How To Fix Clay or Sandy Soils

How many times have you heard someone say, “You have no idea what it’s like to try and grow food here in ____! We’ve got terrible soil!”

The thing is – those folks are usually right. Very few of us are blessed with deep, rich loam containing the wide variety of nutrients a plant needs to grow and thrive. So… do we give up… or do we fix things now before we really need to grow all our own food? I’d vote on the latter, for two reasons:

1. Building soil is fun.

2. Going hungry is not.

Are you ready? Let’s jump in!

Assessing The Soil You Have

At this point, most experts on soil will start talking about clay, sand, loam, etc. Then they’ll talk about pH. Scientists love pH. This is because they haven’t discovered the opposite sex.

Okay, perhaps that’s a bit harsh. A pH test can come in handy if things seem to be really whacked out on your property. If the soil is too alkaline, a lot of plants fail to take up the nutrients they need. If it’s too acid, they have visions and start listening to the White Album non-stop. You don’t want either of those things. I got my soil tested for free at the local extension. Part of my yard was 6.5, another part was 6.75 – and those are acceptable numbers.

Rather than worrying too much about pH, though, you can take a look at what’s growing in your yard and tell if the area has fertility. Is the grass thick? Are there lots of wildflowers? Do you have a broad range of tree species in the woods locally? If your yard is mostly crabgrass and the lot across the street is all pines, chances are you have poor soil. If you’ve got rampant growth of a wide variety of weeds and you see oaks, hickories, wild plums, passion vines, wild grapes, basswood and a nice range of other species, breathe easy. Chances are the ground is good enough to grow food.

Of course… just because neighboring lots have good soil, it doesn’t mean you will. Your lot may have been stripped of topsoil, compacted, filled with construction debris, or used as the neighborhood motor oil dumping ground. If your house is more than a few decades old, you may also have lead in the soil from flaking paint. If you have suspicions, get some more serious tests done. But… again… if you don’t have any reason to think things may be horrid, look for nice healthy wild species. They’ll tell you if things are at least somewhat okay.

For folks with clay soil, be glad: clay usually has a lot of fertility in it. The problem, of course, is making it friable enough to work and drain properly. I lived in TN and had rocky thick clay that was so dense I had to buy a mattock to plant trees. Not fun – yet after a couple years of work, it grew enviable produce.

Sandy soils have their own blessings. Because they drain well, you rarely have to worry about overwatering. They also are great for many root crops. Nutrients tend to wash through sand, however, so it does need upkeep to stay in good producing shape.

If you have loam… just be quiet. I don’t want to hear about it.

Fixing Clay

Like I mentioned eight sentences ago, I had clay in Tennessee. It was rough for a Florida boy to deal with and I had to do a lot of experimenting before I figured out how to fix it. If you hit it with a tiller at the right time of year when the ground was just dry enough, you could grind the top couple of inches into something that looked pretty good and felt fluffy. However, once you stepped on it a few times… or got a good rain… it would turn into something resembling the Salt Flats. Hard, cracked plates. After a while, I gave up on tilling and started growing stuff in containers, raised beds and tires for a while. This is what the professionals call “escapism” or “being a little baby chubby bunny waa waa waa loser.” I wasn’t dealing with the dirt I had – even though I had lush trees, grass and wildflowers growing just a few feet away from my garden. Then I read a bit about Ruth Stout and sheet composting so I decided to give that a try – particularly because I wanted to destroy the bermuda grass that kept invading my beds. That was a success. After the first winter passed, the ground beneath my piles of peat, leaves, straw, wood chips and cardboard was starting to soften up and fill with earthworms. By the second year, the soil was rich, black and friable. It no longer looked like the red-brown rocky clay I’d started with… and if the great Nashville Flood hadn’t come and swept away my backyard in the third year, it would probably be even better now. At that point, I was done with Tennessee. It was time to go back to Florida and start—

Fixing Sand

Soil Before And After FixingI love sand. Seriously. It’s easy to dig and hoe, it doesn’t muck up your house or stain your clothes, and if you shut your eyes and walk through a patch barefoot, you can pretend you’re on the beach.

I bought a foreclosure here in North Florida. The yard was a mess of tall weeds and grass when we moved in. I chopped it down and started planting fruit trees right away… only to find that many of those trees were really poky about their progress. I don’t know why it didn’t hit me right away… but most of the front yard was made up of poor, compressed sand. The part that wasn’t has grown great – but the other section grows some pretty sad-looking plants.

As an experiment, I piled a bunch of fresh leaves and tree debris in one sand area. A year later, the sand was black, rich and full of life. The problem with sand, however, is that it doesn’t usually stay that way for very long. Leaching is a big problem with sand, as is the risk of it drying out and blowing around. The best way I’ve found for keeping sand happy is constant cover. As I mentioned in my deep mulching article (linked above), this can’t always be done with organic matter. It’s hard to cover large areas with mulch – and it’s often expensive, not to mention horribly laborious. That said, you can still keep the ground covered most of the time… by growing something on it! In summer, I toss around seeds like a mad seed fairy. Sunflowers, amaranth, cosmos, southern peas, etc. are all good choices for keeping the ground healthy and moist. In the winter, I overseed with peas, lentils, turnips, mustard, various brassicas and small grains like winter wheat. This keeps the ground living. Even if you don’t harvest these plants, they’re great to chop down in place and keep things healthy until you’re ready to plant something you want to eat.

A final story on sand: a couple of years ago, I started building a tropical food forest along with my dad. The location: South Florida. The soil: light gray sand. There’s very little fertility in that dirt. It’s totally empty. So we planted our trees and gave them both chicken manure and 10-10-10 as a bit of “get up and go,” then we put down cardboard everywhere around them and started gathering yard waste from around the neighborhood. Logs, limbs, palm fronds, leaves and grass clippings were piled on the ground up to 18″ deep around our young trees. Within a few months, the soil beneath was darkening up. The neighbors thought we were crazy – yet the soil is amazing. It looks like potting soil and is packed with worms. Neighboring yards are weedy patches of sun-baked sand. Dad’s yard is a rich oasis of tropical splendor. We basically built the fertility of a forest floor in fast-forward… and the plants are growing like weeds.

Get Started Right Away

Feed the soil and it will feed you. Loosen it, pile on whatever nutrients you have, grow cover crops and be patient. It doesn’t happen overnight. If you need to, buy in your first bits of fertility – but plan in advance the areas you’re going to be using next and start building long-term fertility by piling on what you can. If your soil is too poor for row gardening, start adding organic matter right now… the long-term profit will come to you in the form of bigger and better vegetables than you ever thought possible.

About David Goodman

David Goodman is a naturalist and hard-core gardener who has grown his own food since 1984. At age five, he sprouted a bean in a Dixie cup of soil and caught the gardening bug. Soon after, his dad built an 8’ by 8’ plot for him and David hasn’t stopped growing since. David writes a regular column for Natural Awakenings magazine in North Central Florida, posts on the Mother Earth News blog, owns a nursery of hard-to-find tropical edibles and grows roughly 1.5 zillion plants on his one-acre homestead. In mid-2012, he launched www.floridasurvivalgardening.com as a place to share his ongoing experiments with tropical and temperate crops. He currently has over 20 intensive beds, multiple field plots, over 100 fruit trees, two food forest projects in different climates and a series of ongoing experiments in-progress - all of which bring him closer each day to complete food security. David is a Christian, an artist, a husband, a father of seven, a cigar-smoker and an unrepentant economics junkie. Visit his daily blog here: Florida Survival Gardening Follow him on Twitter here: http://twitter.com/DavidTheGood

View all posts by David Goodman

3 comments on “How To Fix Clay or Sandy Soils

  1. Christopher de Vidal on said:

    Totally concur. I’m in Jacksonville so our soil is also sandy-ish. Last year, the wife put in a bed straight in the soil, and it was hard work. She was watering constantly. This year we buried some wood and covered it with compost (Hugel-style). EXPLOSIONS. Everything is growing in that bed, and we never water it.

    Keep up the good work!

    • Chet on said:

      haven’t tried that yet, but I’ve heard its really a strategy people should look into if they fear they might not be able to water.

    • David Goodman on said:

      Very cool. I’m going to build a few tall hugelkultur beds this fall, Lord willing. The biggest pain in the neck is gathering and burying all the wood required.

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