I have a spot in my garden approximately 15'X21' that is non-fertile red clay. The rest of my garden is good soil. I want to improve this spot without breaking the bank. A local nursery has a mixture that is made up of: top soil, some kind of wood chip, and something else that I can't remember. Sorry I cannot be any more descriptive but most of you probably know what it is. A scoop of this mixture is $10 and the man at the nursery says that people buy it to plant flower beds and basically mulch with it. My questions are: Would it be beneficial to get a scoop of this mixture to put on the clay area to improve vegetable production? Also, is there anything else that I can do that will not cost an arm and a leg, like buying a bunch of bags of Black Cow compost? By the way, there is no local nursery that sells any amount of compost except for Black Cow by the 50 pound bag. Thanks for any responses and sorry that I could not be anymore descriptive on the makeup of the mixture.
I would be very suspect of packaged Cow anything. I once purchased some bags of Cow and received weeds that I have no idea what they are or how to get rid of them all over my property.
If you are mowing your lawn, I would recommend that you pile the lawn clippings on the clay areas. In a while you will have a nice top of organic materilal on the clay areas.
Another way to begin to break the clay is to bury kitchen scraps in small holes in the clay. Dig a small hole approximately 6" deep by 6" wide and bury your kitchen scraps. Move over another 6" and repeat. Keep moving until you have covered the area. Then start over.
Another way is to cover the area with cardboard, then pile lawn clippings on the cardboard. As the cardboard breaks down it will loosen the clay.
Leaves in the fall over the whole garden area will furnish humus in the clay. Keep piling the leaves on and plant through the leaves in the spring.
All of these methods will take time, but it is low tech and low $.
I have the same kind of red clay as Issfishhunter so I am sympathetic. When the cardboard and leaves start to decompose and if there is moisture there from the rain (hasn't it been nice recently!), it won't be long until the natural/native earthworms will (naturally) appear and will be 1) making little tunnels to aerate your clay and 2) leaving digested leaves and cardboard (worm poop) in the tunnels. After a while, the clay will be a lot better for gardening than you (and I) started with.
I think I have a few options. one of the best commercial items is natures helper. It is bulky so it would be cheaper and it has more fiber. Shredded leaves would also work. Or you could look around for free compost. Most cities around here have compost that is free or very cheap.
I live in the Ohio River valley in South West corner of Ohio, not so jokingly called the land of red clay.
I could make pottery from the original soil in my garden.
We use a tried and true method for creating great soil from our clay. Sand (coarse, we use the kind used to make concrete), peat moss, and some lime turned into the clay hardpan and then plant some fava beans (plant very early, favas like it cold). The favas are nitrogen fixing plants and the deep roots penetrate and break up the clay. Turn the beans into the soil at the end of the growing season for an added boost. It's a very cheap, quick, and effective way to deal with heavy clay.
Or my wife's version; simply mulch the area every year until all of the organic matter in the mulch breaks down and amends the soil, we have two beds on the side of our home (about 3x40 feet each) that started out as rock hard clay. Now, a few years later, we can dig a planting hole with our hands. A little slower than the above method, but just as effective.
As this is the vermiculture forum, I will add that worms alone don't help much for clay (unless you are adding worm compost from your bins or other organic matter such as mulch). You need to incorporate some organic matter and larger particles into the soil to break up the fine clays.
Check out craigslist in your area. I get horse manure that is composted delivered to me in bags for $1 a bag! Most people list it at $5 which still isn't too bad lol but I kept the guys email for the $1. Also see a ton of free if you come scoop which I wasn't willing to do. I mix in the manure, leaves, and compost when I plant (we have almost all sand here)
I second Vinesnmore's suggestion. That's exactly what I do...go to a boarding stables that offered free horse manure on Craigslist. I bring home a truckload, wet it down real good and let it "ferment" for awhile, as it is originally dry as a bone. Mix it with soil, use it as bedding material or ground cover. Nothing like hay poop to improve your dirt.
I'm actually myself dealing with a similar issue. I'm a master composter, and I learned about this in the course I took. There is something you can make called a "food digester" where you cut the bottom out of a trash can or bucket and bury it about 1/3 of underneath the soil level, then fill it with your kitchen scraps. The earth worms will come and take the food and carry it out into the garden. Very similar to digging holes, but less work. One woman I know does this with a 20 gal, and it's just her and one other person in her household. I've resolved to use several 5 gal around the garden depending on how much waste we produce here. With this, lasagna gardening (like cardboard (carbon) and lawn clippings (nitrogen) being layered), and other organic methods, the issue of clay should be solved in a couple of years.
Another thing that helps is to grow a green manure crop where you need the organic matter. Rye, clover alfalfa, buckwheat, bluelupine, and many other things can be grown and then mowed and turned into the soil.