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Challenging Clay

When we moved into our small new build last year the garden was a slope of field grass going up to the neighbouring field. We had to carve our garden out in order to have a flat space to put a shed we therefore have a 3 foot retaining wall at the end with a foot wide border before the neighbouring field. Never having been cultivated the border and the field was home to nettles/brambles etc.. For the first time in my life I have sprayed to get rid of the nettles etc and in the field beyond I am strimming weekly to make sure the nettles there don't flower! I don't own the field or the land immediately on the other side of my foot wide border on top of the retaining wall but they  very much run into the other. Ultimately what I would like to do is plant a montana/lonicera and a summer flowering clem along the fence at the top of the wall (in the foot wide border) but before I can think of doing this I am going to have to do something with the soil which is heavy uncultivated clay /field grass. What I would like to do is cultivate a couple of feet the field side so that my plants have something decent to root into ! I realise now that perhaps I should have tried to dig it over in the autumn but we were busy moving in and carving out gardens in November! I have just gone out there and started to try to dig, I can't get a spade in, I can only just about get a fork in. If I try to fork it all over (just a forks depth) and then cover it in compost and manure  would that help with digging it out in the autumn? Any point putting Gypsum on at this time of year? Sorry this is long, I have been doing a lot of trawling the internet trying to answer my own Q's but double digging doesn't seem to be a possibility at the moment.


  • LoxleyLoxley Posts: 5,399

    So you have a sloping garden, with a fence along a low retaining wall at the bottom, with a 1 ft wide border on the garden side? I would dig big planting holes 2-3ft wide by the same deep, and add plenty of compost, and just plant your clems into those. Why would cultivating the soil on the field side help, if you're not planting the clems on the field side of the fence?

  • kc.sdickc.sdic Posts: 91

    Hi WillDB thanks for your message - the garden isn't sloping any more as we dug it out flat (so we could put a shed up)  and put in a retaining wall . Not sure how to dig 2 let alone 3 foot deep :o(   I can barely get a fork in at the moment. My thinking about the field side is 1. controlling nettles and brambles coming into the border side 2. as I haven't got much soil on this side will the clems etc go towards the field and then hit heavy uncultivated clay? Eventually the area behind our house will be a Public Open Space on a housing estate yet to be built and there will be a hedge along the back of our garden but as yet the field isn't sold and is home to two Llamas and a retired race horse!

  • LoxleyLoxley Posts: 5,399

    If you're planting on this side of the retaining wall, the roots will be mainly on this side I think. I presume there is soil, even if there happens to be a shed and presumably paving slabs on top of it? Could you widen the bed a bit and perhaps just loosen the soil a bit and leave some compost on top for the worms to pull down? Give the clematis a decent improved planting hole and shaded roots and I think they'll establish okay. I don't think you need to cultivate a strip of land on the other side of the fence for their sakes. I'd be more inclined to smother the weeds along the boundary with old carpet etc.

  • raisingirlraisingirl Posts: 6,892

    If I'm following, you've built a retaining wall at the top of which you have a long foot wide border then a fence of some kind and beyond that is a field. Is that right?

    First of all, digging a big hole in heavy clay to plant something in is definitely the wrong thing to do. Apart from the damage you could do to both your back and your spade (I have a whole pile of broken spade and fork handles in my shed), the hole you make fills up with water which doesn't drain away so it rots.

    I would say your best bet at this point is to follow the 'no dig' approach i.e. add a 4 inch thick layer of organic mulch - compost, composted bark, strulch, mushroom compost, manure or any combination thereof. Then leave it alone until the autumn. There is a very short window with clay soil between 'brick' and 'modelling clay' that occurs a few days after it stops raining and lasts for about 2 days (or until it rains again). The addition of organic matter widens the window to a week or even two (I'm at about 5 days now with most of mine). 

    If you want to cheer the place up in the meantime, annuals and bedding plants will all grow happily in the 4 inches of mulch. (think of it like a wide shallow pot). Roses will probably grow in the clay if you can get them into it, but back fill with what you dig out, not nice soft compost. Likewise small trees, especially rose relatives like apples.

    Hopefully by next spring - after the frost had had a chance to work on the clay over winter - you'll be able to start planting clematis etc. 

    I'd keep strimming off the weeds next door, or put up a solid panel fence to reduce the blow ins but I would worry about trying to cultivate that soil. If it's growing nettles (and docks?) it's probably in much better fettle than your garden soil as it is.

    “It's still magic even if you know how it's done.” 
  • kc.sdickc.sdic Posts: 91

    Hi everyone thanks for your replies. Sadly no way to widen the bed as the bed is on top of the retaining wall bordering the field, thus my thinking about enrinching a foot or two into the field to give my clems something to root into given how narrow the border is on top of the wall. I am  going to knock in some more 1/2 round rails on the existing fence to give the clems and lonicera something to scramble over but wanted to address the jungle in the field first. The past day I have managed to dig 10 bags of roots out of the land abuting the retaining wall border. I like the idea of a 4 inch mulch and leaving nature to do some of the hard work but assume I still need to try to dig some 2 foot by at least 2 foot holes for the montana /lonicera and summer flowering clems, still not sure how I am going to do that but I am making progress, and really appreciate the support here :O)  I am waiting for my coir/ manure and strulch which I had already ordered.  Thanks again .

  • ObelixxObelixx Posts: 29,636

    I would go with honeysuckle rather than clematis if you're in a  hurry as it doesn't need as deep a root run or as many nutrients.   I would also go with the mulch plan but lay it on as deep as you can and several times now and in autumn and just leave it for the worms and other organisms to work over for you.

    While you wait, grow smaller plants to give you colour and interest - annuals or biennials or perennials as you prefer.   You could buy a small honeysuckle or clematis now and grow it on in pots until the bed is ready to plant it - cheaper than buying a big one and it will establish faster.

    This would give you time to cork on the weeds coming from the other side but, I have to tell you, that weeds from fields, whether arable or pasture, will always want to come through so when you do fianlly get the soil into a workable state and plant your chosen climber(s) through a weed suppressant membrane and hold that down with pegs and cover it with something like chipped bark to make it look more attractive.  However this does mean you can't grow anything else as every planting hole you do make will be an opportunity for perennial weeds to come up.

    Vendée - 20kms from Atlantic coast.
    "We don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing." - George Bernard Shaw
  • Bee witchedBee witched Posts: 1,228

    Hi kc.sdic,

    Just as an an aside ... 

    Might be worth you asking if you can go into the field and gather up the poop from the llamas and the horse.

    People are paying good money for camelid poop ... see this link!!

    I'd be getting out with the shovel if I were you!




    Gardener and beekeeper in beautiful Scottish Borders  

    A single bee creates just one twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime
  • kc.sdickc.sdic Posts: 91

    Thanks again for your replies :O) I think the Llamas must poop in the next field as I have never seen any Llama poop. The horse very considerately poops right by our fence :o)  Wow £10 for 400g of Alpaca poop!  We do have some Alpaca's nearby but @ that price I will stick to the horse!

    Good to know Lonicera don't need as deep a root run I'll get mulching as soon as the goodies arrive and hopefully will eventually  be able to get the two clems in as well. I am in no rush as I currently have a lovely view down the field with the almost surreal passage of the Llamas and the horse along my  boundary on their way to the next field .

    Anyone got any suggestions for a 4 foot (prefer evergreen) shrub to fill the corner of the wall on the north/east side. (The retaining wall border is east facing and the other border that forms the corner is north facing. ) If  I wasn't 64 I think a  Sarcococca would be perfect  but given that it takes 10 - 20 years and I know they are slow growing as I had one at my last house!! I am going to have a winter flowering jasmine on the North fence and another clem. The shrub can only really be 4 foot as the wall is 3 foot already. I like Eleagnus but they get so big and I like my shrubs to look natural looking not formally pruned. Thanks :O)

  • kc.sdickc.sdic Posts: 91

    Sarcococca Confusion !
    Having just said I would go for a Sarcococca if they weren't so slow growing, I looked on the RHS website and they say 5 - 10 years to maturity! I find this happens all the time I look up a plant on various websites and they all say something different in respect of eventual height and time to maturity etc and it all gets very confusing. I have read 10 -20 years for Sarcococca to maturity.  As Sarcococca seems to be the ideal plant for that corner was it the variety I had last time that was very slow growing ? Any idea if Sarcococca grows in 5 - 10 or 10 - 20 years and which variety is the fastest growing thanks?

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