Adventures in Gardening and Vegetable Garden Tips for Amending Clay Soil

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Let those free-ranging chickens improve your soil this year.
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Extend your growing season by building a hoop house this spring.

Every year, I head into the gardening season with the resolve to figure out how to get more of my favorite crops to thrive, improve the soil even more than I did the year before, and manage pests in a more holistic fashion than simply applying the standard organic methods after I notice a problem. Some years I gain a little ground, and some years I lose a bit. Last year was a tough one, thanks to high daily July temperatures in the triple-digit range.

At my farm in 2011, I recorded a high just under 114 degrees in late July. We observed bottomless crevasses in the soil that were about 6 inches across at the surface (in spite of the 8-inch hay mulch), and experienced a tomato patch that quit setting fruit for an entire month. Our garden’s soil turned so hard that we had to water in order to get the potatoes dug. The asparagus patch thrived, as did early- and late-season greens patches. Most of our flour and flint corn burned up in the hot wind, in spite of regular, deep irrigation. The forage beet crop was small, but gave the pigs something nutritious to do after the freeze. The winter squash was a bust, mainly due to hot-season neglect.

But we developed a plan, and I applied gypsum to the entire vegetable garden late last fall. Gypsum is a marvelous soil conditioner that often helps make many other nutrients more available, and it is known to loosen tight clay soils such as ours — my fingers are crossed. We also added an additional 6 inches of hay on top of the nicely rotting 8-inch layer applied at the beginning of last season. So we are hoping for looser, richer soil this year that will hold moisture a little better and be less prone to compaction. We are going to forego tilling the garden to further avoid creating hardpan.

Our pest plan includes using a combination of floating row covers and companion planting with buckwheat, in addition to egg squashing and bug vacuuming techniques to ensure that our non-butternut winter squash has a fighting chance. We’re planning to build a small hoop house (check out a DIY hoop house) to get a jump on early season greens, extend late season greens, and allow our tomato plants to take advantage of the cooler end(s) of our growing season. And we’ll be relentless with planting cover crops behind and ahead of other crops. Some we’ll mulch in, and others we’ll feed to the pigs and chickens.

This year, we also plan to put the geese on weed and rodent patrol in the open-pollinated corn patches, use the chickens to work the garden’s hay mulch into a more friable and plantable medium, and extend the period of time when the lamb flock serves as lawn service in the yard. As I look at the list, it seems daunting. However, thanks to the unseasonably warm winter, I managed to tick several other pressing tasks off my spring list. And if we only get half of it completed, we can always whittle away at the rest next year. Gardening is, after all, an ongoing adventure at our place.

Whether you’re building your own hoop house or planning a new chicken coop, we’d love to know what you’re up to this season. And if you’ve been having any good gardening experiences of your own lately, I’d sure love to hear about them (

See you in May,


Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper’s Farmer magazines. Connect with him on Google+.