How to Dig in Clay Soil

Written by brad chacos
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How to Dig in Clay Soil
Forks are preferable to spades when dealing with clay soil. (garden tools image by Horticulture from

Heavy, sticky clay soils pose problems for gardeners throughout the country. Whether vegetable, tree, flower or grass, plant roots have a difficult time penetrating the tight particles that make up clay soil. Long term tilling plans and the gradual addition of other materials, such as compost or other organic materials, help to ease the burden of clay soil over the span of years, one of the major hurdles with clay soil is simply being able to dig into it.

Skill level:

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Things you need

  • Watering hose with adjustable nozzle or watering can
  • Spading fork
  • Organic materials

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  1. 1

    Moisten the soil using a watering can or a gentle spray setting on a watering hose. Do not over-saturate the clay soil, which can make it gummy or sticky. The idea is to soften the hardened clay to make it more malleable.

  2. 2

    Put on protective gloves and select a spading fork to work the clay. The University of California Cooperative Extension's Caleveras County office recommends a fork over traditional spades and shovels.

  3. 3

    Remove clods of the soil with the spading fork. The English Gardening website suggests digging smaller chunks is easier than attempting to dig out large chunks. Digging clay soil is a long, slow process -- don't rush it.

  4. 4

    Break up the clods with the side of the fork. Allow them to dry out, then dampen and rake them back into the holes, working the clay with the rake to disintegrate most of the clumps.

  5. 5

    Work 4-inch layer of organic materials and compost into the clay soil to a depth of 8 inches. Add organic matter every time you dig. Organic materials can soften the clay and improve soil conditions over the long term.

Tips and warnings

  • Aerators and tillers encounter significant difficulties attempting to turn clay soil.

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