Shovel In Dirt

Beginner Gardening Tips For Planting In Red Clay Soil

Let me start this by saying, I’m not a landscaping expert. In fact, until about 5 years ago, I couldn’t keep a plant alive to save me. But, with the help of a couple of professionals, I learned a few tips that have given me a bit of a green thumb. If I can do it, so can you!

Bad Landscaping In Front Yard
Before

This is a picture of the home we owned before moving to the Dogwood House. The year we moved in there were three rose bushes in the front with some pine needles spread between them. I’m not sure why the builders decided to plant a rose bush by the front door. Can you imagine how our guests would feel if every time they came over, they got a thorn in their back-side?

Luckily for our guests, we completely changed the look of front landscaping.

Front Yard Landscaping Tips
After

This is what it looked like after we were done. Big difference, huh?

We view our yard as an extension of our home. So, making our outdoor spaces as lovely as our indoor spaces is important to us. Living in an area with an abundance of red clay soil makes gardening a little tricky. We learned you can’t just dig a hole, throw a plant in, and expect it to survive. After some trial-and-error gardening and the help of professionals, we finally found what works for us.

Here it is…

Hand Tilling Red Clay Soil

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Break Up The Soil

Digging into dry, clay dirt would be like trying to dig into your driveway. It’s not going to happen. If you do manage to dig a hole, it’s still not enough for your plants. That hard, compacted soil makes it almost impossible for their roots to spread and grow.

Why do the roots need to spread?

Well, that’s how they reach nutrients in the ground and grow larger. You may not realize this, but the roots of every plant spread out as wide as the “top” you see above ground. So, if your evergreen shrub is 5-foot wide, you can bet those roots reach at least 5 feet underground.

Breaking up the soil will help your plants grow and the roots to establish themselves in the ground. Which basically means, the plants will have a better chance of living once planted.

Tillers are great tools to use when you want to break up your soil. Gas-powered tillers are best for large areas, like a garden plot. You push them over the area you plan to use, and the tiller blades break up the soil. 

If you are working in smaller spaces or those near your house, you can use a hand-held tiller. These typically have a long handle, and you run the blades back and forth over the soil.

The best time to do all this work is a few days after a good rain. The ground will be a little softer and easier to break up.

Amending Your Soil

Once you break up the soil, it’s not time to start planting yet. You’ll want to add a few amendments to the dirt to give your plants some extra nutrients.

This is an important step. Before my green thumb, I lost countless trees and shrubs because I didn’t add anything to the soil. I honestly had no clue “amendments for soil” were even a thing. Now, I won’t plant anything without them.

No matter what type of soil you have, adding extra nutrients for the plants is never a bad idea. My favorite product to use is Daddy Pete’s Plant Pleaser Cow Manure. Yep, you read that right. I use cow manure in my flower beds. Don’t worry, the smell doesn’t linger.

Along with Daddy Pete’s, I also throw in some fertilizer. Now, you want to make sure you buy the right fertilizer for the type of plant you’re planting. For evergreens, I use Holly-tone. It’s excellent for flowering evergreens like an azalea or camellia. For perennials, annuals, and ornamental trees, I use a 10-10-10 fertilizer.

I’ll go into more detail about fertilizing in just a bit. Once your soil is broken up and ready to go, it’s time to plant.

How To Plant Shrubs and Flowers

Before you place anything in the ground, you need to do a bit of research to figure out how big they will be once fully grown. Most plants come with a tag or label that lists this information. If yours doesn’t, just type in the plant name in Google and you should be able to find it there.

You don’t want to plant things too close together. For one thing, over-crowded plants don’t look good. For another, if too many plants are competing for water and nutrients, they aren’t going to be strong and healthy. Some may die, others will be fragile and could break easily.

Giving your plants plenty of room to grow from the beginning will prevent this from happening.

To give them plenty of room, the end of one plant should meet up with the end of another. So, let’s say you buy two plants that each get 5 ft wide. You’ll want to make sure you place the center of the plants at least 5 ft away from each other. Here’s a picture to show you what I mean.

How Far Apart To Plant Things

If you’re planting near a structure or your home, divide the total width of the plant by 2. Measure that far away from the structure and dig your hole.

Now that you know your plant sizes, it’s time to plan. While your plants are still in their pots, place them in the areas you want them to go. Use a ruler to measure the distance between plants. Make sure there are no overlapping areas. If there are, move the plants around until you are happy.

Now, it’s time to dig.

When making holes for your plants, you want to make them larger than the container they are sitting in. This will give the roots plenty of growing room once they’re in the ground.

You want to make sure your root ball is entirely underground once you place your plant in the hole. Every so often while digging, put your potted plant in the hole. Once the top of the container is level with the surface of the ground, you can stop digging down.

Digging In Red Clay Dirt

Once you’ve dug your hole, add a little Daddy Pete’s and fertilizer to the hole. Mix it in with the red clay dirt a little. Now, you can remove your plant from the container and place it in the hole.

If you have trouble removing the plant, don’t pull on the stem or trunk. Instead, carefully hit the side of the container. This will help loosen the roots and soil, and the plant should slide out. Break up the roots a little before putting the plant in the ground. This will help the roots establish themselves in the soil. It’s ok if you cut or break the smaller roots. This will not kill the plant.

Place your plant in the soil and carefully fill the hole in with dirt. As you do this, push the dirt down into the hole. You can do this with your foot. You want to make sure there are no air pockets around your plant. These pockets can cause something called root rot.

If you have extra dirt left over, use it to make a little raised area all the way around the base of the plant. This will prevent water from running away from your plant. It almost acts like the edges of a bowl, keeping water close to the roots.

Once your plant is in the ground, cover the area with mulch, rocks, or pine needles. We use mulch in our flower beds. It’s easier to spread around and also holds a ton of moisture in the soil.

Shovel In Dirt

Watering Your Plants

You know that all living things need water to survive. To give your new plants a fighting chance, you’ll want to water them daily for the first 2 weeks after putting them in the ground. If you do the majority of your planting in the Spring and Fall, there’s a good chance Mother Nature may water them for you.

In periods of dry weather, make sure to water your plants daily. The best times to water are early in the morning or late in the evening. Don’t water during the hottest part of the day. The water will evaporate faster than the plants can drink it.

If you notice plants looking droopy or dry, give them a little extra water. If you see yellowing of the leaves, back off on watering for a couple days.

Fertilizing Your Plants

For new plantings, I add fertilizer before placing them in the ground. Fertilizing your plants helps them grow faster and stronger. It also helps new plantings make it through the harsh Winter months. Here in NC, our coldest months are usually January, February, and March. So, every 3 months, from April to November, I place more fertilizer around the plants.

Fertilizing your plants will make them grow. You don’t want this growth to happen when freezing temps are a threat. If the new growth freezes, it could actually kill the entire plant. That’s why we only fertilize our plants when the weather stays above freezing…day and night.

As I mentioned earlier, we buy certain fertilizers based on the type of plant we are feeding. We use granular fertilizers because they are easier to apply. All you have to do is sprinkle them around the base of the plant.

You want to make sure you sprinkle the majority of the granules as far from the trunk/stem of the plant as the canopy extends. This helps the furthest roots from the trunk reach the food and grow larger, helping to stabilize the plant.

How To Fertilize Plants

This is really important if you’re fertilizing trees. The reason uprooting happens is that the roots aren’t strong enough and don’t extend far enough to support the weight of the tree. To get an idea for how far away from the trunk your roots are, look up. How far out do the limbs go?  Where the limbs stop is where you want to start applying the fertilizer.

The amount of fertilizer you use will depend on how large or small the tree is. Obviously, large shrubs and trees will need more fertilizer. Small flowers will need less.

Hopefully, these tips will help you feel more confident gardening in red clay soil. Or, any soil for that matter. I love planting a variety of different shrubs, flowers, and trees in our yard. But, if I had to choose a favorite, it would be the hydrangea.

What’s your favorite flower or plant? Have a gardening tip you want to share? Tell me about it in the comments below.

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