The problem with clay soils - rain or drought

@krismoriah

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.

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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.

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Convection is hit or miss in the summer. Once those large subtropical highs start to build in late spring the synoptic systems get pushed further and further north. We have regular rain all year in northern New England since we still get clipped with frequent fronts and overrunning in the heart of summer.

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wow that would kill any tree i put there here. why i grow on mounds. our clay is made from soft, porous blue shale, very fine. feels greasy in your hand. the native Micmac made their pottery with it.

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Yes you do. In the USA rain is more variable in the south than the north and more variable in the west than the east. So the SW is most variable and the NE the least. The least variable of all would probably be upper Michigan to Maine. MD isn’t in a bad spot. Most of the country is worse.

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That’s my yard! Glacial sand/clay mixture that is hydrophobic when dried out (so water seems to bead on the surface), but actually drains really well once it gets wet. If you dig a test hole and fill it with water in the dry season, it sits without draining for ~15-20 minutes and then suddenly starts to go down like you pulled a plug. If you do the same test hole in winter it’ll drain right away. Haven’t had any issues with soggy roots despite our ~9 months of continuous drizzle, and I never see standing water even after an occasional heavy downpour (though it does pool on the compacted clay/dirt alleyway behind my lot).

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That sounds like a good soil. My clay loam doesn’t drain that fast but it doesn’t take long. If mine is covered in mulch or heavy grass it will drain away an inch or more an hour forever. Now all I need is 9 months of rain and my water table could recover. My well is going dry in our 20 yrs of drought. So I’m hooking up to city water and then drilling my well deeper.

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That’s an interesting point. Although mild, short-term droughts are relatively frequent here, severe droughts that last more than a year are pretty rare. Most of our droughts are resolved in a matter of months versus years.

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Our soils are hard clay but don’t have the issues you talk about in Colorado. Likely our soil is just dry because of the amount of rain we get. During winter and late fall (November to April or May) if the plant is in ground or in a pot that is not terracotta you don’t have to water because of all the snow we get. During that time our ground appears dry still but it is wet enough for perennials. In fact the year I tried to water them in the winter it killed them so I would not recommend watering in the winter here. During the summer we water once or twice a week due to heat. We never have standing water though. In fact any water during summer rains will look dry hours after. My mother taught me about our soil by saying soil is like a sponge where if it is constantly wet it will keep wet but if it is not constantly wet it will just run off. Kansas has the opposite issue of us with too much rain. We have too little. The reason I have gone to perennial gardening is partly because trees and bushes taste better being fruit mostly, cost saving as well as other reasons but also the fact that perennials often times have more drought resistance. We have to constantly water our annuals but our perennials except for our grass we water once a week to not at all.

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@elivings1

Yes Colorado is a high plains dessert averaging about 15 inches of rainfall per year. Much of Kansas is the same but my area gets more than double that amount of moisture. Water is life and it’s valuable. Mountain water in Colorado is very high quality water. There is a reason they put the coors plant in Golden CO. it’s the best water I’ve ever drank. Colorado soil is challenging to work with. There around the golden area and Denver they seem to be able to grow most anything in limited amounts. Colorado is known for amazing produce such as peaches and peppers with intense flavors due to the unusual climate. Water is definately an issue there. Here in Kansas I bought the property where I live now because of the water available at times. The same reason I wanted the lower ground is why Noone wanted it. I wanted the water desperately as I know it’s valuable.

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Something I would keep in mind is things like the Palisade peaches are grown in Palisade area which is a extreme microclimate for Colorado. Palisade is zone 7 which is 2+ zones over most in CO. Issue with the Denver and Golden area is prices are so dang high for housing or land. I swear by the time I move out I will have enough money to buy in cash myself because everyone in this area just buy houses in cash because they have so much money. The fruit here is pretty amazing though because we are so dry. We are just limited by our climate. This year we had a snow right before June for example. We know we will have a season sometime between May and at least September with most of our seasons going from May to October but some seasons it is cut short and others it is much longer. Many try to buy plants on mothers day and they all die. Many transplants here buy way before they should in March or on mothers day because they don’t understand our season.

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@elivings1

The intense prices of things in Colorado and California are something I don’t understand. There is no water to speak of there yet housing triples in price in just a few years.

At my parents house in Bellevue they had small round gravel held together by concrete.
It takes swearing and dynamite to dig a hole there.

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There’s something similar about 2-3’ below the surface at my lowest point, or 4-5’ down for most of the yard. Though not quite that compact, as tree roots seem to push through it without much trouble, based on the roots I’ve encountered on the few occasions I had to dig that deep. My trenching shovel did an ok job with a little extra jumping on it, but when I first hit that layer I thought I’d struck bedrock.

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@clarkinks I forgot to mention it but I did plant a malus fusca (swamp apple) that I purchased from a west coast nursery. My hope was to use it as root stock for an interstem. It grew so poorly, maybe 2 inches at most, that I pulled it out. I am not sure whether to blame the poor performance on the mismatch between the plant site and its needs, on the fact that it was a pencil thin bare root or on my broadly deficient nurseryman’s skills. I think perhaps @Levers101 had a similar experience.

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Years ago I dug post holes with a model T axle which is a 1 inch diameter steel rod around 6 feet long.

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Yes - I had a very similar experience with M. fusca in Iowa. It isn’t climatological, but the soils (at least my poorish clay-till-beat-to-death-development soil). I’m very deficient in Zn and the pH is high so even if total values of Fe and Mn aren’t wildly out of wack, they aren’t very available.

After languishing for 3 years, my Kingston Black on M. fusca bit the dust this spring. I think it grew all of 2 inches in the 3 years in the ground.

Just to drive home this point of soil issues affecting M. fusca, I yanked a Yarlington Mill last spring that was also languishing and replaced it with a Franklin cider on M7. I potted that Yarlington Mill on M. fusca into the largest pot I had at the time and it proceeded to grow 2.5 feet in a summer (but from a side shoot on the main leader). It sure did like the, presumably low pH, peat moss laden potting mix I had laying about.

I’m still wondering how these trees would have done had I planted them in their original intended location, which was a low spot next to a crick that floods often. Pin oaks love it there, so the soil is more along the lines of what I bet the M. fusca would like.

Edit - Also I will add that there was no signs of delayed graft union failure or a weak union with M. fusca and the more likely to be “dirty” and virus infected old cider varieties.

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I have clay soil, but I’m on a limestone ridge so it drains off quickly - too quickly mostly so the slow dense soil can’t grab any moisture unless it’s a long slow rain. I finally learned to plant everything in deep mounds of wood chips. The plant roots still can get minerals from the clay underneath but get a broad root system that spreads out. Droughts aren’t quite so scary now, but of course the shade tree roots will travel to get in on the party, too.

I once repaired a fireplace in an 180 year old house that just had a layer of stones for a foundation. The fireplace had been closed off for decades, and all the leaves that fell down the chimney had been composting that long. Perfect rich soil, and full of roots ! The big trees outside found that little patch of gold long before I did.

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The soil pH were I planted the Malus fusca is a tad below neutral (~ 6.4). It is interesting to note that it grew some feet when you put it in the pot. Maybe I should have treated it like a blueberry bush.

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