Backaches & Blisters: Ingredients For Improving Poor Garden Soil


Not every gardener starts off with the gift of good soil; some of us have to
grow our garden from the ground up before we even venture into planting. If you
are dealing with clay soil like we were, prepare yourself for a tedious process
of amendments and backaches as you augment the clay to make it friable and

Fear not for you will be richly rewarded for your efforts
and surprised at the resilience of plants.

In 2011, my boyfriend spent a day plowing up the plot of field that would
become our garden. He leveled and heaped and smoothed and repeated for hours,
establishing a 30’x70’ plot.

The site suited us being close to the house and
barn. We felt the presence of former stewards of the land upon finding a
pristine spearhead that had likely been long buried by the Osage Indians who
hunted in our Buck Hollow here in Osage County. 

In order to enjoy any
yield, though, our garden would definitely need fencing to deter the deer,
raccoons, turtles, rabbits, ground hogs, possum and the occasional armadillo
who frequented the field and couldn’t read a “Keep Out” sign if we posted

First Attempts and Suffocating Clay

I’d started a number of vegetables from seed in the abandoned south-facing
chicken coop but couldn’t imagine subjecting these fragile little babies to the
virtually solid clay in our newly-established garden.

The first gardening
season was humbling as we sunk PVC pipe into the clay ground with a post hole
driver to create a “plug” in which to place my starts, tucking them in with a
handful of potting soil mix and wishing the plants well.

Next year would be
better, we vowed. That first year, we placed all of our grass clippings on the
garden as mulch to minimize weeds and add organic matter to enhance the clay.
This was a modest effort considering we had a push mower and bagger at the

Clay holds nutrients but is so compacted that the roots can suffocate for
lack of oxygen. It also gets waterlogged or makes impenetrable hardpan
surfaces. Mid-Missouri is prone to downpour rains which make for rough growing
of plant starts. Larger plants can absorb more water, but still suffer from the

It was astonishing that we had any yield at all that first year, but
plants can be amazingly resilient. Every bite we enjoyed was appreciated as we
schemed on what actions to take next to improve our “lot”.

Amending the Soil

As the end of hay season came around our first gardening year, we set aside
several round bales to tear apart and cover the soil once the growing season
ended. Once spread and broken down some, we burned the hay and left the charcoal
to incorporate.

Biochar is an ancient amendment that is said to date back to
pre-Colombian Amazonians. Bob made some of that by burning small twigs in a 20-gallon
drum within a 50-gallon drum and we incorporated that as it is believed to help
hold organic matter in soil.

The following spring, we got serious and enlisted a neighbor to deliver
several truckloads of cow manure. Unfortunately, they came with rocks varying
in size from rototiller-tine- breaking to bucket and wheelbarrow loads picked
to be picked out by hand for many years to come.

We maintained a compost pile
and incorporated that as well as wood ash from the stove. The wood ash can have
significant effects on the pH level in the soil, so keep that in mind.

Next we
ordered a truckload of river sand. This was most critical to the break-up of
the clay and to maintain ongoing aeration in the soil. We spread the load by
hand and rototilled it all in, overjoyed by the change in color and texture of
the ground. Despite the hard work, I wish we’d incorporated 2 truckloads!

soil was finally a browner tone, smelled like earth instead of ceramics and was
friable to the touch.

Next, we solarized the soil by placing black plastic over the surface and
keeping it flat over the soil for 6 weeks or so when temperatures were in the
70s and 80s. This essentially sterilized the soil, killing weed seeds, insect
larvae and resetting the soil. Worms dove deep aiding the aeration effort. Be
careful in handling the plastic and you will be able to reuse it several times.

We rototilled again after the solarization to mix the soil one more time
before planting our second season. I grew 80 heirloom varieties from seed that
year and harvested about 1300 pounds of produce!

Fallowing and Beyond

Each year, we’ve continued to mulch with grass clippings and wood chips. The
soil continues to improve, though it is interesting how much organic material
it seems to need to maintain its fertility. The predominance of clay seems to
want to return so we forge on with our amendments.

Last year, we employed another age-old practice for soil health: fallowing.
I’d planted buckwheat as a green manure cover crop and we let the garden go. We
rototilled that in and then did another round of solarization to kill any weed
seeds that sneaked in during the fallow.

I’m eager to uncover the soil, rototill again and embark on a new growing
season. With the effort it’s taken to build the soil, the garden yield tastes
all the more delicious! Despite the backaches and blisters, it’s a commitment
worth keeping with all the benefits of organic, garden-fresh vegetables.

Published on Jan 23, 2020

Grit Magazine

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