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How best to prepare new beds on heavy clay soil?


I recently moved to a house with a large garden on heavy clay soil. I've spent the last year watching what has come up, and eventually decided that I just want to start again. I've started digging over the beds, but if I'm honest I'm still a bit of a novice and I'm not sure I really know what I'm doing! I want to use this opportunity to improve the soil as much as I reasonably can, so I'm planning to dig in lots of compost as I go, but I'm still a bit stuck on questions such as:

- Should I try to remove all the roots I find as I go, or will digging them up just kill the plants by uprooting them? 

- Could I save myself lots of time and effort by using a rotovator, or would that not cut it?

Any other advice would be very much appreciated.

Thank you,

Liz G


  • FairygirlFairygirl west central ScotlandPosts: 46,114
    Manure is the best solution for improving clay. Compost is useful too, but manure helps break it down. That can make a big difference quite quickly. You can then plant, adding compost  as you go along, if you want.  :)
    Rotovators are usually a very bad idea if there are any perennial weeds in there. You'll just multiply them by chopping roots.
    If you can't dig pieces out well enough,  allow them to grow and zap them with a good weedkiller. Much easier if it's a large area, and it needs foliage to work.

    If it's heavy clay and you're in a very wet, cold part of the country, raised beds make life easier.  :)
    It's a place where beautiful isn't enough of a word....

  • GardenerSuzeGardenerSuze South NottsPosts: 1,115
    Keep off soil if it is wet you will do more harm than good. Clay can be a problem wet in winter rock hard in summer. Use anything you have to break it up. If you prepare it well now it will pay dividends in the future.
  • VictorMeldrewVictorMeldrew Peak District foothills, CheshirePosts: 436
    Have a clear idea what plants you want to grow. Invest in a book such as Nicola Ferguson's 'Right Plant Right Place' (there are some used copies on Amazon) which was my bible when we first moved into our current home. We're on heavy clay on the edge of the Peak District but it's not stopped plants from growing and indeed really thriving in some cases. But yes, improving your soil will open some more windows of opportunity for you.
    Every now and then I like to do as I'm told, just to confuse people
  • GardenerSuzeGardenerSuze South NottsPosts: 1,115
    All of the Viburnhams are good on clay soil this one genus will give you a good start. Clay is full of nutrients handled well it is a good as any soil[other than a good loam I guess]
  • FairygirlFairygirl west central ScotlandPosts: 46,114
    Clay is by far the best growing medium for plants, if you can get it in good order, and it doesn't take long unless there are other factors preventing it  :)
    In it's normal state, it can be great for Acteas and Ligularias, and all sorts of other plants which need lots of moisture ,especially if you don't have lots of heat to dry it out in summer. 
    It's a place where beautiful isn't enough of a word....

  • I'm trying to make new beds out of heavy clay soil too. Just before Christmas I roughly turned the topsoil over, leaving the soil sticking together in clumps, leaving the clumps to be broken down by frosts and weather, and it does appear to be working.
    Trying to be the person my dog thinks I am! 
  • CH1973CH1973 Posts: 31
    I've used well rotted horse manure and also dug in some sharp sand. It's digging over nice now and can see it's made a difference in less than a year. Plenty of works too.
  • Depending on size of bed look at a single or double digging where you incorporate organic matter as you dig along the bed. Do it well once and then on mulch each year with bark or garden compost which will get pulled in my worms and improve the soil further
  • TheGreenManTheGreenMan Tyne & Wear Green Belt Posts: 1,514
    Lots of manure (I bought the commercial farmyard stuff). I dug about 50 cm with a spade and chopped it all up and then forked it all; then I added the farmyard manure and forked that in (a lot of it). 

    I then mulched with spruce bark. That’s disappearing now so I’ll fork the rest in and some more manure and then cover with bark again for this summer. I’ll probs repeat it again next year and see where I am. 

    Time, organic matter and patience are what you need. 

  • PosyPosy Isle of Wight.Posts: 3,202
    The amount of work you need to do depends on how heavy the clay is. Muck - stable or farmyard is the best stuff with coarse grit if the clay is solid and wet. The key point is to break up the chunks of clay and mix in the muck.

     Large is a subjective term but if your heart fails at the scale of the task, a rotovator will help. Yes, you will get weeds and you will have to pull them out but that won't be half as hard as mixing clay and muck in a huge area of solid clay. 
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