Optimal soil composition for water retention

In my new garden I have now replaced the soil of about half the beds with either manure, composted wood chips, or soil from my other garden which was itself once 100% compost. The original soil was extreme sand. Right now it is sandy loam and it will improve further.
I am mostly interested in water retention, because I like these $100 water bills less and less. With the other beds, when I change the soil, should I go 100% compost or 50% compost-50% clay (which I can pick up from my neighbor). In other words, is 100% compost always the best for water, or given that the organic content is high anyway, go with some clay as well? Obviously, no matter what I do, some sand will always be in there as the earthworms churn and mix the various components.
In my other garden, by the way, I have seen that when a lump of clay comes in (mixed with the manure) it does disappear in the soil in a matter of 1-2 years, so adding clay in a loamy soil can be done.
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I wonder if you could add the powdered form that commercial clay comes in for school art classes? I remember having to mix our own from powder and water, and knead it into something usable for throwing pots, back in the 1960s. Anyway, if you were to mix the clay powder evenly with the sand, that would be a lot more efficient (and better distributed) than lumpy clay.
~REZ~
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In a 25X25 garden? that would cost a fortune. The lumps do dissipate, and there are ways to make them dissipate faster (like, planting veggies with tough roots in those beds the first year). Basically, it boils down to whether a mixed loam holds water better than sand and compost alone. There are also veggies that dislike sandy soil, that I could then grow more easily.
Holding water is probably a complex problem. There are micropores, which retain water if the surface tension somehow makes it stay there (that is, if they are not too big pores). And organic matter does absorb water, though for how long I do not know.
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[powdered clay]

Not really. Clay tailings are made into cat litter and sold at a serious profit, so there's your price guide. Or you could just use the very cheapest cat litter (essentially clay), at about $4 for 50 lbs. It shouldn't take much and the granule size should be good for mixing.

What have you found dislikes sandy soil? Our so-called soil here is pure sand, with absolutely nothing else unless I add it myself. (And people wonder why I covet their bags of lawn clippings :) That goes down about 6 feet, then there's a rock-hard layer of adobe. -- It's also very alkaline due to the high calcium content (you can make concrete with my well water, no need to buy cement mix :)

I used to make soil from sawdust and any strong nitrogen fertilizer -- after a couple years it was wonderful for anything, and held water great without being soggy. Can't use sawdust here, tho, because it attracts the ground termites (hard to believe, but the desert is loaded with 'em), and they don't need any encouragement. :(
~REZ~
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well, anything that needs water regularly. I am not at home all the time. Tomatoes and cabbage definitely prefer denser soil. Favas and radicchios, even though both have strong tap roots, grow poorly in sandy soil. Lettuce prefers denser, and so do cardoon, garlic, arugula, and chard. I am better off giving you a list of what appears to do OK in sandy: some cucurbitas, pole beans, carrots and onions (if you water them), parsnips. Herbs do reasonably well in sandy soil.
for your soil, it looks perfect for massive amounts of wood chips. my front beds only ever got one foot of wood chips and they are completely self-sustained (no water, no fertilizer, blooming year after year). too bad for the termites.
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I'm here most of the time... I find I have to water young seedlings several times a day, or between desert sun and high winds, they get dessicated down to nothing in a matter of hours.

That's almost exactly opposite of my experience here! Tomatoes grow like weeds, and cauliflower gets huge so I expect cabbage might do well too. Onions do well behind my house where it's too hot and dry for anything else. Lettuce gets weird and bitter, and bolts almost immediately as soon as the first leaves appear, even before the summer heat hits. Carrots and other root veggies turn out absolutely awful, small and bitter. Potatoes are small and flavourless. Corn won't grow at all. Peas do okay, but beans aren't real happy. Zucchini of course cannot be discouraged with a blowtorch, and I've had a watermelon hit 38 pounds as of the 2nd week of June. Tuscan rosemary does well (and will grow into a tree if you let it), but other kitchen herbs (including other types of rosemary) look rather abused.
On the other end of the garden, I think my volunteer petunias are scheming to take over the world! They are HUGE, and bloom in all sorts of unlikely colours (and odd textures -- including wrinkled?!) -- I've seen a recommendation of using petunias as a boundary to keep pests out of veggie gardens, because they are toxic and nothing eats them. The Starving Attack Rabbits certainly don't touch 'em.

Yeah, that would be wonderful if it weren't for the ground termites. I've even had termites get into soil that was made from sawdust, apparently it still had enough cellulose to attract them. (They even eat old weed stems if they're in contact with the ground. Talk about desperate!)
~REZ~
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Rez said:

And I've had rabbits feed on petunia flowers (not the leaves, just the flowers). As has my friend in Novi.
They are oddly inconsistant critters from place to place (and maybe from year to year). Some people claim they will eat Asiatic lilies to nubs while the ones in Plymouth never touch them (and the ones in Shelby Township used to chew through the base and just eat the flowers). Some years they relish Achillea leaves, most years they don't.
Well, I just hope they don't eat the New England asters down to nubs while I'm gone...
--
Pat in Plymouth MI ('someplace.net' is comcast)

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Kiewicz) wrote:

Yeah, that's true -- we've had them eat all sorts of stuff they are not supposed to like, yet they can't be bothered to mow the lawn despite that grass is supposed to be their primary food. Stupid rabbits, make up my mind....
I have noticed that having a tomcat around has helped a lot -- probably cuz he sprays the woodpile where the rabbits used to live. :D
~REZ~
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There are some pseudo-organic choices. I add those water retention crystals(Soil Moist or another brand). I mix them fully into the soil, down to 18" when I turn out soil for new beds. The ones I bought last five years and break down into potassium. I also use peat moss and perlite/mvermiculite since they are all considered good water-retention materials. I mix all of them fully through the root zone, not just the top 3-6 inches. .

DiGiTAL ViNYL (no email) Zone 6b/7, Westchester Co, NY, <1 mile off L.I.Sound 3rd year gardener http://pg.photos.yahoo.com/ph/royalfrazier/album?.dir=/2055&.src=ph
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I was told by someone in my area that clay soil actually retains water better than any other type. The soil here is mostly clay so I add a lot of leaf mulch and manure to it.
A loamy/sandy soil doesn't retain water well but has some benefits when watering. That is it absorbs the water much better than a clay soil. By the time the soil needs watering here the surface absorbs water so slowly that a lot is lost to runoff and evaporation.
So for you I would say yes to adding some clay to your soil. A good mix of clay, manure, compost, wood chips, leaf mulch, and the already present sand would do just fine (and maybe some lime if your soil is too acidic).
Lumps of clay are fine as long as they aren't too large. My garden has lumps about the size of a marble after some deep and thorough tilling that I did this spring when I added to my soil.
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Thanks to all. I think I found the answer - compost is better than clay but not by much. So the fill will be done with manure and wood chips but no clay
http://ianrpubs.unl.edu/fieldcrops/g964.htm
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Neat. Lots of other good info upstream, too -- try starting at http://ianrpubs.unl.edu/horticulture /
~REZ~
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Seems to me like a job for "Mr. Wizard", that is, an experiment. How about mixing up two batches that represent your ideals of tilth. Put one in a 5 gallon drywall bucket with holes punched in the bottom. Add a measured amount of water to saturate the soil. Place bucket over something to catch the water that passes through. Measure water and repeat for the other mixture(s). Make your choice.
It is worth recalling that many clay soils offer better retention of minerals and other ions in the soil as they tend to bind to the surface of the clay particles. Our local black clay has the consistency of heavy bearing grease went wet and concrete when dry. Mixed with enough (a lot, believe me) of organic matter, it is pretty good gardening soil. What passes for "loam" hereabouts (Central Texas) is really just a mixture of red clay and river silt. It is about as fertile as growing in a pot of marbles in my experience.

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good idea and worth doing but if you toss chunks of clay and compost in a bed it will take them a couple years to form the final soil. At any rate it is clear there is no large difference, ad even for mineral retention, I bet old compost is similar to clay. I will add compost simply because it is easier for me to shovel manure than to dig clay, plus with the manure I do not need to fertilize for a couple of years, and in the past I have been happy with the performance of a manure bed covered with a thin layer of wood chips (no fertilizing, no weeding).
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