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How to Grow a Garden in a Red Clay Yard

Updated on April 23, 2013

Advice for the Novice (like me!)

When we moved into our current house, I didnt know how I would get anything to grow. I knew that our house was built on top of good old southern red clay. The landscaper had laid sod on top of the red clay, so we had a nice lawn. But that didnt go very deep at all. It was just a layer sitting on top of some of the hardest, most inhospitable type of earth (for my favorite plantings, anyway). Yet, as I drove through the neighborhood and saw that my neighbors had gorgeous azaleas, palmetto trees, and other lush plants, I knew there had to be a way. Below, you will read the basics of what I learned.

(Photo mine.) The picture is an azalea that I managed to grow in my clay yard!

Find plants that like red clay (Suggestion 1)

The first, most obvious solution to your problem is to find plants that thrive in red clay (yes, there are some). Hostas and daylilies are two of my favorite options. Hostas like shade, or at least some shade. I have several that have done very well in my yard.

This Better Homes & Gardens link will provide you with a nice list from which to choose. What if you want to plant something else? Keep reading!

Raindrops on rose leaves.  Photo mine.
Raindrops on rose leaves. Photo mine.

Soil Replacement (Suggestion 2)

Maybe asters, hostas, and daylilies aren't on your list. The things you want to plant will only accept rich, black soil. What do you do?

1. Dig a hole. Your hole needs to be big enough to accommodate the full-grown root system of your plant, plus about another 6 inches. This is true of depth and width.

2. Line your hole all the way around with peat moss mixed with a little water. I don't like to add so much water that the peat is runny, but I have seen expert gardeners use some very watery peat! Matter of personal preference, I suppose. My mother, who is a very experienced gardener, keeps the hose trickling water into the hole at every stage throughout.

3. Start to fill your hole with good quailty black soil. You can purchase bagged soil from your local home and garden store, or special order it. I have used expensive Miracle Gro formulas and have also used the cheap-as-dirt bags of no-name dirt. I have had good results with both, so the brand of soil is up to you.

4. Transplant your plant from the container to the hole. If you are working with seeds, then fill the hole with soil completely, then plant your seeds according to the directions.

5. Pack the dirt firmly but not completely hard. Fill in with soil as necessary.

6. Water, water, water! Once you get something planted or transplanted, it will need a lot of water. If you have been watering throughout, as I mentioned in number 2, then your plant will probably be okay. If not, you need to leave a hose or sprinkler running on it for an hour or so. The plant or seed needs to be watered generously every day for a couple of weeks, at least. Take care to read any instructions that come with your seeds or plants, though, as there may be special exceptions to the rule (more water or less water, etc).

Azalea in my yard. Grown by digging a hole in the clay and filling it with black soil.

Azalea in my yard.  Grown by digging a hole in the clay and filling it with black soil.
Azalea in my yard. Grown by digging a hole in the clay and filling it with black soil.

Going to dig a hole in red clay? - That stuff is hard!

You're going to need good, sharp tools. Spiking a shovel into the ground and hopping on it with my weight was the best way for me to move the stuff. It's easiest when it has been raining and the soil is wet, of course, but either way, you will hit something that feels like rock when you get down a few inches. Find a good shovel and a nice, sharp trowel.

Photo Mine.
Photo Mine.

Raised Bed Garden (Suggestion 3)

If you would rather not deal with digging into all that impossibly hard red clay, you can build a raised bed garden right on top of the ground. This is also called "lasagna gardening." I learned this while working on a project with Junior League of Charleston, Inc. We were charged with building a garden to feed hungry families, but the donated field was hard, red clay. Lasagna gardening to the rescue! It is called "lasagna" because of the layers you put down on top of the earth. No tilling necessary.

1. Build a wall. If you would like to retain your soil and not allow it to wash away, build retaining walls all around the area you wish to garden (with wood, bricks, whatever you choose).

2. Lay down cardboard to avoid weeds coming up from below. Wet the cardboard.

3. Lay down newspaper, and wet the newspaper.

4. Put down a peat moss and water mixture.

5. Compost. Put down your ready-to-go compost, or just some old eggshells, coffee grounds, fruit peels, etc. This is particularly helpful for veggie and fruit gardens.

6. Soil on top of that. Again, it's a matter of preference whether you use cheap no-name black dirt that costs $1-2 per bag, or whether you use the more expensive Miracle Gro soils. I have used both and have no preference.

7. Plant your seeds as directed by the package.

8. Water, water, and more water!

Build your raised bed garden

My husband actually built ours with some wooden boards. I didn't know these kits existed! But if I could have used one of these kits, I would definitely have sprung for one. I'm betting the resin panels are even better at retaining your soil and water than the boards we have.

Suncast RBD939 48-Inch by 48-Inch by 18-Inch 6 Panel Tiered Resin Raised Garden Kit
Suncast RBD939 48-Inch by 48-Inch by 18-Inch 6 Panel Tiered Resin Raised Garden Kit

I love the two level effect of this one. A multi-level flowerbed can be so attractive.


Soil types

What kind of soil do you have at your house?

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I'm a southern author.

Do you like short stories? Please try my collection. There's something for every mood. Social injustice, murder by apple pie, and a scorned woman seeking revenge with a bottle of mustard. Paperback, Kindle, or Nook. Below, you will find the link to the paperback and Kindle versions.

Did you find a good idea for planting in red clay?

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    • SusanDeppner profile image

      Susan Deppner 4 years ago from Arkansas USA

      Great suggestions! Our problem is rock - dig a hole and you're bound to get to rock by the second shovel-ful. It's a challenge, but amazing to realize how roots wind their way around those pesky rocks and things grow anyway!

    • profile image

      WinWriter 4 years ago

      Red clay is an issue here in TX as well. You have beautiful pictures here. The azaleas remind me of my mom (who used to grow them for years) and the picture was a wonderful reminder of her beautiful garden when I was a child.

    • mrdata profile image

      mrdata 4 years ago

      Lovely lens! Thanks!

    • Cynthia Haltom profile image

      Cynthia Haltom 4 years ago from Diamondhead

      Very nice lens. I love your azaleas, we have about 40 bushes at my house.

    • TopReviews2u profile image

      TopReviews2u 4 years ago

      Congratulations in being mentioned in the Squidoo Gardening Club Quest lens where I found your lens. Great soil replacement tips and raised bed garden suggestions.