Newly Registered
Posts: 2
Joined: Sun Jan 20, 2013 8:45 am

Red Clay question

Hello, my family and I would like to try our hands at gardening. I have a 70 x 30 red clay track that we used to run RC cars on, now we would like to plant a garden there.

Here is my question(s)

-- do I need to add any thing to the clay?

-- Should I till it before planting?

Any suggestions would be great. Thank you in advance.

Greener Thumb
Posts: 955
Joined: Sun Apr 04, 2010 3:29 pm
Location: Central PA

>>-- do I need to add any thing to the clay?

oh dear, hang onto the rc battery charging cord 'cause this is going to be some effort.

you will need to dig up the clay - when it is mostly dry.
it will require huge amounts of organic matter to be a decent gardening soil.

clay is neat in that it contains a lot of mineral / trace elements - but not so neat in that it turns into hardpan / brick - stuff plants roots have issues growing in.

you can also add coarse / sharp sand - not "play box" sand - and if you go that route you need to add a whole lotta' of it - a little bit does more harm than good. how much is "a lot?" - about 4-6 inches of sand spread over a square foot of clay dug into a depth of about 6 inches.

the sand mechanically helps break up the clay particles, the organics help on the biologic side. you can also add gypsum which will help break down the clay via the chemical side.

not an impossible situation - but it will take some effort and time to make really good soil out of solid red clay.

Posts: 12806
Joined: Tue Jan 01, 2013 8:32 am
Location: hawaii, zone 12a 587 ft elev.

If you are new to gardening. Maybe you should start small.
If the dirt track is compacted. I might be easier to do a raised bed instead. Use cardboard under the bed to block any weeds that might come up.
Below is a link to building a simple raised bed. Raised beds should be only as wide as you can reach to avoid stepping in the bed. You can add on later. Also think about where your water source is: install a drip system. And set up a spot for compost pile.
The new Square Foot Gardening book by Mel Bartholomew is a good reference to get.
Mel's mix is a popular fill for the bed 1 part compost, 1 part vermiculite and 1 part soil. (See link below) ... 000011938/

If you want to start really small and do something different. Try permaculture. Use whatever material you have handy. Wire cage can replace the stick basket (it will last longer). Raise the garden up so there is less bending. Fill basket with water and peelings from the kitchen. This garden has the compost pile built in and designed to recycle and use less water. It can do large plants, but it is best for herbs and smaller plants. There are other keyhole designs that have a hoop covering for shading or frost protection.

User avatar
Super Green Thumb
Posts: 25279
Joined: Sun Feb 15, 2009 6:04 pm
Location: TN/GA 7b

Oh yes, good advice you have gotten here.

Compacted red clay is nothing like garden soil and it is going to take a bit of work one way or another to make it garden soil. Good soil is the foundation of a garden and if you don't invest the work into making good soil, you will be very disappointed in the results.

I definitely agree with the starting small so as not to overwhelm yourself.

If you want to plant in to the clay, it will need to be tilled a couple of times. Put down a good layer of amendments. Along with sand, I would think about compost, well aged composted manure, and anything else organic you can come up with. Till those in, wait a bit and then do the whole thing again, tilling across the grain.

But if it were me, I would do as imafan suggested and make raised beds. Then you don't have to worry about trying to fix the clay. Just fracture and puncture the clay with pitchfork to make drainage holes and build your beds at least 12" deep. Fill them with a mixture of compost and good top soil and you are good to go, no tilling. Build yourself three of those (typical dimensions are 8x4', you want it narrow enough that you can reach everything from the outside) and it will be plenty to get started on the first year. If all goes well, you can keep adding.

If your track is growing weeds, then you can use the cardboard as imafan suggested. The image I have in my head of this track, it isn't even growing weeds. If so, then skip the cardboard, it will just slow down drainage.

Incidentally nice video on the keyhole garden. Applestar had some threads on her keyhole garden. Since search the forum doesn't work very well any more, I could only find this old one: ... rden#63042

Posts: 12806
Joined: Tue Jan 01, 2013 8:32 am
Location: hawaii, zone 12a 587 ft elev.

Thanks for the link. The African keyhole garden has the compost pile built into it, but it basically is a lasagna style garden built up with layers of straw compost and dirt.

The permaculture part of that is the use of re-purposed materials. Using old or left over bricks and stones, hay bales, or even wood to build up the sides. Sticks and vines can be replaced with Chicken wire for the basket and PVC for the hoop cover. There may be other materials that would work too. I have seen pallet gardens. Pallets are sometimes free, most are made of untreated pine, but you may have to check if they are treated.

Re purposing materials will bring down the cost of building the garden considerably. The center basket is a no work compost pile. The kitchen fruit and vegetable peelings (not meat or bone) along with the kitchen water is put into the basket each day. The organic products compost and break down to feed the bed, and since the basket goes all the way to the bottom of the garden bed and is lined with straw, it deep waters the plants as well with water that would otherwise have gone down the drain.

Return to “Vegetable Gardening Forum”