Thursday, December 29, 2011

Red Clay Dirt

We spent a nice Christmas at my parent's house in Georgia this year.  This is actually the same house where I spent most of my high school years, an astonishing fact to me, since we usually moved every three or four years on average growing up.  My parents were originally military, and we saw a lot of the country.

It was here in Georgia where I first met my biggest gardening nemesis - the problematic Red Clay dirt.

Part of the yard with the infamous Georgia red clay that is so prominent in the region.
I remember the first time I saw Red Clay dirt.  I had moved to Georgia partway through my freshman year of high school, and we were staying with some family friends the first day while my parents were getting our house set up.  I remember going out into their clear-cut back yard.  It had rained the previous day, and the yard was a giant field of Unbelievably Red mud.  I don't think I had even heard of Red dirt before and was quite taken aback.

The red color of the clay is due to iron oxides.
That was not the only color surprise of the day, I remember.  The previous tenants of the house my parents bought had been rumored to be drug dealers, and it was still decorated in what was no doubt the latest drug dealer style - every single wall had been painted Baby Pink, the carpets were an Indescribable Green, and the vertical window blinds were Shiny Metallic Gold.  For our first supper in that house we had Yellow potato bread, which I had never had before.  Red dirt, pink walls, green carpet, gold shades, and yellow bread - I felt like I had gone down a very strange sort of rabbit hole.

Even the leaves in this puddle are covered with red clay.
Now, a couple decades later, the house has been redone in much more tasteful colors, and I do like yellow potato bread.  However, I haven't quite reconciled with the dense, clumpy, terrible-draining Red Clay dirt, which runs in veins through my North Carolina yard.

Most plants cannot survive such badly-draining soil.
The problem is that in order to garden most effectively with Red Clay dirt, one must first gently cultivate it with a pickaxe tiller backhoe, mix lots of compost and good Brown or Black dirt into it, and then pray that you've pickaxed tilled excavated a large enough area so that you haven't created a swimming pool for your plants.  A lot of people with clay give up and just garden in raised beds.

Having red clay soil can also lead to problems with erosion.  In this spot, the soil around the base of the tree has been washed away over time, exposing some interesting roots.
My mom, who likes to garden but has little time between working and her passion of quilting, has chosen a less confrontational approach to her Red Clay and plants mainly no-fuss native plants that can withstand the clay better.  Native dogwoods reside under the giant preexisting Sweetgum trees, and plantings of azaleas, hydrangeas, coreopsis, and daffodils prevail.

Thankfully there are a few plants that do well in clay, like many hollies.
Thankfully I don't have quite as much of the contemptible Red Clay as my mother's garden does.  Nevertheless, I have to do a lot of soil amending to grow the plants that I want. Even my 2 year old now eagerly points out the bags of nice Black dirt and compost for me every time we go to the plant store. (Good child!)  And when I garden, my trusty pickaxe is never far from hand.

Mr. Red House bought me a new tool to help dig through the clay, which I am excited to try out!


  1. we have a lot of clay too. My step-father says it is great for farming, the only problem is I am not a farmer so, like you, I spend a lot of the soil amenders! enjoy the new tool.

  2. Hmm, that soil colour is very familiar! I'm sure some parts of my garden has that soil plus lots of tiny rocks in it. Its no wonder your 1st meal in the multi-coloured house/room was unforgettable! :)

  3. Yes, I battle that stuff every day that is why compost is my BFF! It makes gardening twice as much work. A few years back my hubby dug a hole for a new fruit tree and when we tested drainage quality it sat for days with water in it. My boys decided it would be fun to play in so at least it got some use. They got a mud bath some people pay good money for! Needless to say we had to find a new location for our fruit tree. That tool looks pretty amazing!

  4. That's the dirt my garden has. Hard as brick. Nasty stuff. That's why I'm always so amazed when something lives here - and not so surprised when something doesn't! I wouldn't want my roots in that stuff, either! ;0

  5. A few years back the art teacher asked me to bring back a bucket of the red clay from our GA vacation :) ... (maybe you should start selling it online? lol)
    But yes, I know how it is to garden 'in' clay, we are on clay as well (river bed)... roses seem to like it :)

  6. Fancy tool you got there ! Good caring partner too !

  7. Aha!! I can beat your prezzie from you hubby!!! I got a new Kneepad AND a Dibber...ner...ner...nerner..ner!

  8. The natives you mention are great ones--Azaleas, Hollies, Hydrangeas, and Dogwoods. Still, I'm sure it's frustrating to deal with challenging soil. Our soil here is excellent, but the extreme temperature changes are what challenge us the most. All the best to you in 2012!

  9. I see so many have it and we do too. You dig down and there is the red sticky stuff. I am always excavating it but it returns from deep below no fail.

  10. There are so many obstacles on this gardening path...they serve to make us more determined!
    Happy New Year!

  11. You are very lucky to have that clay!
    It's the best soil in the entire state of Georgia.
    When I have a garden in that red clay, I get 3 times the production, with a fraction of the work.
    I'm gardening in bottomless white sand currently, a gift left behind from that inland sea of the Cretaceous period.
    My previous garden was in white clay... Now there was a project... that stuff consumed compost like you wouldn't believe!

  12. Know that red clay well. In July, not much difference between the clay and a brick. I have the blisters to prove it.

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  14. Sorry, I was so overcome by such strong feelings about my clay garden that my earlier attempt was full of typos. Mine isn't even redeemed by being an attractive red. When I moved here I had a sloping block which I had landscaped and leveled. The deal was supposed to be that what little soil I had would be retained and supplemented to form the garden beds for me to plant out. When the most basic of mulch was raked aside, all I was left with was shale-studded clay, which I routinely attack with a mattock and then have a bad back for the rest of the week. The joys of gardening!

  15. Oh, yes, clay soil definitely produces strong feelings! At least I don't have quite as much clay as my parents, but I still have to amend, amend, amend!


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