For years I felt that it was my obligation to do as much as I could to use the native heavy clay that I was cursed blessed with on my little piece of land in Weaverville. Primarily this meant to mulch with as much organic matter as possible, every year, using the no till method.
And it works. Many plants do great, even with very little amendment. We are talking clay so heavy that it often takes swinging a pick mattock just to get a hole dug. I don’t dig, I slice.
I tried to till. The rototiller just laughed at the clay. To this day it sits at the nursery with a flat tire and a smirk.
So what’s the problem, you ask? Three things:
- It’s tiring. Breaking up clay gets old every time you want to plant something. As much as I love Western North Carolina, something in my midwest blood dreams about some rich flat land in Ohio or something.
- It takes a long time. Essentially what happens when you mulch, is that the mulch is breaking down to form a layer of topsoil over time. A long time. Meanwhile, you are still digging in clay.
- It’s expensive. This is probably the most important point. Mulching with good bark mulch every year gets expensive.
If you want a nice landscape and healthy plants, mulch is unavoidable (see below). But there is a way to make your life easier, and save some money in the long run. That is with topsoil.
The decision to bring in topsoil depends on how hard your land is. My rule of thumb is the shovel test. If I can dig with a shovel without a lot of effort, then I use the soil I have and stick to mulch. If you are one of us cursed blessed to live on a ridge that needs a digging fork or a mattock to get a hole dug, I suggest starting with topsoil, then mulching.
This does not mean raised beds. I’m not the biggest fan of raised beds, unless you are going for form before function. They are great in neighborhoods with small lots to keep things cute and tidy, but the sacrifice in usable space often isn’t worth it.
I’d suggest wide rows, unsupported by anything for gardens, or using edging to define perennial beds. There is also the dump and go method without shaping or defining anything, though that can get you into trouble when the grass starts to creep where it doesn’t belong.
If you are creating new areas in your landscape for gardens or perennial beds, and your ground is too hard to dig with a shovel, start with a good thick layer of topsoil, at least 6”. This will give you a much more aerated and better draining soil, make gardening easier, and save you money over time because you won’t need to mulch as thick or as often. Just don’t forget to mulch after you plant with a nice all bark mulch!
What about manure and compost? For starting new beds, those products can be hard to find, expensive, and/or confuse the issue. If you are experienced and have access to those items at a price that works for you, I’d say go ahead and use that instead of or in addition to topsoil. Just keep in mind that it takes time for those inputs to break down enough for the plant to use, so supplemental fertilizer will most likely be needed anyway, especially for heavy feeders like garden vegetables. For ease of use I suggest top dressing with a slow release fertilizer like Ozmocote, especially the first year.
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