Easy-Peasy Recipe for Clay Soil



It’s tough to move from an established vegetable garden to a new one because you are generally giving up gorgeous soil groomed and fed over a number of years for something more stony and problematic. 

My new vegetable garden, now three years old, sits on the only really flat, sunny spot behind my house that my husband could spare.  He requires a lot of the lawn for Whiffle Ball and that large cocktail party we will throw some year and some ineffable California thing clumsily called "openness." 

As a result, the garden is definitely too far down the hill and verges uncomfortably on bog.  Stick a shovel behind my garden shed and the hole instantly fills up with water.  As you can imagine, the soil in the garden is mucky, heavy clay.  Tons of chopped up leaves and straw and alpaca bedding from my neighbor have, however, brightened the outlook in most of it. 

And in the worst part of the garden, the lowest quarter, where the soil is most unyielding, I’ve at least been getting bumper crops of potatoes.  I would have expected them to rot in the muck.  Instead, they are madly productive.

So, though I know I’m not supposed to do this, I’ve planted potatoes there in the same spot three years in a row.  I’d read that potatoes can help break up the soil in new gardens.  Well, unusual that ANYTHING you read in the gardening books actually works, but it does work.

This year, after having giving my soil a serious coating of leaf mold and then straw, I looked down at the ground surrounding my potatoes and said, "What the hell is that?"  Smooth piles of gray-brown stuff sitting on the straw like sugar flowers squeezed on top of a cake.  Worm castings.  Though I know that Amy Stewart spent at least a year staring downwards while writing the delightful The Earth Moved, I’d never noticed such a thing before.   

When I went to dig up the potatoes this week, the soil was full of worms.  And it actually felt fluffy and light.  This method of dealing with clay worked so well, I’d even use it to make a new perennial bed: mulch with straw and leaves, and let the Yukon Golds do the work.   


  1. Keep us posted Michele. Did you hear that the disease that caused the potato famine is back and causing problems over on thsi side of the pond?

  2. Michele (or anyone), have you ever planted store-bought potatoes? I understand there’s a disease risk. But is there anyplace online to buy potato starts this time of year? My usual sources are dry. I have some organic new potatoes sprouting in my closet and I want to plant them in my community garden plot. Any thoughts?

  3. Hey Chuck, I just noticed your question an entire month late. I’ve planted store-bought organic potatoes. They worked just as well as the seed potatoes I’ve dutifully ordered from catalogs.

  4. Should you not grow store brought potatos then? I have planted many and eaten what has grown off them with my young son. I’m a little worried now.

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