How to Loosen Clay Soil Lawn, Break It Up, and Improve It

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Have you struggled to get a lawn growing at your new property? Perhaps grass grew for a season and then disappeared. Have you seeded, water and repeated, only to have another failure with your lawn?

Upon close inspection, did you find you were trying to grow grass in hard, red clay soil? This is sometimes the reason lawns fail to take up residence permanently. It is most likely to happen on new properties with red clay soil that is not yet amended, but it can be an issue at any home.

Don’t lose heart, this situation is fixable. With effort and sometimes a new soil base, you can put in a lawn. We’ll look at options to on how to loosen clay soil lawn and get grass to grow.

Equipment for Loosening Red Clay Soil

Learning how to loosen clay soil lawn often involves a tiller and sometimes an aerator. Never use this equipment on clay soil when it is wet, doing so results in an even harder ground that you may not be able to ever loosen properly. When the soil is dry and workable, till it to six inches down, then amend with well-rotted compost.

The tiller breaks up the soil and brings it up to ground level, where you can incorporate amendments to change the consistency. Amend tilled soil with organic material to allow drainage and more air circulation. Grass grows more easily and readily in amended soil.

Earthworms are natural aerators in the lawn and are usually killed during the tilling process. Applying a top dressing or layer of lawn appropriate soil allows the worms to live and continue to work in your lawn. Products like Aerify PLUS – Liquid Soil Aerator and Bio-Activator work on the clay soil beneath the top layer, to eventually make the red clay more grower friendly.

Compost is not always a requirement, but don’t waste the time and effort to till without amending the soil to some degree. Some experts say the right kind of grass seed will grow in red clay, such as Tall Fescue. Tall fescue (Festuca arundinacea) grows best in clay soil, according to Clemson Cooperative Extension. Other grasses to consider for clay soil include:

  • Bermuda Grass
  • Buffalo Grass
  • Zoysia Grass

Compaction: How to Loosen Clay Soil Lawn

Compaction is sometimes a problem when considering how to loosen clay soil lawn. Again you will use the tiller and aerator for most locations. Learn how to loosen clay soil lawn with these devices.

When working with compacted soil, you have to go deep, usually through the entire area that is compacted, but at least go down 10 to 12 inches. Break up clods. Let the soil air out and dry for 2 to 3 days and remove rocks, sticks, and anything that is not necessary to grow the lawn.

After the drying out period, turn the soil, mixing with the compost or even rotted manure. Use the tiller to work in amendments when possible. A soil test beforehand will advise of the need for other additions, like lime or sulfur.

1. Removing Roots From the Soil

Roots of existing trees and from those no longer growing are an issue when considering how to loosen clay soil lawn. Remove roots from dead trees, when possible. Don’t attempt to plant grass around multiple roots near a living tree.

Instead, add easy to grow ornamental plants, such as hosta or other attractive, low-maintenance specimens. Use the lawn as a backdrop for decorative flowers and foliage to beautify your landscape.

2. Erosion Leaving Red Clay Soil

Perhaps your issues go further than just red clay where your lawn should be. Maybe the soil erodes and washes away when it rains. Erosion might be the reason you only have red clay there.

Either way, to quickly get grass to grow, you must learn how to loosen clay soil lawn area. Amendments to red clay soil may include a new layer of soil to grow a healthy green lawn. This is sometimes the best solution as opposed to incorporating organic matter.

3. Control Erosion with Plantings

Other plants, shrubs, and trees that help hold the soil should accompany the lawn planting. Adding a berm or a swale helps hold back the water, not allowing topsoil to wash away. These steps are especially important if you’ve lost your top layer of soil from the erosion. because you don’t want that to happen again.

Soil erosion is not unusual in residential landscapes. Many experience bare or soggy areas in the lawn, ornamental plants washed from their planting space or bare spots from a regular steady runoff entering your property. Soil erosion can even affect the home’s foundation if not remedied.

Erosion can undoubtedly wash away the topsoil necessary for growing a lawn, leaving you wondering how to loosen clay soil lawn that remains. Usually, the water comes from a slope, sometimes not entirely on your property and occurs during and after heavy rain storms. Whatever the source of the runoff, you cannot permanently resolve landscape issues until you correct what is causing them.

Turn to a Professional

Some landscape professionals have experience in this area and know how to deal with these matters in the most efficient way. It is best to count on them for a resolution. Erosion control is not a do-it-yourself project.

Reshape the Landscape

Changing a few aspects of the landscape diverts the unwanted water to a different area. Berms and swales work together to absorb, slow, and store runoff before it reaches your lawn. Slope reshaping can change the dynamics of your landscape.

Once you’ve learned how to loosen clay soil lawn, break it up and improve it, your yard can become an area of beauty once landscaped with grass and the right plants. Learning how to loosen clay soil lawn is a worthwhile project, improving your landscape and adding value to your property.


Jonathan E. Bass

Graduated from Middle Tennessee State University. I am currently a gardener. I have a small garden behind my house. I love it.

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