it stunts their growth. This is one of the reasons I’m not that worried sometimes about dwarfs as the soil has some naturally dwarfing properties. For years I had no tree there so my orchard looked like it had holes in the rows. The soil was to poor to grow elderberry in this location. Some areas like this are challenging but usually something can work!

This thread discusses my planting technique and why Hard soil what can I do with it? Planting Pears . I wasn’t the first one to notice callery trees are adaptive


@clarkinks Since I don’t have any experience in this I decided to try several different rootstocks. I have g935, m7, g969, g30 and m111/b9 Inter stems. They all seem to be growing pretty well, but only 3 are even on the 3rd season in the ground. I would say the whole little experiment is a work in progress.

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Only 34”? What part of Kansas?

My average in central Maryland is 42” but it isn’t as well distributed as I’d like. Say, we may get 3 inches of rain one week, but then go three weeks with very little, and repeat all summer.

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I come from an area with heavy clay soil. Someone figured out that building a raised bed for each tree solved that problem.

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Looked it up again they increased it to 38". It’s an average which seems to be going up Kansas Office of the State Climatologist · Kansas Drought

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Jeez, I could grow rice with so much rain :slight_smile:



Was in that same situation as you where I experimented to find something that I could grow here.


Wish everyone knew that mound building trick but it’s a lot of work!


The problem is we never know. Take a look at what the strange weather in 2018 was like Strange weather will it get our blooms & fruit 2018?

This was 2018

This is 2022

See the power line it’s the same location. Look at these aronia I’m shocked they lived. Clay soil holds moisture but eventually it cracks open.

Eventually I realized when I get heavy hard and fast rains like these I needed to try to hold onto it so I had the Pond built. There was a pond there originally but that had washed out because the water comes through very quickly during a big rain. The original dams were blown out periodically since the early 1900s or late 1800s since people like us arrived here. The Ponds were put in with ox or mule power back then so they were much smaller Ponds.



Yes, I agree. I would say “strange” is “normal” in this part of the country. Nothing surprises me. So, plant with all of that craziness in mind. No rain for a year, or too much rain for a year. I’m trying to remember what too much rain is like. Hard to recall that. But it must be possible :slight_smile:


There is almost no place on earth that isn’t like that. Probably none. It’s just a matter of how much variability there is. Usually the drier a place is the more variable the rain.

In 2020 we had zero May thru August. One rain in September and then nothing until May 2021.

In 2021 about 8 inches in summer and nearly nothing the rest of the year.

We’ve had an inch since the summer of 2021. Normal would be about 5 inches.


I’d never buy land that has poor draining clay soil. Almost anything is better for fruit trees. A place with well drained clay soil would be good.

In Texas the best peaches are grown on well drained, deep, sandy loam soils. No water table. Peaches root deeply and the soil holds 6-8 inches at field capacity. Rainfall about 30 inches per year. Some drip irrigation in most cases

The best pecans are on river bottom land with deep, well drained, alluvial soil of sandy loam to clay loam and a water table at 5-10ft. For best yields irrigation is still required in spite of a water table within the root zone.



Not all of my land is that bad but there are spots where acres of land would be completely unusable if I didn’t get creative.


I have been reading the progress for years of a guy that bought a farm with heavy clay soil in mississippi. He has been adding truckload after truckload of leaves and its working.

I have a small plot on my farm that nobody in the over 100 years has ever grown anything in because its hard clay. Crab grass and nasty weeds have always thrived there. I have been adding leaves, some compost and started some worms… i have tossed some manures and grass clippings as well for 2-3 years and currently have a thriving corn crop in it.

Seems like every microorganism, worm or whatever is blooming in that soil now and mixing the leaves in the soil. Its transforming. The tillage becomes softer each year and water penetrates and doesnt stand.

My neighbor put his greenhouse on the same soil as mine… hard compacted clay that water stands on. The county agent had him load it with gypsum and he had bumper crops for 2 years… now its dead and worse than when he started.

Try a test area that seems dead… and add life and nourishment above ground and see if it changes. I think rotten hay or any other organic would likely see similar improvements.



That’s very good advice and I agree with you. Amendments can be really good when needed which I think many of us do when we build hills to grow things on. Those materials are not available to everyone unfortunately. Clay soil is tricky we don’t start out with anything because we can’t grow anything. Like you I was lucky and materials like cow manure, leaves, and wood chips were available.

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I don’t doubt what you’re saying. In fact it rings very true. But those two sentences don’t go together. Grass and weeds need the same things to grow as corn.

And good luck finding enough leaves for a thousand acres of corn.


I had no doubt when posting of my personal experience with clay that it would be impossible… Thats why the guy quit posting his results on social media. Stephan Sobkowiak had the same problem but his orchard is in sand which has its own challenges.

Both sand and clay can grow things with organics and living biomes. Yes its alot of work… and yes i manually haul 100s of bags of leaves… i also go get with my trailer loads of free manure and rotten hay and other unwanted items from farmers. 30 miles away there is a city with a compost dump and its free as well. So many people hate leaves in their yard that it has created an industry with an over abundance of leaves… so the city grinds them into compost.

As for corn growing where weeds and crab grass do… true. I just peel back the leaves with a rake and plant corn seeds instead of tilling it.

Its only a small plot and within my ability to get my exercise and enjoy the land that so far in over 100 years nobody else has.

Im pretty confident that when the first people lived here they probably removed stumps and rocks by the millions to grow food. Im fairly confidient that all of my gardens and orchards were forests at one time.

Perhaps im doing it wrong. But i have clay… i have lots of more land like Clark pictured… i just use a small portion and so far its working for me.

In my case the problem wasnt with clay soil… the problem was that the soil was no longer a forest floor and leaves and twigs and whatnots were no longer falling on it decomposing. Someone exposed it by removing the forest.