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Difficult clay soil - is my garden a lost cause? Or what can I do?

Jasmyn Kim
8 years ago

I live in East Honolulu, Hawaii. I live in a suburb that was once a brackish (salt/fresh mix) pond. It was dredged and drained by Henry Kaiser in the 1950s or 60s and turned into this town. My garden space is about 1x30 feet of earth in between my "patio" (sidewalk) and a wooden fence. Its actually the "side yard" of a family home (I rent out the garage "studio").

The dirt in this strip is horrid clay - jar test was 48/40/12% (clay/silt/sand) and 53/15/32% on opposite ends of my 1x6 foot bed that I've been trying to work on. The soil is also just... dead? I've found 2 worms in the hole month of gardening/digging, and they were both very close to the roots of the weeds I pulled (which were the only plants in my area), and no bugs in the dirt either. I've only ever seen Hyposmocoma molluscivara, the flesh eating caterpillar (Google it, they're case bearing moth larvae that kill slugs and snails), the odd slug or two, and TONS of tiny old dead land snail shells (Tornatellides, B. similaris, A. gracile) really, a lot.

I had to use a pickaxe to begin to dig, it was so compacted, and underneath was tons of rocks (mostly coral that was once covering the dirt), lots of clay "deposits" -dense moist grey, hard dry green, and hard crumbly gold-ish colored. Sometimes there were golf ball sized air pockets. I removed the clay and rocks, along with the huge roots of the weeds (some were 5 feet long) and dug a 1' deep trench, tilling thr bottom and sides best I could.

For a month I have been composting both in-ground and in a worm bin. I sifted the best I could get of the trench dirt and then worked in about 50% of that plus 30% store bought compost and 10% each of 'leaf litter' and premature diy compost, mixing it into the trench to decompose in there. I've been adding stuff and mixing it and watering it deeply to finally get it moist, and it was great.

I was finally ready to add my worms (that I got from a neighbors compost pile) and plant my first plants (my pasiflora vine and four-o-clocks). I began to dig a hole, and my spade hit something hard. It was a small rock, on the inside face of my 'bathtub' shape (it was underneath the bottom of the fence). I pried it out and kept going along that edge, hitting a huge clay deposit. It was dry and crumbly grey. I dug it out and next to it found the gold colored stuff. Then I found a big air pocked with an old falling apart into little chips plumeria tree root (the neighbor had a huge one and it died a year after she did, so like 3 years ago). I pulled out enough clay to fill 1-2 milk jugs before I gave up for the night. I now have a hole on the far edge of my little plot, going under the neighbor's fence.

My problem now is that I'm feeling discouraged. I'm so sick of this clay! It's one problem after another and I've been working tirelessly on this one little strip. I was warned by my roomate, who only does potted plants now. She does have a stephanotis vine in the ground, and an autograph plant that grew on its own, and the neighbor has a thriving grape vine and papaya trees.

Should i even bother with planting my plants? I really don't want to just have a container garden, nor do I want a small selection of plants. I wanted to amend this soil so I could get SOMETHING in the ground to start bringing the ground to life and start a full on garden. Is it a lost cause? What should I do?

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