​How To Amend Clay Soil Without Tilling

​Last updated: ​9/​10/20

If you have ever owned a garden dominated by clay soil, you agree that it is among the most difficult to work with.  

When I finally had to move from my father's house into my own home, I knew I would have it rough since my new location was entirely dominated by clay soil.  

The very optimistic gardener I had been over the years was slowly becoming discouraged. I did not only find tilling hectic and tiresome but also did not own a tiller.

Sound familiar? Read on. 

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Why Wouldn’t You Want To Till Your Clay Soil?

There are several reasons why you might not prefer clay soil. You will find some of the reasons below worth knowing why to avoid clay soil.

Requires more work compared to other soils

You will find it tedious to till or shovel clay soil compared to sand or loam soil.

This is because of its compact nature. Because of this soil’s ability to retain water and too many other elements, it is heavier.

It can get mucky if too wet

If there is too much water in clay soil, it will probably stick to your shovel. 

If you continue working on your soil in this state, you will be causing more compaction. This will create an even bigger problem afterward.

Clay soil can also limit the amount of air the roots get

If you are in a boggy area, it can be a challenge to get your plant roots enough air. 

how to amend clay soil without tilling

In this case, you will have to select plants that will do well in this condition.

Heavy Build-up of Salts

Clay soil is known for having a high retention ability. 

It can hold fertilizer and water, which is excellent, but it will also keep bad stuff that you could want to get rid of.  

This is where salt build-up comes in. With too much salt, it can be hard to change the pH of your soil.

​Clay soil is known for having a high retention ability. It can hold fertilizer and water, which is excellent, but it will also keep bad stuff that you could want to get rid of. #gardening #allotment

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​How To Amend Clay Soil Without Tilling

With the above evidence of difficulty working with clay soil, you may be thinking of giving up now on your land. 

Stop! 

With proven practices, amending clay soil without tilling is no longer a debate. 

It may sound complex, but we will take you through the process step-by-step. 

Fueled by passion and backed up by expertise, we ensure that we can turn all your expectations into a stunning success.

Before we get into the ways in which you can amend clay soil, it is important to note its properties, so you are well-versed in the correcting process.

Properties of clay soil

  • Slow/poor drainage
  • Holds on to nutrients
  • Alkaline pH
  • Lacking in beneficial microorganisms
  • Highly prone to compaction since it has very tiny dense particles. This affects root growth.

6 Ways To Amend Your Clay Without Tilling

There are various ways in which clay soil can be amended. 

Nevertheless, it is essential to note that each method is limited in a way. For this reason, consider using two or more ways to get the best results.

1. Mulching With Grass

This is one of the simplest methods of amending the clay soil. 

Here is how to do it:

When purchasing a mower, find one that has mulching capabilities. 

After mowing, the mower cuts the chippings into very tiny pieces and spreads them, by throwing them backward.

Most mowers in the market today have this ability. 

When purchasing, it is incredibly imperative to check that your mower can do this. However, if you already have one without this capability, don’t worry.

Consider bagging the grass, having it cut into pieces and spread on top of the clay soil. Although it’s a little tiring, it is worth it.

Alternatively, use frayed leaves.  

This prevents your soil from compacting.  

During the prolonged dry season, heavy mulching is most appropriate as it makes sure the clay soil will not form hardpans.

2. Aeration Techniques

As the word suggests, this technique uses organic treatment to increase water, air, and other essential nutrient penetration in soil. 

Below are a couple approaches you can apply to aerate your soil.

Liquid Aeration

​Using a liquid aerator is easy and does not require expertise. 

Besides, the product is usually environmentally friendly. It is also safe for human beings and pets. 

No matter what, it is vital to ensure that you read the manufacturer’s instructions before use and take any suggested safety measure.

Although liquid aeration is not adequate on its own, research shows that it contains Ammonium Laureth Sulfate. 

Ideally, the agent breaks down the water molecules allowing it to seep through. This process prevents water resistance in the soil, which often results from compaction. 

The technique may take time but is effective in the end.

Core Aeration

Core aeration is one of the best aeration techniques you can use on clay soil. This technique is essential when topdressing. 

It creates pockets where you can apply organic matter. 

When used with topdressing, it increases the worm population in the soil as well as biological activity. 

As a result, you can control the chemical and biological composition of your soil.

3. Chicken Tractor

Using a chicken tractor is a great way of getting multiple returns in your garden. 

They will probably give you eggs and meat as they break up your compact clay soil. Above all, they will increase the fertility of your land.

When I first heard about this idea, I was baffled and vowed to learn more about it.

With the problems I had seen people experiencing with clay soil, I never waited before trying out the idea. 

amend clay soil

As a farming enthusiast, you will probably try out new, promising ideas to solve your problems.

If you are wondering how chicken tractor works, read on. 

You can either purchase your chicken tractor or make one. With this, you can position it at different parts of your farm, in different seasons. 

Build a run in front of your coop. 

Its size will depend on the number of chickens you would like to rear. Ensure it is spacious.

This method of amending your clay soil can take time, but you gain from the chicken in the process. 

After all, you will get your whole garden amended without having to till it.

Here are some of the tricks to try out with the chicken tractor:

  • Scatter out the grain on the ground every day as you let them out into the run. This will encourage them to scratch and till the land for you.
  • Wait until one part is filled with manure before you move it to another position.
  • For the best handling of your chicken, use wood shavings in the coop and straw for nesting boxes to avoid egg breakage.
  • Supplement their usual grain and feed diet with greens.

4. Lasagna Gardening

Do you have a clay dominated garden and don’t want to till? We got you.

Lasagna gardening is an easy method that effortlessly works for any person with clay soil and does not want to till.  

Besides helping you avoid all the problems associated with tilling, this easy-to-do gardening has myriad benefits, including:

  • Not labor-intensive

  • Very appropriate for clay and other soils with poor drainage

  • It is organic

A lasagna garden is easy to make.  

First, put cardboard at the bottom. If cardboard is not available, you can use several newspapers. 

Then, put alternating layers of leaves and manure, or the readily available resource.

An added plus is this always allows you to make use of autumn leaves!

​Did you know you can inject an air pocket using a digging fork or a broad fork? This is another great practice when it comes to aerating clay soil. #gardentips #allotment #soilbuilding

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5. Gentle Use of Digging Fork or Broad fork

Did you know you can inject an air pocket using a digging fork or a broad fork?

This is another great practice when it comes to aerating clay soil.  

I have tried it now twice in my garden, and it was instrumental as it allowed for microorganisms in the ground. 

I used a broad fork first. Then, I tried it using a digging fork, and both worked so well.

It sequentially added on to yields!

Microorganisms in the soil prevent the formation of a layer underneath, which habitually forms beneath the already loosened soil. 

This is where the digging fork or a broad fork comes in.

You can use either a broad fork or a digging fork to ensure that you effectively inject the air pocket into your soil. 

When using these tools, make sure to begin from one end of your garden, working backward. This helps avoid stepping on the already loosened soil.

6. Hugelkultur

Hugelkultur is a German word that means “mound culture” or “hill culture.” 

Herrman Andra first published the term in 1962. 

Hugelculture, another way of spelling it, is said to have been widely practiced in Germany and parts of Eastern Europe.

Less known to many, hugelkultur can be an amazing option to amend your difficulty to work with clay soil. 

Below are easy and convenient steps you can follow to prepare one in your garden.

1.  Prepare your ground where you want to set hugelkultur. You can choose how big you want it to be. 

Alternatively, you can also prepare multiple hugelkutur.

2.  Lay woody materials to a height of 30-60 centimeters. 

You can use brushy prunings, twigs, branches, or old logs on your farm. Start with large trunks or the thick branches from the bottom. 

If you are in a boggy area, that’s better. The wood absorbing water is essential for the growth of your crops. 

3.  Compact the woody material. 

You can use a spade. Avoid jumping on the pile if there is a possibility sharp pieces of wood are present.

4.  Cover the woody materials. 

Use plant materials such as grass clippings, straw, or leaves that can compost reasonably quickly.

NOTE -  If you use grass attached to its roots with soil, lay it upside-down. This way, the grass will compost instead of growing.

5.  Apply compost lightly over the pile. 

This will help to inoculate the compost with composting microorganisms, in order to speed up the composting process.

6.  Cover the entire pile with a thin layer of your clay soil. 

You can make it around 3 centimeters thick.

7.  Plant up the hugelkultur bed. 

Remember to cover it with mulch like any other garden bed.

Best Tree Types for Hugelkultur

If you have multiple options, you can use hardwood for the bottom with softwood on top. 

Hardwood will break down slowly, extending the life of your hugel bed. 

Nevertheless, you can use softwood if it is the only option you have. But make sure to start with thick wood on the bottom, as you use thinner wood or branches on top.

Woods that work best include: 

  • Alders 

  • Birch

  • Aspen

  • Maple

  • Cottonwood

  • Oak

  • Poplar

Trees you can also use include:

  • Rotten black cherry

  • Aged camphor wood

  • Eucalyptus 

  • Dedar

  • Osage orange

  • Pine

  • Pacific yew

  • Red mulberry

Trees you should avoid include: 

  • Black walnut - it has toxic matter

  • Black locust - it does not decompose

  • Old-growth redwood - it does not decompose

Hugelkultur

Avoid Walking On The Garden

After all the time and hard work to amend your clay soil, you may find yourself bringing back the stubborn compaction. 

We are all guilty of taking regular walks through the garden. Sometimes not necessarily when gardening, but just to find a more natural or shorter route.

We learn through experience. 

When I started farming, one thing that I overlooked was the paths. 

I divided my garden into sections 158 inches (4m) wide. 

When the time came to begin gardening, I realized that I often had to step in the garden. 

Working in the garden with my two friends made it worse. 

The compaction I fought hard to keep away, was creeping in, watering down all my effort to eliminate it.

Eventually, I had to subdivide the garden all over again to a width of 70 inches (1.5m), which allowed me to manage it without having to walk over it.

The width of the sections of your garden is a critical priority. It is therefore crucial to consider. 

A failing to do so will only negate all you have been trying to achieve.

Why You Have To Say Goodbye To Tilling To Amend Clay Soil

The question of “to till or not to till” raises eyebrows.  

As much as cultivating helps get the garden started quickly, it has several disadvantages which have made many of us turn to methods that do not involve tilling.

These disadvantages include:

  • It destroys the natural structure of the soil. 

For this reason, the soil is more prone to compaction. 

This calls for repeating the process over time to prevent compaction, which is very probable in clay soil.

  • Requires a large amount of land

  • Dormant weed seeds are found beneath the soil.  

Tilling tends to bring the seeds to the surface, increasing the chances of germination

  • Exposing larger surfaces to sunlight makes the soil lose its ability to retain moisture, resulting in a hard crust. 

  • The hardened crust makes it hard for water and air to penetrate.

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Final Thoughts

With ever-advancing technology, the internet is flooded with information on how to amend clay soil without tilling. 

Yet, very few sources contain adequate and accurate information to get you started. 

In this case, finding reliable information about the process is as important as doing it because it will save you time, energy, and resources.

Final Verdict

They say, "the grass is greener where you water it." 

To overcome compaction and poor drainage associated with clay soil, you have to go the extra mile. 

Conversely, from the previous discussion, most of the methods used to improve clay soil are simple, as long as you have explicit knowledge of how to do it. 

With the above step-by-step expertise, we hope you are convinced that you are able to get started.

Green Thumb Gardener
amend clay soil guide

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