Humus and Protein - Solution for Clay Soil

Trumbull, CT(Zone 7a)

I found this very interesting and previously was unable to find good
suggestions for treating clay:

I am new to gardening and am wondering what others think of his ideas.

We have piles of grass clippings that are probably more than 4 years old that
has essentially composted back in our wooded area. Is the very old material
on the bottom essentially humus?


This message was edited Oct 25, 2012 11:34 AM

Trumbull, CT(Zone 7a)

Watching this again, I notice that there is very little qantitative data given and it looks to be about half educational and half infomercial! The presenter owns the company Soil Secrets and it seems that the video is really an advertisement but I'm still curious if there is any validity to it:

In case anyone has not watched the video, this person claims that he had salty, alkaline, clay soil that the experts told him could not possibly be fixed. As I understand it, he top dressed it with humus and some sort of bean protein, did not till it and has continued to do this for 23 years but started planting from seed several years after he started. He has many trees and other plants that have grown and thrived there for 20 years or so.

I know a bit about chemistry, not much, and not much about biology, but from what I do know I can't see how this worked unless there is an organism that processed (digested?) the clay, thrived and multiplied to have processed so much clay. But I am not an expert and am interested in other ideas.

This message was edited Oct 26, 2012 11:04 AM

Anne Arundel,, MD(Zone 7b)

Pete if you look on this forum you'll find a thread I made about a book on soil biology. THe theme of the book is that if you follow entirely organic practices you will create a soil biology that will fix many of your problems, or support natural fertility enough so that things will grow very well. I can't swear to the accuracy of it but it seems to make a lot of sense.
THink of this: I am surrounded by soil that nobody but mother nature has ''worked on'' for a century and it is covered with forest.
Rain forests are living on extremely thin layers of mineral soil. What they do have is humus and decaying organic matter, and rain and sun. Nobody double digs the rain forest first.

I don't think its a matter of digesting the clay, but of creating a structure within it ( or on top?) conducive to nutrients and air and water in good amounts.

Trumbull, CT(Zone 7a)

Thank you Sally,
I agree that mother nature seems to have a way of taking care of things but in that presenter's case he had land that I think little if anything was growing on, and he seems to have worked on it and turned it around. I thought that was an impressive accomplishment since so many say that it takes a lot of hard work to fix clay soil - if it can be done at all. And he started growing not too long after he started treating the soil.

You wrote: "I don't think its a matter of digesting the clay, but of creating a structure within it ( or on top?) conducive to nutrients and air and water in good amounts." What I'm wondering and find very curious is what was the process that transformed his clay? Chemical? Biological? Worms? Bugs? Microbes?

I dug to add some plants in our main front bed and found about 7" of very nice top soil and then clay that does not drain - yet everything is growing just fine in it. The front yard slopes down to the street, and I think it just eventually drains through the top soil to the street. I know about mother nature taking care of things since I've not done anything to this bed in about 5 years other than to trim back the plants on an as needed basis. No watering, no fertilizer. In fact, we stopped our lawn service about 5 years ago also. It has done fairly well considering, but it is clear that we had a grub problem and the areas that get a lot of sunlight are brown and mainly crabgrass now. The squirrels dig their face in, I'm sure to find grubs or some sort of bug. I put down milky spore a few weeks ago and it seems to be working since I just found some milky and nearly dead grubs out there.

What led me to that video, was reading and watching videos about how chemical fertilizers kill most of the biology in the soil, because of the salts as I understand it. I also learned in the last few days about how the proper soil biology allows the plants to get by with much fewer nutrients often what is just there, or just by adding a bit of compost:
I found it interesting that she had to dust the previously chemically treated land with compost to bring back the life in it.

I'm wondering if the biology in our lawn soil is still "dead" from the many years of chemical fertilizers or did it likely come back after 5 years of no applications. All our neighbors also use lawn services if that makes any difference.
I have a 300X microscope, but I have no idea what to look for, I might just take a look for kicks. Thanks for the book reference, I'm not up for reading it yet, but I will certainly keep it in mind. It would sure be nice if there was an overview of the top 10 organisms, what they do, and what they look like under a microscope or how to tell if they are present in the proper amounts.

The question I'm trying to answer is if I should go back to chemcial fertilizers, or should I top dress the lawn, if possible, with compost to bring the life back? Are the compost and grass clippings enough to feed the lawn? I'll post this question in the landscaping section if that is a better place.

Anne Arundel,, MD(Zone 7b)

You can ask there for comments on an organic lawn, AND we can keep on talking here too.

Even without using chemicals, you are still relying on a struggling sick population to re populate the lawn. It can probably benefit from compost tea, manure tea (Fresh) to boost the soil life.

This might be a nice time to topdress. THe grass is growing some until hard freeze, then will be dormant. THe soil biology will work when it gets mild and be dormant when its cold. Frost and snow might loosen up the soil and let the compost incorporate a bit.

I can't speak definitively. I am cheap so I am wanting to think that I can still grow plants well with not buying chemicals.

Anne Arundel,, MD(Zone 7b)

By the way- the house I grew up in is in an area with heavy clay. The back yard had been scraped of topsoil to make it flat. Things did grow. When I moved to a sandier area, and went back and dug there, I was surprised how things grew when I could barely get a shovel in the dirt.
Play with the scope, let us know. Try some compost first, or good leaf litter.

Trumbull, CT(Zone 7a)

Very interesting and thanks again Sally,
Enjoyed your writeup on "beneficial fungi".

I forgot to mention that I overseeded the lawn about 20 days ago and applied
a light starter fertilizer. I'm not sure if I should hold off on adding any compost
or manure. I put down a tri hybrid Kentucky Bluegrass in the front and a drought
tolerant Fescue in the back that I got on closeout. I was only going to do the
front and sides so that only those would need watering but then I heard a lot of
good things about Fescues and thought I'd give it a try in the back since the seed
was so cheap.

I'm surprised that it seems like a lot of it is coming in since I thought Kentucky
Bluegrass had very long germination times - something like 30 days.

The grass also seems to be coming in much better where there was already
a decent amount of grass. The areas that were mostly crabgrass that has
died and are now nearly bare are hardly coming in at all. I wonder if the fungi
and biological life around the existing grass helps the new grass.

Montreal, QC(Zone 5b)

Hi there. I have a very clay soil and it's true things will grow. I have added everything. There was a product from the U.S. called Profile and it's a ceramic type of soil amendment. If the soil is too heavy it lightens it and if it's too sandy it helps it retain moisture. I haven't been able to find it in Montreal anymore. At some point it was in the bags of soil, but alas no more. the point being it stays in the soil once you add it in and it helps soil retain the nutrients that you add like compost, fertilizer, etc. It worked a miracle in my soil. It's natural from what I understand and if you can get your hands on it, I would highly recommend it! There were places my shovel could barely make a dent and it lightened it up and made it so much more workable.

Wake Forest, NC(Zone 7b)

I had several large (about 20' x 50') areas where I put freshly shredded tree wood down as mulch over red clay. After 2 years, the wood decayed and when the rains came, there were always earthworms in the decayed mulch. Since the earthworms come up through the clay, they leave tunnels and deposit digested mulch in these tunnels. That means that, after a (very) few years, the clay has started to become decent soil for growing things in. I believe that grass (fescue for me) will also provide the same attraction for the worms. So, don't give up on your idea of using any kind of clippings over the clay - unless you just sprayed it with insecticide - let that purify in your clipping pile for a while.


Everett, WA(Zone 8a)

Worms certainly do some "tilling" and "turning" when you lay compost or any organic matter on top of clay. When I laid a compost heap against a pile of clay for some weeks, then took it apart, I saw worm holes coming out of the cloay (or going back in), and once a worm sticking halway out of the clay and into the compost.

I think another factor is that anything organic rots eventually. Leaves, grass clippings, sawdust and even wood c hips laid on top of the soil will gradually decompose. Soluble breakdown products wsill leach out with rain or wateirng and soak into the soil. Slowly, if it is pure clay, but gradually and continuously. As part parts decompose, small, tiny, TINY and colloidal-sized fragemnts also wash out and lay on the clay, or wash into it. Worms c reate tunnels, and roots leave tunnels behind when they die back. Fungal hyphae prob ably do, too.

Wherever available organic matter becomes available in nature, SOMETHING eats it. That is some kind of law of nature, like F = ma. In gardens and lawns, those are a WIDE vartiety of small and tiny things down to bacteria. Protozoa. Mold, lichens, algae and fungi. Tiny things I don't know the names of with shells, like you see in pond water (arthropods?) Insects. Spiders. Worms. Ants. Centipeeds. Moles.

So, everything from bacteria to moles are swarming around as soon as you give them a ptchforkfull of dead matter they can eat and use to multiply. As the organic s soak down into the clay, this hungry mob pursues it ... like grad students, they never say "no" to free food.

What amazes me is that, invariably, any yard, even one with raw clay, has lenty of microbes etc that will multtiply and, for some reason, always work together to make the soil drain and aerate better, hold nutirients better, and be more congenial to roots.

It's almost as if the whole population of "everything" had billions of years to evolv e collectively, and "discovered" that everything is better off if everything cooperates and seeks balance, rather than each species trying to hog the entire soil horizon for itself.

I don't know why, but I wish politicians were as smart as fungi. It would be too much to hope for, that politicians should ever approach the wisdom and humilty and public-mindedness of lichen or worms, but you would think that they might be able to wise up to the level of fungi. Sadly, not!

We're so proud of our giant mammal brains, but look at a forest in equilibrium for centuries without any subsidies, and then look at people trying to crowd their way out of an airplane, getting in each others' way and making it take three times as long as random motion could achieve. Ask which population has the more highly-evolved species.

(To be fair, it may be that we haven't had brains long enough as social animals, to learn how to make them work productively in any group larger or more complex than a herd. Or an herb.)

Back to soil life, b ear in mind that only 10% of the bacteria and other microscopic creatures in healthy soil can even be studied effectively by microbiologists. If they can't culture them in Petri dishes, they have to say "and 90% other stuff that we don't know how to grow in isolation".

I always think that makes it ironic when WE call THEM "simple life forms". If there is some some vastly complex system of interdepenendence that we don't understand at all, we call it "simple"! Yeah, right.

So any given list of "soil life" or "microflora and microfauna" should really begin by saying "first and foremost, 90% of it we know nothing about ... but let me run on and on and on about the names we picked for the other 10%".

Short form: adding anything organic, and especially high-nitrogen organics, is givin g food to a v ast complex army of soil l;ife that somehow or other "knows" how to grow in balance in ways that make the soil support even more life. For some reason, that kind of soil is also what roots like.

Composting in a heap makes the process go faster. But you don't have to. You can lay stuff on top of the soil and wiat.

I think that the people who use "lasagna composting" techniques would laugh at the guy who got his clay productive in "only a few years". They have stuff growing the first year, and the soil under their "lasagna layers" can improve at its own pace, merely from the runoff! But perhaps they use a LOT of compost.

The expanded clay or shale pellets (or grit, or coarse sand, or coir or even peat) can improve your mechanical structure IF the soil is improved enough to benefit from it, like if it already has 20-50% compost mixed in. And you should do a good job of mixing it in the grit or plelets - and fluffing it up and firming it back down - when it is not too wet - and then never flood it and NEVER walk on it.

Maybe you have to fluff it back up every year. Certainly you have to keep adding lots of compost until it is quite good soil. Even after you have 'rescued" the clay, you have to keep feeding it enough compost every year to keep the soil life fed.

Wet clay plus grit without enoguh organics can easily compact back down into concrete if too wet or walked on. But I think that, with care, grit or bark or clauy pellets can get you usable aerated draining soil even before you have enough compost and time for the worms and roots and fungi do it for you.

In my opinion, fertilizer is only poison if you use too much. (But more than "just barely enough" might be, indeed, "too much".) Its best role is when you know your soil is terribly deficient, and you can't make or afford to buy enough compost to make the soil rich.

Chemical fertilizer is just cheap minerals (N,P,K,Ca,Mg,Iron, Sulfer, etc.) Notice: no carbon. To the soil life, it is like all spices and no food. Plant roots do need some minerals, but everything else lives on the organic matter from compost and mulch.

But chemical fertilizer is cheap. A yard of compost might cost $35 and you could easily use 1 cubic yard every year on a 108-square-foot bed (3" deep layer?). A six-inch layer is a good way to turn clay into soil real fast, but then 1 cubic yard of compost would only rescue 54 square feet.

But $35 could buy 50 pounds of urea or 30 pounds of something balanced from a farm coop, and that is plenty of minerals for a huge garden of poor soil, or several years of a small garden with poor soil.

Soil needs lots of organics but only a few minerals.
And rich organic soil already has all the minerals it needs.

Chemical fertilizers have zero organic matter, so they hardly feed the soil at all . I would rather use "not enough" fertilizer and know that I was only repairing part of a deficiety, not contributing to an excess.

Really rich, organic soil loaded with compost (humus) probably doesn't need chemical fertilizer. Along with the hundreds of pounds of organic matter (C) in the compost, it included a few pounds of N, P, K, etc.

Anne Arundel,, MD(Zone 7b)

Some very good thoughts there.

Dittoing your last point only- dead plant material is composed of ALL the elements that are required to make it in the first place. EXCEPT nitrogen which is lost very easily. And maybe some others are lost more easily that are most water soluble, depending on how long the stuff has been dead..

Everett, WA(Zone 8a)

>> EXCEPT nitrogen which is lost very easily. And maybe some others are lost more easily that are most water soluble,

I agree with that 100%. That's why I'm willing to make the effort to use urea carefully enough to avoid burning roots: N is "always" deficient, and urea is cheap and all-N. It doesn't get more concentrated than 46-0-0. I think that even industrial Ammonia is less concentrated (since it's a gas).

Here is an old drawing of how to make-your-own soluble fertilizer mixer-sprayer. I am guessing that the trick is in the step-up from 3/8" pipe to 3/4" pipe. Maybe that is what creates the suction that keeps your hose from simply overflowing the bucket.

The Complete Book of Garden Magic

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