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Creative gardening in clay soil

We received this incredible submission from one of our members. Thank you Tim!! This transformation is absolutely stunning!!


"Very few plants survive in this garden because the soil is root-bound clay, extremely dry, with the texture of concrete. The roots are from large cedars on the other side of the fence, and the lovely Ivory Silk Lilac tree above. The clay is typical of the west side of Waterloo, where you almost need a pick-axe to penetrate it. The solution has been to sink pots in to the soil, and plant directly onto the pots, hiding the pots in the mulch. I started with only few pots, because I didn't want to disturb too many of the roots at one time, and I wasn't sure if my experiment with the pots would be successful. With regular watering and fertilizing, the potted plants have done well, much better than if they were planted directly in the soil.


The holes are 'double-potted', so that one pot keeps the hole from caving in, and then I can easily then plant the flower in the second pot and drop it into the first one. I line the insides of both pots with landscaping fabric in an attempt to keep the tree roots from finding the tasty potting soil in the pot. It is a tribute to the strength of the tree roots that in only one summer they are able to wedge their way through the minuscule gap between the pots and wrap themselves around the inner pot. Separating the two pots the next spring can be challenge as the roots have bound the two pots together.


Over the years, I have expanded to sink fifteen pots in the shaded area. In an rare and brief moment of brilliance, I photographed all the empty pots at one time last spring, as I have been known to have either to few or too many plants for the pots. Too few is easily solved by buying more, but too many requires digging another hole and finding two more matching pots.

I have been putting annuals in the pots, although recently I've been transferring some of the perennials that were struggling into their own pots, like the ligularia dentata and the lime huchera. They both appear to be happier in the pots. I've left the brunnera in the soil at the base of the tree as it seems to be very happy there. It is a mystery to me how it prospers there, but I'm not one to ruin a good thing. I also tried a Japanese painted fern in a good-sized pot, but alas, it survived only two summers. It was in a particularly dry and sloped area of the shade garden, so I suspect I was a bit too optimistic that it would endure. I expect I will need to re-pot the perennials every few years as the tree roots find their inevitable way into those pots. I leave the pots in over the winter, to keep the hole open and the roots out.


I tried 'triple-potting' in some of the locations, thinking I could have the beauty of spring daffodils and tulips without the post-bloom messiness of their leaves drying out. I planted the bulbs in a third pot in the fall, dropped it into the base pot, and then pulled it out in spring as soon as the flowers were done, and just in time to replace it with a pot of annuals. I relocated the bulb pots to a more remote area of the garden to dry out. In the fall, i repeated the cycle, pulling out the annual pot and dropping the spring bulb pot back in to over-winter. It worked for two seasons, but by the third year, the bulbs produced small plants with very few blooms. I suspect the issue was not the potting, but more that the location was too shady and cool for the spring bulbs. If anyone can suggest some spring bulbs that do well in shade, i'd be willing to try the triple-pot experiment one more time.


In the 'after' photo there are coleus along the back of the fence, ligularia, huchera and purple browalia, a gorgeous red caladium, variegated sunpatiens, a mona lavender plectranthus and lime potato vine in the distance, in front of the goats beard in its own planter box. The solomon's seal is planted in the soil, and just starting it's second season, so we'll see in a few years if it might need to be given a potted home of its own."


Thank you for sharing your gardening adventures with us, Tim!




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