Are you getting bogged down (literally) by your waterlogged clay soil? This wet winter has caused problems for many gardeners, and especially those who live in a newly built home. New build gardens in Lancashire often have only a thin layer of topsoil over a compacted, heavy clay subsoil. But don’t despair – here are some ways in which you can learn to live with, and indeed love, your tricky garden.
- IMPROVE THE SOIL IN YOUR BEDS AND BORDERS
If you do nothing else, do this. Clay soil in your beds and borders tends to hold water in winter then dry out and crack in summer, and plants will struggle to grow in these conditions. The simplest way to reduce both of these problems is to incorporate bulky organic matter – and lots of it. Organic matter could be
- Garden compost
- Spent mushroom compost *
- Well rotted farmyard manure (‘long manure’ with some visible straw is best)
- Composted bark
- Green waste from your local council (if yours offers this service – West Lancashire and Chorley do not, unfortunately.)
Best spread onto the surface of the soil (a ‘mulch’) in spring, and worked in with a fork early autumn, organic matter will improve soil fertility, aeration, drainage and moisture retention. You need lots – a layer 50- 100mm deep, about a barrow load per metre². If you repeat this every year, over time you will acquire a wonderful, rich soil that plants love.
Incorporating sand or grit is an option, but not one I recommend. You need to incorporate an awful lot for it to have an impact. Better to spend your time and money adding organic matter.
PLEASE NOTE, WALKING ON OR WORKING A WATERLOGGED SOIL WILL CAUSE FURTHER DAMAGE. You are best to wait to undertake any work to improve your soil until mid spring when (hopefully) it will have dried out a bit.
Installing drainage is heavy, disruptive work, and can be costly but, if undertaken at the start of a project, it could help avoid waterlogging problems in the future. It is not always straightforward to install drainage in a deep, heavy clay soil like we have in West Lancashire so I would recommend that you seek advice to find out if there is a drainage solution that would work in your garden.
3. RAISE BEDS
Adding raised beds to your garden design is an excellent design solution, especially for new build gardens on clay soil, as they provide free draining planting areas which can be filled with good topsoil. There are different construction options available to suit your garden style and budget, such as sleepers or rendered block walls. All offer a high impact, low maintenance solution, and work well within a garden design to offer structure, partitions and focal features.
If raised beds are not for you and you want to add new borders, there’s nothing else for it – you will have to dig. Double dig, ideally, to loosen soil that has been compacted by builders. It will be very hard work, you will need to add lots of organic matter and clear out rubble. Digging is best done late spring or early autumn when the soil is workable. Clods of clay left on the surface will be broken down over winter by hard frosts.
5. PAMPER YOUR LAWN
A waterlogged lawn is a stressed lawn, so it is essential to do all you can to keep it healthy and strong throughout the year. Feed and weed in spring and autumn with the correct products, and scarify in autumn to reduce moss. Waterlogged lawns also benefit from aeration – use a hand fork for small areas. For badly affected lawns hire a machine and ‘hollow tine’. This removes small plugs of turf and leaves narrow holes into which you brush sand, greatly improving drainage.
A lawn that is a complete disaster may have been poorly laid on badly prepared, compacted ground. The best course of action may be to start again on properly prepared ground. The RHS offers advice on this https://www.rhs.org.uk/advice/profile?PID=204.
Alternatively you may wish to …
6. CONSIDER ALTERNATIVES TO GRASS
Where waterlogged ground is combined with a shady site an alternative surface may be best.
Some of the many options available are:
- Paving (although this can make neighbouring areas even wetter)
- Blocks, bricks or cobbles
- Resin bound aggregates –firm but porous surfaces in a wide range of materials, many which are recycled
- A gravel, bark or rubber chipping mulch
- Artificial turf
With many options available, there will be one that suits how you use your garden and contributes to the unity of your garden design.
7. SELECT PLANTS TO SUIT THE CONDITIONS
This is my favourite solution. Whereas most plants that will fail to thrive with their roots in water, some plants have adapted to these conditions and grow well on a wet soil. This list includes some of my top plants including Iris sibirica, Osmunda regalis and Rogersia aesculifolia. There are even more wonderful plants that don’t want submerged roots but are very happy to be in a moist well drained soil, such as the stunning Viburnum opulus ‘Roseum’, Matteuccia struthriopteris and Primula japonica ‘Miller’s Crimson’. For these plants to thrive, the soil mustn’t dry out in the summer, so be sure to work on improving the soil first (point 1).
One of the major benefits of investing in professional planting design is that your designer will select plants to thrive in your garden. If you choose your own plants, research is essential to avoid costly mistakes.
8. CREATE A BOG GARDEN
I love this solution too, best for the low point in your garden that never dries out. Accept what you have and make the most of it! You can incorporate lovely plants with lots of structure and interest, and make a weak point into a real feature. Again, the RHS have advice to offer https://www.rhs.org.uk/advice/profile?pid=356
As with any garden, forward planning and good design will reap rewards for years to come. If you would like me to look at your garden and suggest possible solutions, I offer a ‘Design Options’ consultation in addition to my garden and planting design services. Please contact me to arrange an appointment.
*It is important to know whether you have an acid, neutral or alkaline soil. Some plants have a preference for acid or alkaline conditions and need a soil that matches. A very high or low pH makes for challenging growing conditions in general. Soil testing kits are available from garden centres, B&Q sell a good one.