That Red Clay Soil
When many folks think of the Piedmont they think of the red clay soil. That which we know so well as “red clay soil” is generally what would have been the subsoil two hundred years ago, with much of the true top soil sadly having even eroded away by centuries of poor agricultural practices and top-soil stripping development.
The red clay soil gets its red color from iron oxide. Generally speaking this red clay soil is not laid down by sedimentation but rather built up gradually by break down of the rocks below, this broken down rock then by biological and physical forces getting incorporated into the soil above.
The reputation of the red clay sub soil as being either rock hard when dry or sticky and mucky when wet is well deserved. But the pain of working the red clay soil is somewhat rewarded by the fact that its small clay particles hold water and nutrients well, making the growth of plants easier than what might be expected. And thankfully, by adding lots of the right kinds of organic matter, a clayey loam can be built up over time that is quite manageable and good for gardening.
Some advice: don’t even think of enjoying gardening in this red clay brick/muck unless you have a good tiller.
For years I would get advertisements for those little baby tillers or “cultivators” made by Troy-Bilt or Honda or Mantis or whomever. I would look at them, think of our soil here, and laugh. Right, that little thing would break in five minutes faced with this red brick.
I was wrong. I needed a small tiller for a few small spaces. So one day I bought the Honda version. I am sure they all work just fine. Granted I first used it is soil that had been worked in the past, but it blitzed through it like a hot knife through butter. And though I would not advise doing this often, it will even cut through virgin” untilled sod. I’ve done that in a couple of places too awkward for my big tiller.
Another thing: these small tillers are great for help planting shrubs and perennials and bulbs as well as the yearly annual planting blitz in the spring. Even if you use a shovel or a bigger tiller for ground breaking, these little guys are perfect for mixing compost, manure, and our red soil together. Just wait for a dry day. Truly, these little guys are regular blenders.
Another tiller tip: front tine tillers will beat you to a pulp here. I used one for several years. It was good exercise. But after a while it gets old, and they are always breaking, the belts coming off particularly. Put your money into a rear tine tiller, even if a smaller narrower one. The spaces they can’t get to, well, then you have the “cultivator” for that.
In summary, this is not the coastal plain or the mountains. Good stuff grows out of this red clay, but it’s a royal pain without the right tools. Get the tools. You’ll enjoy years of fun gardening, and with all that gardening the money you put into the tillers will pay for itself in better health and fewer visits to the doctor.
Good gardening to you, mate!
Joel Gillespie @ 2006