How To Improve Clay Soil

Here in the Cariboo, we have clay based soil that we are always trying to amend. I was reading Carla Emery’s book this morning (Encyclopedia of Country Living) again. I am always reading something from this awesome book.


Main Vegetable Garden in mid-August


Here’s what she says about using buckwheat as a form of green manure….buckwheat should work very well for us as we have a shorter gardening season (Canada Zone 3) and it matures so quickly.

“Buckwheat grows especially well in moist, cool climates and cold areas, from Pennsylvania north into Canada. But is grows acceptably well in many other regions. Buckwheat is also a good grain choice if you have poor soil, especially if it’s sticky, dense clay, because buckwheat roots break that up and make it loose. Buckwheat is not a good choice if you have nitrogen-rich soil. It will grow to tall and be likely to fall over. (p.156)”

We have always used fall rye as a green manure for the garden. We sow it in the fall and in spring, once growth starts again, we till it in. This has been a big help for us and we also use it in harvested areas of the garden during the gardening season.

This is our first try at using buckwheat, but I’m really hoping it is successful.We can either till it under to improve the soil, or we can harvest the grain after 90 – 110 days. Buckwheat pancakes, anyone?

There is a “grain quiz” in Carla’s chapter on Grasses and Grains, and here’s a bit more info on buckwheat.If you just plowed up a pasture and want a plant that can wipe out any grass trying to come back, which grain should you plant? ANSWER = Buckwheat

Which grain can you plant in your garden in July, on ground free-up by harvesting vegetables, that will give you a good crop before frost? ANSWER= Buckwheat

In addition to the buckwheat and rye, we add as much manure to the garden as possible including pig, chicken and horse. Adding old bedding from animal pens is done as well.  The hay/straw breaks down and adds to allow air into the soil.

Each year the garden soil has improved and we can tell by the texture. It’s lighter and fluffier than last year, and last year was better than the year before. The more compost, green manure, straw etc we add – the better the soil will become.


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  1. Lots of good reading here, many thanks! I was researching on yahoo when I observed your post, I’m going to add your feed to Google Reader, I look forward to much more from you.

  2. Love your garden! Some day, I hope to have one that size myself.

    I am working on amending my clay soil in Kansas. One thing that I really like about the clay soil is that it holds water really well. That is a real benefit, since it is so hot here in the summer, and I want to find ways to cut my water use. I have several beds that I started with a 50/50 mix of top soil and compost (purchased), and those beds dry out within about 8-hours. Then I have a couple of other beds that I started using sheet mulch and digging on-site soil (under the sheet mulch) into the sheet mulch to help it compost better. These beds may look dry on the surface, but an inch or so below the top of the soil, it is nice and moist, and the plants in these beds really seem to like it. So, in the future, I will be converting all of my gardens to this type, with a healthy helping of the clay soil.

    • avatar Annie says:

      Hi Eleanor, thanks for your comment! I’m glad you are finding a great way to amend your clay soil. Each year, we are still putting lots of composted manure on top of the garden beds here, as well as continuing to sow fall rye and buckwheat. We find that helps a lot! I’ll check out your website!

  3. avatar Arlene says:

    My Grandpa used corn cobs, and tilled them into the clay. My mom said it turned to black soil. I haven’t tried it yet ($ issues), but my grandpa was a smart man, so I’m sure it works.

    • avatar Annie says:

      Hi Arlene, I have never heard of that. Of course where I live, we can’t grow fields of corn, so that is probably why! It’s a great idea and you are right….Grandpa’s are smart. Mine was too, he was a great gardener. Thanks for commenting and I hope you will keep reading!

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  8. i have a swamp of 12 acres,total black clay.i dig a hole it holds water.i have had to top plant everything. have replanted thousands of dollars worth of plants.have heard it all about amending this clay soil.the weird thing is it has thousands of earth worms that you would think would aeriate it,but it doesnt seem to help!i have tilled under mulch and sand and nothing works,when it drys out its like a block of cement. the only tree that has done well without top planting or amending the soil has been willows as they like their feet wet.It would take truck loads of corncobs or other mulch and i dont have that kind of money.had been previously planted with alfafa which is good for soil but also it takes years for it to die out and the roots are a mile long!! ANY SAVVY!! gardners or farmers out there with any helpful advice!????

    • avatar Annie says:

      Hi Ruth Anne, thanks for the comment. Our soil sounds a lot like yours. We have access to a LOT of horse manure, so that is the way we go. If we didn’t, we’d have to have raised beds I would think.

      It does take a few years to aerate heavy clay soil. Try growing potatoes in there to start breaking up the ground. Add as much leaves, compost, manure etc that you can get your hands on. Also, cover crop/green manure with things like Fall Rye and or Buckwheat. Everything helps.

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  10. What do you think of white clover as a short season cover crop? It seems to grow pretty well in cool, wet weather and it fixes nitrogen in the soil.

    • avatar Annie says:

      Hi Bill, thanks for commenting. Both red and white clovers are great cover crops/green manure. We use it outside of our Garden, in the lawn areas that need to be reseeded. We could certainly use it in the Garden.

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