When you water it becomes slimy and heavy, and turns into hard chunk when dried.
If your soil behaves similarly, then congrats you’ve clay soil. Having clay soil for growing vegetable garden has its benefits and cons.
In this write-up you’ll learn about growing tomatoes in clay soil.
First thing, you can grow tomatoes in clay soil but, keep this is mind that you must make some amendments to soil and it demands vigilant care in growing season.
No gardener wants to grow vegetables in a clay soil that may result in water logs and turn hard for sprouts. But, if your backyard is filled with clay and you want to fight the odds and try your luck, then you must initially study characteristic of clay soil.
After knowing its pros and cons, with extra attention towards the growing medium you can successfully grow tomatoes.
Alternatively, if you’d like you can opt to grow your veggies in a container or in a raised bed filled with best potting soil for tomatoes.
Soil Requirements for Growing Tomato Plant
Tomato plants can be grown in almost all climatic conditions. However, this plant needs sandy loam soil to thrive. You can’t expect the growth of tomato plant in heavy clay soil.
Because, the plant can’t survive in water logged soil, along with clay soil don’t provide enough oxygen to its roots. This can make it difficult to grow.
Anyways, you can improve the texture of the soil by tilling clay soil with sawdust, peat moss and other organic amendments.
- Tomato plant needs sandy loam soil that doesn’t clog excess water and drains well.
- Soil pH: Ideal range is 6.0 to 6.8. This vegetable plant does well in neutral pH soil or nearly neutral. pH of 7 is considered neutral and less than 7 is acidic, while more than 7 is alkaline.
- Fertilizers: Use organic matter to fertilize your soil. As an edible plant, tomato needs moderately fertile soil. Balanced NPK ratio is recommended for good harvest. Excess use of nitrogen may end-up busy tomato plant with less yield.
Also Read: When Is It Too Late to Plant Tomatoes?
Understand Clay Soil
Ideal soil for growing tomatoes is loamy soil, as mentioned above.
Soil isn’t just dirt; it is pack of essential minerals, organic material, microorganisms, moisture and nutrients.
There are few plants that can grow in clay soil, but most flowering and vegetable plants aren’t strong enough to force their roots through dense clay.
No worries, with some soil improvements you’ll be able to start vegetable garden in your clay soil.
If you’re soil has 50 percent clay particles, then it is regarded as heavy clay.
How do you know your garden has clay soil?
Soil test or you can know this by observing.
Are your shoes getting stuck in garden like glue? Is the soil forming big clods that can’t be easily separated? Do you see cracks in dry weather?
If your answer is yes for above questions, then you’ve clay.
Clay soil has fine mineral particles without organic material to separate them. Thus, when you pour water it doesn’t drain well. Instead, it forms sticky because of no space between mineral particles.
Benefits of having clay soil
- Clay soil has mineral particles that are negatively charged and they attract positive charged calcium, magnesium and potassium.
- This soil can also effectively retain moisture.
If you repeatedly add organic matter to your garden for 3 consecutive seasons, the soil texture will be improved dramatically.
What makes it hard to grow tomato in clay soil?
After the rain, the soil turns into slimy clumps making it difficult to dig. Roots of tomato seedlings fail to go through dense clay and thus get trapped in hard earth.
In dry season, the soil becomes hard as ground. It blocks sprouting of tomato seeds.
With no space, the clay soil fails to provide enough oxygen for plant roots.
Fortunately, clay soil is rich in nutrients that can be used to grow highly productive tomatoes.
To minimize negativity of clay soil and to get benefitted from its nutrient rich soil, you’ve to make amend soil by adding coarse forms of organic matter, which I’ll be discussing in rest of this article.
Growing Tomatoes in Clay Soil – Complete Guide
First step would be soil test.
Not all clay soil has similar nutrients value; soil test will allow you know pH and nutritional balance in your soil.
If your soil needs calcium, then you can add dried and crushed eggshells to tomato plant hole.
Without soil test, you can’t determine the nutritional needs of your garden.
Second step: Dig one hole for one tomato plant
Amending complete garden isn’t easy and first time gardeners will have no idea about the success rate.
Handling one hole to add organic matter is an easy job.
- Choose the spot that gets at-least 8 hours of direct sunlight.
- Tomato plant does well in sunlight.
Dig a hole that is 16 inches wide and 1 foot deep. Space the tomato plant holes two feet apart.
Use clean sharp spade to dig the soil. These little sections in your garden must be filled with coarse form of organic matter, including compost.
- After digging hole of one foot deep, add 2 inches of wood shavings at the bottom of each hole. This is to improve drainage ability and retain moisture. This wood shavings layer will also act as absorbent towel.
- Make sure that wood doesn’t have pesticides sprayed on it; else it will kill your tomato plant.
- Now, fill the remaining hole with equal parts of organic compost, composted manure, wood ash, gypsum and top soil.
- Using hand or garden fork, mix the components lightly.
- Dig another hole in the amended soil to plant tomato seedling. This second hole must be 6 inches deep. Cover the seedling with amended soil and water the plant.
Important: Mulching the tomato plant is an essential aspect of growing in clay soil. Hay grass, is an ideal option to mulch your plants. This will lock moisture and also avoid water pool around the plant.
Start with heavy mulch and as the days pass the organic material will decompose in the garden soil. If needed you must replenish more mulch to avoid weed growth and retain moisture.
Should you stake tomato seedlings right from first day?
Not needed, but no harm in doing so. Wooden stakes will protect tomato plants from wind and save fruits from rotting.
Determine the tomato plant height and choose the stake about 10 inches. This will provide ample support to tomato seedlings to grow.
You can also use cages or trellises.
Instead of growing in these small section holes, you can also raise open bottom gardening beds.
2 – Alternative methods to avoid clay soil
If you don’t want to play sticky with clay soil, then you can opt for growing tomato plants in container or in open-bottomed raised beds.
Choose 5 gallon bucket and add growing medium that is mixed with quality potting soil and compost. Also add perlite, this will improve drainage of this growing medium and retain moisture.
Open-bottomed raised beds
Create a raised bed filled with topsoil, compost, peat moss, manure, shredded leaves, pine bark and grass clippings.
Wood shavings also help to absorb water and retain moisture. This shavings leach nitrogen from soil, so in next season you must add nitrogen rich fertilizers.
Check this out: How far Apart to Plant Tomatoes in a Raised bed?
Conclusion – read it
You can’t grow tomato plants directly in clay soil. Amending soil with organic matter, shredded leaves, compost, grass clippings, rotted manure and pine bark.
This will improve soil texture and increase the nutritional value of your garden soil.
Before starting, test the soil to determine the nutrients value. Accordingly you can add fertilizers or lime stone to alkaline the soil.
Watering tomato plants in clay soil is an important aspect. Excess watering may end-up water logged pools. Be vigilant and ensure the soil is moist all the time. Mulch can come as a big saver for your tomato plant.
Growing tomato plants in clay soil isn’t going to be an easy task. However, the extra time and effort will benefit you with juicy high quality tomatoes.
Did you ever grow veggies in clay soil? Share your experience or tips with our readers in comments.