How To Plant In Clay Soil [ Full Guide ]

Clay soil can be a challenge for gardeners due to its heavy, dense, and slow-draining nature. However, with the right approach and understanding, you can successfully cultivate a thriving garden in clay soil. In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the nuances of working with clay soil, from understanding its composition and characteristics to testing and improving it, selecting suitable plants, and executing best practices for planting. Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned gardener, these insights and tips will equip you with the knowledge to effectively plant and maintain a lush garden in clay soil.

Quick Answer: How To Plant In Clay Soil

Planting in clay soil involves several key steps:

  1. Understand the characteristics and challenges of clay soil.
  2. Test the clay content of your soil.
  3. Prepare the soil by incorporating organic matter to improve its structure and drainage.
  4. Select plants that are well-suited to clay soil conditions.
  5. Implement best planting practices to ensure the success of your garden.

Understanding Clay Soil

Clay soil is characterized by its fine particle size and high level of cohesion, causing it to retain water and become compacted easily. Its dense nature hinders the movement of air, water, and plant roots, often leading to poor drainage and a tendency to become waterlogged. While clay soil can be challenging to work with, it also offers some benefits, such as excellent nutrient retention and fertility.

Understanding the unique properties of clay soil is essential for successful gardening. It is important to recognize that heavy clay soil is slow to warm up in the spring and prone to becoming extremely hard and cracked during dry spells. Moreover, its tendency to become waterlogged can suffocate plant roots and promote the development of root diseases.

Testing Your Soil’s Clay Content

Before embarking on any gardening endeavors in clay soil, it’s crucial to assess the clay content of your soil. Understanding the specific composition of your soil will guide you in selecting the most appropriate amendments and plants for your garden.

Conducting A Jar Test

One commonly used method for determining soil composition is the jar test. Follow these steps to conduct a basic jar test:

  1. Fill a clear jar with a soil sample, leaving at least an inch of space at the top.
  2. Add water to the jar, leaving some room for shaking.
  3. Shake the jar vigorously to mix the soil and water thoroughly.
  4. Allow the jar to sit undisturbed for several hours to allow the soil particles to settle.
  5. The soil particles will settle into distinct layers based on their size, with sand settling at the bottom, followed by silt, and then clay on top.

By observing the distinct layers that form in the jar, you can estimate the percentage of clay, silt, and sand in your soil. This information will guide you in making informed decisions regarding soil amendments and plant selection.

Preparing Your Soil For Planting

Improving the structure and drainage of clay soil is crucial for creating a hospitable environment for plants. This involves incorporating organic matter and implementing cultivation practices that promote aeration and drainage.

Incorporating Organic Matter

The addition of organic matter is a fundamental step in preparing clay soil for planting. Organic matter, such as compost, well-rotted manure, and leaf mold, helps to improve soil structure, enhance drainage, and provide essential nutrients for plant growth. When incorporating organic matter into clay soil, aim to add a generous amount to effectively amend the soil.

To incorporate organic matter into clay soil:

  1. Spread a layer of organic matter (compost, aged manure, or leaf mold) over the soil surface.
  2. Use a garden fork or tiller to work the organic matter into the soil to a depth of at least 6-8 inches.
  3. Ensure that the organic matter is evenly distributed throughout the soil to promote uniform improvement.

By amending clay soil with organic matter, you can enhance its water-holding capacity while preventing excessive compaction, thereby creating a more hospitable environment for plant roots.

Aeration And Drainage

In addition to incorporating organic matter, promoting aeration and drainage in clay soil is vital for successful gardening. Compacted clay soil limits the movement of air and water, hindering root growth and overall plant health. Implement the following practices to improve aeration and drainage:

  1. Loosening the Soil: Use a garden fork to gently loosen the soil, particularly in areas of compacted clay. Avoid excessive tilling, as this can disrupt soil structure and lead to compaction.

  2. Building Raised Beds: Consider creating raised beds to improve drainage and prevent waterlogging in clay soil. Raised beds allow for better control of soil composition and moisture levels, promoting healthier root development.

  3. Implementing Contour Planting: Utilize contour planting techniques, such as terracing or gentle slopes, to minimize water runoff and enhance water absorption in clay soil.

By employing these strategies, you can cultivate improved soil structure and encourage better aeration and drainage, setting the stage for successful planting in clay soil.

Choosing Plants That Thrive In Clay Soil

Selecting plants that are well-adapted to clay soil conditions is essential for creating a flourishing garden. Certain plant species have evolved to thrive in the unique challenges posed by clay soil, demonstrating resilience and vitality in these environments.

Perennials For Clay Soil

When selecting perennials for clay soil, consider the following options:

  1. Astilbe: Known for its feathery plumes of flowers, astilbe thrives in moist, shady conditions often found in clay soil.
  2. Daylilies: These hardy perennials are well-suited to clay soil and offer a wide range of colors and bloom times.
  3. Sedum: With its drought tolerance and attractive succulent foliage, sedum is an excellent choice for clay soil.

Shrubs For Clay Soil

When choosing shrubs for clay soil, consider the following options:

  1. Viburnum: These versatile shrubs offer attractive blooms and foliage while tolerating clay soil conditions.
  2. Ninebark: Known for its colorful foliage and durable nature, ninebark is well-adapted to clay soil.
  3. Beautyberry: This ornamental shrub features vibrant berries and thrives in the moist environment of clay soil.

Trees For Clay Soil

Selecting trees that can thrive in clay soil is vital for establishing a robust landscape:

  1. River Birch: This adaptable tree tolerates moist conditions and clay soil, offering attractive bark and foliage.
  2. Serviceberry: With its delicate spring blooms and autumn berries, serviceberry is well-suited to clay soil.
  3. Japanese Maple: These ornamental trees bring elegance to clay soil gardens with their distinctive foliage and form.

Vegetables And Herbs For Clay Soil

While clay soil presents challenges for growing vegetables and herbs, some varieties can thrive in these conditions:

  1. Potatoes: Certain potato varieties, like Yukon Gold and Kennebec, can perform well in clay soil if it is adequately amended and drained.
  2. Thyme: This fragrant herb can thrive in clay soil, especially when it is planted in well-drained areas or raised beds.

Choosing plants that are naturally adapted to clay soil conditions greatly increases the likelihood of successful growth and reduces the need for extensive soil modifications.

Planting in clay soil requires a thoughtful approach that encompasses soil assessment, improvement, plant selection, and best gardening practices. By understanding the challenges and opportunities presented by clay soil, you can transform your garden into a thriving and vibrant oasis. Through the incorporation of organic matter, strategic planting, and careful cultivation, you can harness the potential of clay soil and enjoy a diverse array of plants that flourish in its unique environment. With the knowledge and insights gained from this guide, you are well-equipped to embark on a rewarding gardening journey in clay soil, nurturing a landscape that will captivate and inspire for years to come.

Proper Drainage And Irrigation

Clay soil is composed of tiny particles that have a tendency to compact, leading to poor drainage and aeration. This can make it challenging to grow plants successfully. However, with the right techniques and amendments, it is possible to improve the quality of clay soil and create a healthy environment for your plants to thrive.

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One of the primary issues with clay soil is its poor drainage. Clay particles are so small that they pack densely together, leaving little room for water to pass through. This can lead to waterlogged soil and suffocate plant roots. To combat this issue, proper drainage and irrigation are crucial.

Installing Drainage Systems

If your clay soil suffers from severe drainage problems, you may need to install a drainage system to facilitate water movement. French drains are a popular choice for this purpose. They consist of a gravel-filled trench that redirects excess water away from the soil. To install a French drain, follow these steps:

  1. Determine the location of the drain: Identify the area in your garden where water tends to accumulate the most. This is where you should install the drain.
  2. Dig a trench: Dig a trench approximately 1-foot deep and wide enough to accommodate a perforated plastic drainpipe.
  3. Add gravel: Fill the bottom of the trench with a layer of gravel.
  4. Place the drainpipe: Lay the perforated plastic drainpipe on top of the gravel, ensuring it runs the full length of the trench. Make sure the holes in the pipe are facing down to allow water to enter.
  5. Cover with gravel: Fill the rest of the trench with gravel, ensuring that it completely covers the pipe.
  6. Cover with topsoil: Fill the trench with the topsoil that was removed when digging the trench, leveling it with the surrounding soil.

Proper Irrigation Techniques

In addition to installing drainage systems, proper irrigation techniques are essential for healthy plants in clay soil. Here are a few guidelines to follow:

  1. Water deeply: Rather than watering lightly and frequently, it is better to water deeply to encourage deep root growth. This ensures the roots can access water even during dry periods. Watering deeply also helps to leach out excess salts that can accumulate in clay soil.

  2. Water slowly: Clay soil absorbs water slowly due to its compact nature. To prevent runoff and allow the water to penetrate the soil, use a slow and steady flow of water when irrigating.

  3. Use drip irrigation: Drip irrigation is particularly effective in clay soil. It delivers water directly to the root zone, minimizing water loss through evaporation and reducing the risk of overwatering. Drip irrigation also helps avoid water contact with plant foliage, reducing the risk of diseases.

  4. Monitor soil moisture: Regularly check the moisture level of the soil to avoid both overwatering and underwatering. Insert a finger or a soil moisture meter into the soil to determine if it is dry or moist.

Amending Clay Soil With Organic Matter

Amending clay soil with organic matter is crucial to improve its texture and fertility. Organic matter helps to break up the compacted clay particles, allowing for better drainage and aeration. Additionally, it adds essential nutrients to the soil, promoting healthy plant growth. Here are several ways to amend clay soil with organic matter:


Compost is an excellent amendment for clay soil. It improves soil structure, increases nutrient content, enhances water-holding capacity, and promotes beneficial microbial activity. To amend clay soil with compost, follow these steps:

  1. Spread a 2-3 inch layer of compost over the surface of the soil.
  2. Use a garden fork or a tiller to incorporate the compost into the top 6-8 inches of soil.
  3. Repeat this process annually to continue improving the soil quality.

Cover Crops

Cover crops, such as winter rye or clover, can also be used to amend clay soil. They help break up compacted soil and add organic matter when turned into the soil. Here’s how to utilize cover crops:

  1. Choose a cover crop suitable for your region and the time of year.
  2. Plant the cover crop according to the instructions provided by the seed supplier.
  3. Allow the cover crop to grow and develop for the recommended period.
  4. Cut down the cover crop and incorporate it into the soil using a tiller or garden fork. Leave the cover crop residue on the soil surface as a mulch layer.

Organic Matter Amendments

Aside from compost and cover crops, there are other organic matter amendments that can be beneficial for clay soil. These include well-rotted manure, leaf mold, and peat moss. However, it is essential to use organic matter amendments sparingly and ensure they are fully decomposed before applying them to the soil.

Mulching Techniques For Clay Soil

Mulching is important for conserving moisture, suppressing weed growth, moderating soil temperature, and improving overall soil health. In clay soil, using the right mulching techniques is crucial to maintaining optimal moisture levels and preventing compaction. Here are some effective mulching techniques for clay soil:

Organic Mulch

Organic mulch, such as wood chips, straw, or shredded leaves, is an excellent option for clay soil. It gradually breaks down over time, adding organic matter to the soil. When applying organic mulch to clay soil, follow these guidelines:

  1. Apply a layer of organic mulch approximately 2-4 inches thick around plants, leaving a gap around the base of each plant to prevent moisture accumulation and insect damage.
  2. Ensure the mulch extends beyond the dripline of the plants to cover the entire root zone.
  3. Avoid piling the mulch against the stems or trunks of plants, as this can lead to rot and pest issues.
  4. Replenish the mulch as needed to maintain the desired thickness.

Inorganic Mulch

Inorganic mulch, such as stone or gravel, can also be used in clay soil. While it does not break down like organic mulch, it still provides similar benefits. When using inorganic mulch on clay soil, follow these steps:

  1. Clean the area from debris and unwanted plants before applying the inorganic mulch.
  2. Lay a layer of landscape fabric or geotextile over the soil to prevent weed growth.
  3. Spread the gravel or stone mulch evenly over the fabric, ensuring it covers the desired area.
  4. Avoid piling the mulch too deeply, as this can prevent water from reaching the soil.

Fertilizing In Clay Soil

Clay soil tends to retain nutrients better than sandy soil but can also be more challenging for plants to access them. Fertilizing in clay soil requires careful consideration of nutrient availability and proper timing. Here are some tips for fertilizing in clay soil:

Soil Testing

Before fertilizing, it is essential to know the nutrient levels and pH of your clay soil. Conduct a soil test to determine any deficiencies or imbalances. This will help guide you in choosing the appropriate fertilizers and amendments.

Slow-Release Fertilizers

Slow-release fertilizers are highly recommended for clay soil. They gradually release nutrients over time, providing a steady supply to plants. These fertilizers are less likely to leach away in heavy rainfall or become compacted in the soil.

Organic Fertilizers

Organic fertilizers, derived from natural sources, are an excellent choice for clay soil. They improve soil structure, provide slow-release nutrients, and enhance the overall health of the soil. Examples of organic fertilizers include compost, fish emulsion, bone meal, and blood meal.

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Avoid Excessive Nitrogen

While nitrogen is essential for plant growth, excessive nitrogen can be detrimental in clay soil. It can promote excessive foliage growth at the expense of flower or fruit development. Additionally, too much nitrogen can lead to nutrient imbalances and affect soil pH. It is crucial to follow the recommended application rates for nitrogen fertilizers.

Watering Techniques In Clay Soil

Watering techniques in clay soil require careful attention to prevent waterlogging and allow for efficient water absorption by plant roots. Here are some watering techniques to follow when dealing with clay soil:

Deep And Infrequent Watering

Clay soil benefits from deep, infrequent watering. Instead of applying small amounts of water frequently, water deeply to encourage the roots to grow deeper into the soil. This promotes healthier and more drought-resistant plants. Aim to water clay soil to a depth of 6-8 inches.

Irrigation Scheduling

To determine the frequency and duration of watering, consider the climate, plant water needs, and the level of moisture retention in your clay soil. Remember that clay soil retains moisture longer than other soil types, so you may need to adjust your watering schedule accordingly.

Implement Watering Techniques To Prevent Runoff

Clay soil has a high potential for runoff due to its compact nature. To prevent water from running off the surface without being absorbed, use techniques like slow and even watering or employing drip irrigation. These methods allow water to penetrate the soil more effectively.

Monitor Soil Moisture

Regularly monitor the soil moisture to ensure plants receive adequate hydration without being overwatered. Check the moisture level by sticking your finger or a soil moisture meter into the soil. Avoid watering if the soil is still moist. Overwatering can lead to root rot and other plant health issues.

Planting in clay soil may present challenges, but with the right techniques, these challenges can be overcome. By focusing on proper drainage and irrigation, amending the clay soil with organic matter, using effective mulching techniques, fertilizing appropriately, and implementing smart watering methods, you can create a healthy environment for your plants to thrive. Remember that improving clay soil is an ongoing process, and with time and patience, you can achieve a flourishing garden.

Protecting Your Plants From Common Issues In Clay Soil

Clay soil can present some challenges for gardeners due to its dense and compact nature. However, with the right techniques and care, it is still possible to create a thriving garden in clay soil.

Clay soil has a tendency to become compacted, which can limit drainage and hinder root development. To protect your plants from these common issues, here are a few steps to follow:

1. Improve Drainage

One of the initial steps in planting in clay soil is to improve drainage. This can be done by incorporating organic matter into the soil. Organic matter, such as compost or well-rotted manure, helps to break up the clay particles and create space for air and water movement.

To improve drainage, spread a layer of organic matter, about 2-3 inches thick, over the top of the soil. Then, using a garden fork or a tiller, work the organic matter into the top 6-8 inches of the soil. This will help to create a loose and crumbly texture, allowing water to drain more efficiently.

2. Create Raised Beds

Another effective way to protect your plants in clay soil is to create raised beds. Raised beds provide better drainage and prevent the soil from compacting. They also make it easier to amend and work the soil.

To create a raised bed, mark out the desired area and remove any existing grass or plants. Build a frame using rot-resistant lumber or stone, making sure it is at least 6-8 inches tall. Fill the frame with a mixture of topsoil and compost, which will provide a loose and fertile growing medium for your plants. Remember to regularly water your raised beds, as they can dry out more quickly than in-ground plantings.

3. Use Mulch

Mulching is an effective way to protect plants in clay soil from extreme temperature variations and moisture loss. Organic mulch, such as straw, wood chips, or shredded leaves, not only helps to regulate soil temperature, but also retains moisture, reduces weed growth, and improves overall soil structure over time.

Apply a 2-3-inch layer of mulch around your plants, making sure to leave a small gap around the stem or trunk to prevent rot. Replenish the mulch as needed, especially after heavy rain or whenever it begins to break down.

4. Avoid Overwatering

While it is important to provide adequate moisture to your plants, overwatering can be detrimental in clay soil. Excessive water can lead to waterlogged roots and poor drainage, resulting in root rot and various diseases.

To avoid overwatering, check the moisture level of your soil regularly. Insert your finger into the soil up to your knuckle. If it feels moist, hold off on watering. If it feels dry, it’s time to water.

Water deeply and infrequently to encourage a deep root system. This will help the plants access water deeper in the soil and reduce the risk of surface puddling and compaction.

Maintaining Your Clay Soil Garden

After protecting your plants from common issues, it is important to maintain your clay soil garden to ensure the long-term health and productivity of your plants. Here are some maintenance tips to follow:

1. Regularly Amend And Mulch

Clay soil can become compacted over time, and it is necessary to continually amend and improve the soil structure. Add organic matter, such as compost or well-rotted manure, to your garden beds annually to maintain soil fertility and structure.

Additionally, regularly replenish the mulch in your garden beds. As the mulch breaks down, it adds more organic matter to the soil, improving its texture and promoting a healthy ecosystem for beneficial soil organisms.

2. Practice Crop Rotation

Crop rotation is a vital practice to prevent the buildup of pests and diseases in your clay soil garden. Different plants have varying nutrient requirements and can leave behind different residues that affect soil health.

Rotate your crops every year, ideally in a three- to four-year cycle, to prevent depletion of specific nutrients in the soil or the spread of pests and diseases. For instance, if you grew tomatoes in one bed this year, plant a different family of vegetables, such as leafy greens or legumes, in that same bed the following year.

3. Implement Terracing Or Contouring

To prevent erosion and retain water in your clay soil garden, consider implementing terracing or contouring techniques. These methods involve creating small, level areas on sloping ground, which help to slow down water runoff and promote better infiltration and water retention.

Terracing can be achieved by constructing walls, using stones or timber, to create flat planting areas. Contouring involves shaping the soil into gentle curves following the contour lines of the land. Both techniques minimize erosion and help retain moisture in sloping gardens.

4. Regularly Test And Amend Soil Ph

Clay soil tends to have a more alkaline pH, which can affect nutrient availability to plants. Regularly test your soil’s pH level using a home testing kit or send a sample to a local agricultural extension office for a comprehensive analysis.

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If the pH level is too high, meaning the soil is too alkaline, you can lower it by adding elemental sulfur or acidifying organic materials, such as pine needles or coffee grounds. On the other hand, if the pH level is too low, adding lime can help raise it to a more neutral level.

Additional Tips And Tricks For Growing In Clay Soil

In addition to the previously mentioned techniques, here are some additional tips and tricks to help you successfully grow plants in clay soil:

1. Choose Plants That Thrive In Clay Soil

When deciding which plants to grow in clay soil, it is important to choose ones that are well-suited to these conditions. Some plants that thrive in clay soil include:

  • Shrubs: Redtwig dogwood (Cornus sericea), Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius), and Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia).
  • Perennials: Coneflowers (Echinacea spp.), Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia spp.), and Daylilies (Hemerocallis spp.).
  • Ornamental Grasses: Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides), and Feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora).

These plants have adapted to the heavy and compacted soil, making them better equipped to thrive in clay conditions.

2. Time Your Planting

Timing your planting can significantly improve the chances of success in clay soil. It is important to wait until the soil has warmed up and dried out sufficiently in the spring before planting. Working the soil while it is too wet can lead to compaction and damage the soil structure.

Additionally, consider planting in the fall for certain crops. Fall planting allows the roots to establish themselves before the next growing season, giving the plants a head start in the following spring.

3. Implement Deep Planting And Gentle Watering

When planting in clay soil, it is beneficial to dig holes that are slightly larger and deeper than the rootball of the plant. This allows the roots to penetrate the surrounding soil more easily and develop a strong foundation.

After planting, water the newly installed plants gently and thoroughly. Use a slow, steady stream of water to gradually moisten the soil, allowing it to penetrate deeply. This encourages the roots to grow down into the soil rather than staying near the surface.

4. Consider Companion Planting

Companion planting, the practice of growing different plant species together for mutual benefits, can be particularly useful in clay soil gardens. Some plants have root systems that help break up the soil, improving its structure and preventing compaction.

For example, planting deep-rooted vegetables like carrots or parsnips alongside shallow-rooted plants like lettuce or radishes can help improve soil drainage and aeration. Additionally, certain plants, such as legumes, add nitrogen to the soil through a natural process called nitrogen fixation, benefiting neighboring plants.

Troubleshooting Common Clay Soil Problems

Despite your best efforts, clay soil can present a few common problems that may require troubleshooting. Here are a few common issues and how to address them:

1. Poor Drainage

If you find that your plants are consistently suffering due to poor drainage in clay soil, consider installing drainage systems. French drains, for example, are trenches filled with gravel or stone that redirect excess water away from the planting areas.

Ensure that the drains are situated at a slight downward slope, leading water away from the garden. This will prevent waterlogging and help establish better drainage conditions.

2. Nutrient Imbalances

Clay soil can trap nutrients and make them less available to plants. Regularly monitor your soil’s nutrient levels through soil testing. This will help you identify any specific deficiencies or imbalances that need to be addressed.

To correct nutrient imbalances, add organic amendments like compost, well-rotted manure, or specific fertilizers based on your soil test results. These amendments will provide a variety of nutrients and improve overall soil fertility.

3. Soil Compaction

If you notice that the clay soil in your garden is becoming compacted over time, there are a few steps you can take to address this issue. Aerate the soil by using a garden fork or a mechanical aerator, which will create channels for air and water to penetrate.

You can also incorporate gypsum into the soil, which helps to break up the compacted particles. Apply gypsum at a rate recommended by the manufacturer and water the area thoroughly afterward.

4. Weed Growth

Weeds can be particularly persistent in clay soil due to its fertile nature. To effectively control weeds, implement a few strategies:

  • Apply a layer of organic mulch around plants to suppress weed growth.
  • Use a hoe or hand tools to remove weeds regularly, before they have a chance to set seed.
  • Consider applying pre-emergent herbicides in early spring to prevent weed germination.

Be mindful of the herbicides you use, as some can harm desirable plants. Always read and follow the label instructions carefully.


With the right techniques and care, planting in clay soil can be successful. By improving drainage, protecting plants from common issues, maintaining and improving the soil’s condition, and troubleshooting any problems, you can create a thriving garden in clay soil. Remember to choose plants adapted to these conditions, time your planting properly, and implement strategies like composting and mulching to improve overall soil health. With patience and persistence, your clay soil garden can become a beautiful and productive oasis.


What Is Clay Soil And Why Is It Important To Understand It Before Planting?

Clay soil is a heavy and dense type of soil that is defined by its fine particles and high water retention. It is important to understand clay soil because it can significantly impact plant growth and health, and proper preparation is necessary for successful gardening.

How Can I Determine If My Soil Is Clay Or Not?

To determine if your soil is clay, you can perform a simple test by squeezing a small amount of soil in your hand. If the soil easily forms a ball and feels sticky, it is mostly likely clay. You can also send a soil sample to a local extension office for a more accurate analysis.

Is It Possible To Improve Clay Soil For Planting?

Yes, with proper amendments and techniques, clay soil can be improved for planting. The key is to add organic matter, such as compost or aged manure, which will help break up the clay and improve its drainage and nutrient content.

What Type Of Plants Grow Well In Clay Soil?

Some plants that thrive in clay soil include shrubs like azaleas and rhododendrons, herbaceous perennials like daylilies and hostas, and vegetables like kale and broccoli. It is important to choose plants that are tolerant of heavy and wet soils.

How Should I Prepare The Soil For Planting In Clay Soil?

It is important to prepare the soil properly before planting in clay soil. This includes loosening the soil with a garden fork or tiller, adding organic matter, and incorporating fertilizers and soil amendments. It is also recommended to create raised beds or mounded areas for better drainage.