Dirty secrets

I call the gardening category on my blog “Heavy Clay.” A nod of respect to the arch-enemy of every garden I’ve ever tried to dig. My nemesis. My foe. My Penguin, Riddler, and Joker all rolled up into one massive clump. Heavy clay, I’m sure, is what keeps me from having one of those magazine-worthy gardens. Most of all, it keeps me humble. Very humble.

The area around our garage would be the heavy clay burial ground, if heavy clay had a special place to go and die like the elephants in Tarzan movies. It looks innocent enough on the surface (mulch makes any dirt look good). In fact, it’s home to some of the nicest shrubs we inherited when we bought the place — a couple azalea, a rhodie, and even a beautiful mountain laurel. I’ve featured them before…

I’ve also planted many perennials in front of them in the last few years. Coral bells, spiderwort, astilbe, lamium. Things would do OK the first year, but then limp along or give up completely after that. I don’t think one of the plants in the foreground of the middle picture above is still living (even after I moved them out of the dead zone).

I’ve always known the deaths have been the work of my nemesis (my foe, my Penguin, Riddler, and Joker all rolled up in one massive clump). Over the years, every time I’ve stuck my shovel in the ground anywhere along the garage, I’ve thrown away the chunks of clay it unearthed and replaced it with real dirt.

Clearly, it hasn’t been enough.

Yesterday, after seeing my latest attempts — lady’s mantle, coreopsis, and some remaining astilbes — struggling, I got more serious about de-claying.

It wasn’t pretty. It was sweaty. It was back-breaking. And we needed to find a place to dump the evidence. On a lot as small as ours, that’s not easy to do.

Given that someone purchased the wreck next door, what used to be a convenient dumping ground is no more. So “behind the holly trees” — our 3-foot swath of destruction — was pressed into service again. Right next to the mound of cut stone we plan to use somewhere, someday, and the rickety bench we pulled off the deck before we resurfaced it last year and can’t burn because it’s made of outdoor lumber.

It doesn’t look like much effort went into it, but I couldn’t even manage the wheelbarrow loads of clay myself; Mike had to do it. This pile is, I dunno, 8 loads or more? Incredibly heavy stuff.

The upside is that the compost pile we started in the far corner yielded enough “good dirt” to replace the garbage I dug out. The caps and t-shirts are right: Compost really does happen.

So, with several loads of bad stuff out, and several loads of good stuff in, I can only hope these poor plants will finally flourish.

Well, maybe not flourish — I’m not a gardener who seems able to make things flourish. But at least maybe they’ll breathe a little easier. Surely easier than me — today, every breath is a little painful. But also a little sweet. Another small step in my years-long vendetta against heavy clay.

When you have done your best for a flower, and it fails,
you have some reason to be aggrieved.
~ Frank Swinnerton


  1. Tuesday, April 13, 2010 at 7:59 am

    Oh Chris! I so understand!!! I have hard clay under a sneaky top soil layer in my front gardens — and I have been battling it for going on 13 years. Kudos to you! This IS a big deal effort. fyi, a few items that I have discovered (by expensive trial and error) that can flourish despite the clay are Black-eyed Susans, Purple sage, and Day Lilies. Also the aptly named Miracle Gro does wonders for us “brown thumbs” 🙂 Good luck!

  2. chappy said,

    Tuesday, April 13, 2010 at 9:15 am

    kudos on the miracle gro! plants must be fed!!!

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