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How to Get Clay Soil to Drain

By Mara Grey ; Updated September 21, 2017

Clay particles are like flat plates that stack one on top of another, often too closely to let water drain through. You might think that adding sand would help, but often the result is something like concrete. Organic matter, and the humus that it produces when it decays, helps to break up the solidity of clay as well as bind clay particles into small groups that behave like particles of sand. Add as much organic matter as you can, especially to soil that refuses to drain.

Adding Organic Matter

Spread compost, cow manure, peat moss or other organic matter across the top of your soil in a layer 2 to 4 inches thick. The more sticky the soil, the more organic matter will be necessary to help it drain.

Dig a slice of soil topped with organic matter out of the soil and drop it onto the tarp. The slice should be an inch or two wide. With a garden fork, mix the two layers together. Dig another slice, drop onto the tarp and mix. Continue this process across the bed you're improving.

Place another 2 or 3 inches of organic matter into the hole left by your digging. Using the garden fork, mix this into the soil below.

Put the soil on the tarp back into the hole and level it with a rake. Break up any clods of clay and mix them with the loosened soil. You will have a slightly mounded bed of soil with lots of air mixed in. This will settle over the next few weeks, but don't push it down. Preserve the air spaces.


Things You Will Need

  • Compost, manure, peat moss or other organic matter
  • Shovel
  • Garden fork
  • Tarp
  • Rake


  • Never walk on clay soil if you can avoid it. Healthy root growth as well as good drainage depends on preserving air spaces in the soil. Make paths to get to the plants instead of compacting the bed by walking all over it.


  • You may see gypsum recommended as an additive that helps clay soil drain, but do not add it unless it is recommended as part of a professional soil test report. Gypsum is useful only for certain types of soils, usually those with excess sodium.

About the Author


Over the past 30 years, Mara Grey has sold plants in nurseries, designed gardens and volunteered as a Master Gardener. She is the author of "The Lazy Gardener" and "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Flower Gardening" and has a Bachelor of Science in botany.