GARDEN TIME with DOUG – Challenges With Our Red Clay Soil


It is mid-August and now is a great time to be doing some preparatory work with improving our clay heavy soil in the lawn or gardens.

Everyone who lives in Central Virginia knows all about our red soil. You can have all the best plants and the best tools but it won’t mean a thing if you have clay-heavy soil and don’t take steps to amend the soil before planting.

There is no reason to give up on gardening or suffer from plants that never reach their full potential because of the soil. All you need to do is follow a few, logical steps and you will have beautiful soil to work with when planting.

This month, your mission in preparing clay soil is in improving soil structure. I am not suggesting totally removing all the clay soil. Actually, clay soil has some redeeming qualities in that it is fairly fertile by retaining nutrients that our plants will need for growing and surviving. I am not advocating having “all foreign” soil. I am advocating amending the clay heavy soil with quality compost.

You want to modify your soil. The first way to modify your soil is to adjust the soil at each hole you dig for every plant. My blog for next week is going to be titled “A $100 HOLE FOR A $10 PLANT.” So, next week I will go into depth on how we need to properly plant in red clay in this area. But, in general, you always dig the hole twice the size of the root ball. Once you have dug the hole, you will want to use half of the red clay soil and blend it with good, quality compost. We sell LEAF-GRO COMPOST which is an excellent soil conditioner. Once you have the two blended together, you will use that mix to backfill the hole.

Another tip on planting that we recommend is to plant all plants high – meaning to have some of the root structure up out of the hole. This procedure will help to ensure better drainage. Remember this slogan “plant it high it won’t die.” A commonly used product to help with drainage is called PERMATILL. Permatill is slate that has been crushed into small pieces. Adding Permatill will help with the compaction of the red clay. Another bonus with Permatill is that it helps protect our plant roots from being eaten by Voles. Voles have sensitive pads on their feet and do not like to dig through soil that has Permatill.

So, if this blog is hitting home with you and what you face in your lawn and garden with clay heavy soil and you want beautiful gardens and healthy plants then remember, you still can!!! It will just take a few extra steps, but by doing so will enhance your gardens’ success and beauty.


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11 thoughts on “GARDEN TIME with DOUG – Challenges With Our Red Clay Soil”

    • Venu,
      Good question. One way to improve lawn soil is to add a quality compost or add some pro-mix after you have core aerated the lawn. These little holes in the soil when then be filled up with compost. Thus, the beginning of adding organic matter to the soil. However, if your lawn is well established and you are happy with how it looks then there is not much you need to do for the soil. What you do want to do is start up the lawn care program in September with doing an over seeding and a starter fertilizer. Doug

  1. I will give our landscaper a copy of this information concerning
    treating Red Clay Soil. We planted a bunch of Pacific Blue Junipers
    last fall and most of them survived this Red Clay Soil problems but we did have some that did not and we think this was the reason.
    Your suggestions on treating the problem of our soil will be taken
    Ray K.

    • Ray,
      Glad that you found this blog informative. You should find my blog for next week as equally helpful. Let me know if you have any further questions. Doug

  2. Hi Doug
    My tall fescue took a hit from the heat and lack of rain this summer. My front yard has zero shade so I watered as much as I could, but could only do so much. I am core aerating the 2nd week of Sept. Than overseeding and fertilizing. Plus I am sending off my soil for testing this week. You mention adding leafgro after aerating. This means putting an 1/8 of an inch or more down and raking in, correct? We have a pretty large backyard so I’m going to have to recruit some help.

    • Lisa,
      Wow! You are right on schedule!!! I do like to add some compost / soil amendments on the soil after aeration. The holes in the lawn will fill up with this soil amendment. In addition, after putting down the seed and fertilizer I will sometimes recommend lightly throwing some soil amendment on top of the new seed for covering ( in stead of wheat straw). This covering will stay moist thus giving the new seed some extra longer time to be moist which will help with the germination process. Thank you for taking the time to send me your question and comment. Take care, Doug

  3. I usually am not so prepared but I have a few ugly, brown dead patches that really bother me so I’m going to get my fall lawn reno going asap! I guess my nephews will be doing some raking! Thanks for your response!

  4. Doug, I live in a small community where my backyard is about 25’x 25’ and the grass is all crabgrass. In some areas the heat & dogs have destroyed the crabgrass. In addition to aeration & compost, must all crabgrass be pulled or removed 1st? Additionally, i’m responsible for 5’-6’ on either side of my house. One side gets lots of sun & could benefit from fall efforts, but the other side is all shade & slopes downhill making it hard for watering to help. Would appreciate your advice. Plus, does Meadows Gardens do this type of yard work? Thanks, Pam

    • Pam,
      First, we do not do any landscape / lawn work. There are plenty of good companies in our area who do lawn work for a living. As for the crabgrass – you could see what you can remove by using a heavy rake. Just keep in mind that crabgrass is an annual grass and will be dying away. Unfortunately, there is a lot of seed on the ground that will germinate next spring.
      It seems that you have two, very different areas to seed this fall. You want to be sure to find a good quality grass seed that likes sun and a good quality grass seed that likes the shade. So, be working on your prep work now – i.e. aerating, raking, etc. Then come mid-September you want to put down the grass seed and a starter fertilizer. Doug

  5. Catching this post a year late. I heard about PermaTill, I am starting my clay “lawn” from scratch. How much PermaTill do I put down and do I add it with the topsoil along with organic material? Trying to figure out how to lay the PermaTill. I saw a video where they used a machine to “press” it into the lawn

    • Kyle,
      Good Morning. It is now September and now is the time to concentrate our effort to rejuvenate our lawns after the stress of this past summer. One advantage that Mother Nature provided us was with all the rainfall in August. This supplied ample moisture to our soil and this makes lawn care much easier than if we were dry. You asked about Perma Til. This is a good product to help with loosening the compacted clay soil. My advice would be to rent a core aerator and double, or even triple, the aeration. Core aeration will pull out a plug of soil. This hole will help allow oxygen to get into the soil. With the aerator you can apply you apply your organic matter and perma til and work that all into the soil as deeply as possible. You don’t want all this “good” organic soil and perma til to just sit on top of the clay because that is where the grass seed roots will remain instead of going down deep during this growing season. I think you are on the right path for doing a great job to rejuvenate your lawn. Once all this soil preparation is completed then you are ready to apply grass seed and a starter fertilizer. We have the warm soil. But, you will need to supply the watering. You should see germination in just a few days. Let me know if you have any further questions. Doug

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