Clay Soil question

I just moved to a house with quite heavy clay soil in the garden. I keep reading conflicting information about it, saying that it both dries out completely out in the Summer but also that is is very good at retaining water.

So which one is it?

Thanks!

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Hi James, it does do both, my garden is almost all blue clay its so wet in winter months it becomes bog like and in hot weather it dries and cracks and becomes rock hard. we ended up building our borders up with organic matter rather than trying to dig the clay. where we have dug clay we replace it with good compost for the plants to get started in.

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Just to second what Nick says, adding lots of organic matter like compost to borders is the solution to dealing with clay as it eventually mixes with it or creates a layer of more workable soil above.

If you think of clay you mould, it helps to understand how it works. With water it becomes sludgey and squishy and locks in water. But when it eventually dries, it goes rock solid. Add water again and it eventually goes back to being squishy.

Don’t be put off by clay though, with plenty of organic matter, it can become one of the best soils to grow in!

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I ask because I would like to build resilience into the garden so that I can keep maintenance like mulching to a minimum and especially watering in Summer. So basically, am I looking for plants that are happy to have soggy feet in winter and can survive a drought in Summer or will the clay stay moist in the Summer below the crusty surface?

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I got my allotment in 2019, a slope full of clay that had dried rock hard in the end of June when I took over the allotment. Any rain or top irrigation would just have the water running down the slope. The solution for my part has been to introduce soak hose irrigation, the hoses buried 15-20 centimetres deep, and organic material on top. Works nicely.

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soak hoses work wonders for clay soil which has built up material on them, I use them a lot throughout summer.

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It might be a bit of trial and error trying a bit of everything in the first year to see what works best for you.

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One other thing worth remembering: make a point of getting the weeding done whenever you can when it’s wet! In dry spells weeding can be almost impossible to do, even in soil you think you’ve improved quite well.

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I’m on London clay but over 30 years I’ve added so much organic matter and a LOT of grit that my soil is now absolutely fabulous. I think you are very lucky to begin with clay as it’s a great foundation. I like your idea to not dig it but to put layers of crumbly stuff on top and over time it will improve the soil. Put on grit too, anything that the worms will pull down. It does mean that I don’t grow things that won’t thrive in my soil so nothing that needs sandy soil or ericacious soil. But clay really is a fantastic foundation. Don’t worry about it.

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I agree that clay soil i can be a bonus. When I first moved here 22 years ago the borders went bone dry and cracked in the Summer but with masses of grit, compost, and manure added over the years it is now beautifully rich, moisture retentive yet well drained. The majority of plants love it.

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I live in a place village called Clayton - no prizes for guessing why. As a teenager at we lived at one side of the village and if it rained heavily our garden resembled a brown swimming pool.

There’s a beck that runs through through the nearby fields much lower down where the bed always looks orange from the clay even when the water is crystal clear.

Luckily the allotments and my garden now are at the top end of the village so we don’t have the thick clay issues, the soil is always thick and damp though but it doesn’t seem to hinder any growth.

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