Tag Archives: soil health

Improving Heavy Clay Soils

Gardeners rarely begin their journey with a plot of perfect soil, but it’s something we all dream about. In the Southeast, many gardeners have to work with heavy clay soils. While clay soil is rich in minerals and many nutrients, it’s prone to compaction, doesn’t drain well in wet weather, and doesn’t hold water well during droughts. Growing certain root crops like large carrot varieties can be especially tough.

Clay soils are a great foundation to improve on. Here are a few organic methods to improve your heavy clay soil. 

Practice No-Till (or minimal-till) Agriculture

It may sound counterintuitive, but tilling can make clay soils worse. Tilling increases soil compaction and kills beneficial fungi and micro-organisms. 

Cover Crops

Cover crops add nutrients and organic matter to the soil. Great choices for improving clay soils include buckwheat, clover, and wheat. Clover has the benefit of being a nitrogen-fixing legume, meaning that through a symbiotic relationship with bacteria, it captures nitrogen from the air and adds it to the soil.

You may also want to mix in large or deep-rooted cover crops like daikon radishes, lava beans, and alfalfa. These crops help break up compacted soil and create channels for air and water as their roots decompose.

Chop & Drop

You can also use a method commonly used by permaculturalists called “chop and drop.” This method involves growing crops like comfrey, pigeon peas, moringa, sun hemp, and sorghum. These crops are chopped and dropped on the soil to decompose. Comfrey is a popular choice for this in perennial gardens and fruit tree guilds.

Broadfork

Broadforking your soil is a great way to loosen soil without disturbing the layers or structure. It helps mitigate compaction and preserve beneficial organisms and fungi in the soil. 

Create Permanent Beds

Even just walking on your garden soil can cause severe compaction. Creating permanent beds that you don’t till, step on, or use machinery will help make light, fluffy soil. 

Use Terraces or Swales

If your property has heavy clay soil and a slope, you’ll probably deal with water issues. Planting in rows or terraces that are perpendicular to the slope of the land will help slow down the water in your garden and reduce erosion issues. Swales built on contours take this further and are a great way to catch large amounts of rainwater, allowing your plants to access it slowly, even on significant slopes. 

Spread Compost

Finished compost is the quickest way to beef up the organic matter in your soil. Adding a couple of inches of compost to each bed adds nutrients, improves water retention and drainage, and lightens the soil.

Use Mulch

Mulch helps block weeds, hold moisture, and keep soil temperatures cool. It also adds a lot of organic matter to your soil as it decomposes. Any organic mulch can help improve your clay soils, including straw, leaves, grass clippings, woodchips, and hay. Keep in mind that hay tends to have a lot of weed seeds.

Grow Varieties Adapted to Heavy Clay Soils

Improving clay soils isn’t something that happens overnight, especially in large gardens. If you’re planting in a garden with heavy clay soils this year, try some varieties that are adapted to these conditions.

  • Chantey Red Core Carrots
    This blocky, broad-shouldered variety with a blunt tip is well-suited to growing in clay. It was introduced from France in the 1800s.
  • Danvers 126 Carrots
    These carrots taper to a blunt point and are especially suited to growing in clay soil. The strong tops aid harvesting.
  • Everona Large Green Tomatillo
    These plants produce large, tasty tomatillos and thrive even in heavy clay soil and drought.  Seed collected by Barbara Rosholdt from tomatillos planted by Mexican workers at the Everona sheep dairy near Unionville, VA. Introduced in 2008 by SESE.
  • McCormack’s Blue Dent
    This beautiful dent corn makes delicious light blue flour and is especially suited to the eastern U.S., clay soils, and drought-prone areas. Introduced in 1994 by SESE. Bred by Dr. Jeff McCormack from a cross between Hickory King and an unnamed heirloom blue dent.
  • Oxheart Carrots
    A good carrot choice for shallow or heavy clay soils that most carrots don’t like. Dating to 1884, this variety produces thick, sweet “oxheart”-shaped carrots, 5-6 in. long and 3-4 in. wide, weighing up to a pound!
  • Pike Muskmelon
    Bred specially for growing in unirrigated clay soil, this vigorous melon has outstanding flavor and good disease-resistant. Introduced in 1935, Aaron Pike of Pike & Young Seeds; seedstock supplied to SESE by Aaron Pike’s niece.
  • Tennessee Red Valencia Peanuts
    This pre-1930 produces rich, sweet peanuts with red skins. It’s easy to grow without hilling, even in clay soils.
  • Texas Gourdseed Corn
    Originally brought to south Texas by German farmers who migrated from Appalachia during the late 19th century, this variety withstands drought and does well in clay soil. In south Texas, this is considered to be the best choice for tortilla flour.
  • Turga Parsnip
    This Hungarian heirloom produces short, stout roots that are good for heavy clay soils.
  • Southern Peas (Cowpeas)
    These productive peas are well-adapted to poor soils and drought. We carry 16 varieties at SESE.

Wildlife Friendly Garden: Fall Clean-Up

This fall, we’ve loved seeing an increased awareness about how pollinators and other beneficial insects are affected by garden clean-up. These creatures overwinter in organic debris such as plant stems, seed pods, and leaves. Overwintering songbirds also utilize this debris for habitat and food sources. 

So do we leave our garden as is in the fall for wildlife? No, we remove some material, leave some, and add some. These autumn chores are essential for the health and productivity of next year’s garden. Here’s what we recommend to keep your garden healthy and give wildlife a helping hand:

Clean up diseased plants.

In the fall, any diseased plant material should be removed from the garden and burnt, buried away from any garden beds, or composted in a well-managed compost pile that reaches at least 140°F. 

Nightshades or members of the Solanaceae family, including peppers, potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplants, are common candidates. These plants are affected by fungal diseases such as Alternaria (early blight), late blight, verticillium wilt, and fusarium wilt, which can overwinter in dead plant material.

You should also remove plants like cucumbers and squashes that have been affected by Downey Mildew.

Don’t leave soil bare over the winter. 

If your first frost is still several weeks away, you should be sowing cover crops like clover, Austrian winter peas, or winter rye in open beds. Cover crops prevent erosion, suppress weeds, add organic matter and nutrients to the soil, and provide habitat for beneficial insects, bacteria, and fungi.

However, depending on what zone you’re in, if you haven’t sown any fall cover crops at this point, you may want to use mulch instead. A thick layer of mulch can help provide a winter habitat for beneficial insects, bacteria, and fungi. It also suppresses weeds, slowly adds organic matter as it breaks down, and protects the soil from winter weather. We talked more in-depth about mulch in a previous post, but you can use straw, hay, old leaves, or wood chips.

Leave the leaves!

We’ve been taught that our yards and gardens should look tidy, but there’s nothing wrong with leaving autumn leaves right where they fall. They’ll break down and add organic matter and nutrients to your lawn and garden.

If you have places you want to remove leaves from, such as pathways to your home, there are a couple of great uses for them. You can add them to your compost pile; they’re a great source of carbon. You can also use leaves as an excellent free mulch to protect soil or perennial and overwintering plants like garlic, fruit trees and shrubs, strawberries, rhubarb, or tulips.

Don’t cut back seed-bearing flower heads.

Dead flower stalks are some of our favorite plants to leave standing. A few great choices include sunflowers, echinacea (coneflowers), bee balm (monarda), and rudbeckia (black-eyed Susans). The stems from many species are ideal places for native bees. You might also spot songbirds using them as winter perches and searching them for any leftover seed. They also add a bit of beauty to the winter landscape. Frost-covered seed heads are a lovely morning view. 

Plant more flowers.

Depending on your zone, you may still be able to sneak in a few flower seeds and bulbs. Many native flowers are excellent choices for fall sowing because their seeds are adapted to spending the winter in the soil in our climate. Check out our post, Spring Flowers: Fall Sowing, for a list of flowers that can be fall sown. 

Do cut back pest-infested material.

Another instance where we opt to remove and burn plant material is when it is infested with pests that may overwinter in the material. An excellent example of this is asparagus stalks that were infested with asparagus beetles. After they turn brown and die back in the fall, it’s a good idea to cut them about 2 inches above the soil and burn them. 

Other November odds and ends:

  • Drain the gas from rototillers and other equipment that will sit all winter.
  • Bring in terracotta pots that can crack during freeze and thaws.
  • Drain and store hoses and sprinklers. 
  • Clean and oil garden tools before storing them. This also helps fungal diseases from being transmitted to other garden beds.

As organic gardeners, we strive to work with nature. Following these simple ideas can limit time spent on clean-up, help build healthy soil, and increase the number of birds and beneficial insects in and around our gardens.

8 Reasons to Grow Austrian Winter Peas

We’ve mentioned fall cover crops a lot on this blog. They help protect your soil through the winter, preventing erosion and providing habitat for beneficial insects and fungi. They also add nutrients and organic matter, and suppress weeds. One of our favorite fall cover crops is Austrian winter peas. Here’s why you should consider adding them to your garden:

1. It’s not too late to plant Austrian winter peas!

At least in the upper south, the end of October is a bit late to be sowing most cover crops. Thankfully, these peas will tolerate temperatures down as low as 0°F for brief periods. We still recommend planting them 4 to 6 weeks before your first hard frost for best results. However, we’ve had luck planting later than that. You can also improve their cold tolerance by sowing them with winter rye which will help shelter the peas from wind and cold temperatures. 

2. The flowers are beautiful and edible.

It’s hard not to fall in love with those little bi-colored blossoms. Beyond adding beauty to your springtime garden, you can use them to add color to salads or be as natural decorations for baked goods. 

3. They’re nitrogen-fixers.

Not all cover crops have the same benefits. Austrian winter peas are what are commonly known as nitrogen fixers, meaning that they have a symbiotic relationship with specific bacteria. The bacteria colonize the plant’s roots and pull nitrogen out of the atmosphere. The bacteria use the nitrogen, and then it becomes available to the plant.

When you plant Austrian winter peas as a cover crop, that nitrogen is added to the soil for your next crop to use. Additionally, the peas provide habitat for the same type of bacteria that other legumes like snap peas and pole beans use. Helping these beneficial bacteria flourish in your soil will give you better results with these sorts of crops.

4. The shoots are great in salads and stir-fries. 

Austrian winter peas are primarily grown as a cover crop or green manure, but they’re also a tasty green. The young shoots can be snipped off and added to salads and stir-fries. They have a nice pea-like flavor and will continue to grow in much of the south through the winter.

5. Austrian winter peas make great mulch. 

When you’re ready to plant other crops in spring, you have a couple of options when cover cropping with winter peas. Often, people choose to till them in. However, you can also use them in a no-till garden. Simply scythe them down (or cut or pull them by hand for small beds) and plant directly into them. They make a excellent layer of mulch and will slowly decay and add organic matter to the soil.

6. Livestock loves Austrian winter peas too.

Humans aren’t the only ones that find Austrian winter pea shoots tasty. Livestock loves them. During the winter, you can cut some as a treat for goats, chickens, or other backyard livestock.

7. You can eat them like snap peas.

If you decide to let your Austrian winter peas continue growing in spring, you can eat the young pods as snap peas or use them like shell peas as they mature. Generally, they aren’t quite as sweet as other varieties. 

8. The flowers are helpful for pollinators. 

When you fall plant Austrian winter peas, they get ahead start on many of your spring garden crops. This means they flower early, providing bees and other pollinators with food at a critical time.

We grow and offer many different cover crops at SESE, but Austrian winter peas have earned a place as a fall favorite. They’re a great dual-purpose crop for small farmers and gardeners looking to improve their soil health and grow fresh food during the winter.