Living Columns & Blogs

How do I improve clay soil in my yard?

Dave Bosman levels a load of 3-way soil for a customer at Smit’s Compost at 9039 Guide Merdian in Lynden on April 22, 2011. Compost can help break up clay soil and give you a great garden.
Dave Bosman levels a load of 3-way soil for a customer at Smit’s Compost at 9039 Guide Merdian in Lynden on April 22, 2011. Compost can help break up clay soil and give you a great garden.

QUESTION: I recently moved into a lovely home. Sadly, the yard is not so lovely and is mostly clay soil. I’ve never had to deal with this before, but as I tried to dig a small garden, I ended up in tears. Please, can you offer any help, as I might just consider selling the lovely home just to get some better soil.

ANSWER: You’ve bought a hard nut to crack, but it can be cracked, though it will take time. So don’t feel you have to give up your dream home, but prepare to spend time improving your soil.

When you till the soil, use a spading fork, rather than a shovel or spade. Moisten the clods, then break them up with the side of the fork.

After they dry somewhat, spray them with a fine spray from a hose, rake them and once again allow the clods to dry. Air drying, wetting, and raking does wonders in breaking up the clods.

Now the real change comes. Find as much organic matter as you can, be it well-rotted animal manures, green plant materials, compost or leaf mold. In your case, I would call around for delivery of compost.

Twelve yards is usually the maximum and 5 yards the minimum a landscape or sand and gravel place will deliver.

Do not attempt to use sand, though on the surface it sounds like it would work to break up clay. It will probably only compound the problem unless you can apply yards and yards of it.

The good news for you, however, is that clay locks in a lot of nutrients, which when released will be great for your gardens. So keep that in mind as you work. And remember, you would have to pay big bucks to work out in a gym. None of that in your backyard!

Making cut flowers last

QUESTION: I grow so many flowers, I’m often disappointed by how short a time they last. Have you heard of any way to make them last longer?

ANSWER: There’s a lot of research that’s been done about how to make cut flowers last longer. The best way, and the way that the growers and florists use, is refrigeration. That doesn’t work for those of us who want flowers on our dining room tables. But there are other things that can help.

One study I just read tried (1) plain water; (2) sugar; (3) vinegar and sugar; (4) sugar and bleach; (5) lemon-lime soda; (6) Listerine; and (7) FloralLife Flower Food 300.

Here’s what won on all counts, including lasting longest and best, and water remaining clear: FloralLife.

Though the ingredients are proprietary, the company’s website describes this product as containing “a sugar for nutrition, an acidifier to lower the pH of the water, and a class of compounds called stem absorption enhancers.”

You can do your own experiments, but me, I vote for FloralLife. It might be fun to set up your own experiment and see what you come up with!

‘Cabinet cures’

QUESTION: Do home remedies work against plant disease and pests? Several people have given me ideas about fighting them with products that can be bought at either a grocery or drugstore. But I’d like to know if there’s any chance they’d work before I proceed.

ANSWER: Here’s what many people who try these products think: They don’t offer complete control, but they can help out.

These are called “cabinet cures.” For example, dish soap is used to battle insects. It works on soft-bodied insects but can also damage your plant leaves, so try it on a few leaves before applying to an entire plant. Milk can be used as a cabinet fungicide, and I know several people who swear that it helps fight black spot, though it must be applied every week, which many of us regard as crazy.

One cabinet product that should NOT be used is tobacco. Yes, it kills insects readily, but it is also toxic to beneficial insects such as bees. It is also toxic to humans.

So don’t get too excited about the miracle cure coming from your kitchen or bathroom. It might help, but it probably isn’t the entire solution.

Kathleen Bander of Bellingham is a lifelong gardener. Her column will appear in The Bellingham Herald weekly through the summer growing season. If you have a gardening question you'd like answered in the column, please email it to For more gardening information online, go to