When I was a kid, we tried to start a little vegetable garden in the backyard…it didn’t really go all that well. One thing that I remember most about that project was the near-constant need for fertilizer.
On one of those bags, I remember seeing gypsum listed in the ingredients section on the back of the bag and found myself wondering about that. If this stuff was supposed to help the plants grow, why was nothing growing?
We’d pick things that require little sunlight and they were well cared for, but nothing really grew in that patch as far as I remember. Were we adding too much or too little fertilizer? Was it possible to add too much?
Exactly how much gypsum should be added to clay soil?
2.2 pounds (1 kilogram) per 10 square feet (1 square meter) of land, mixing it into the first 5 inches 10 – 15 cm of topsoil. Add 2 handfuls to each potted plant.
This breaks up the clay soil and makes it easier to work with. It also leeches excess aluminum and sodium from the ground, and helps prevent rotting in the blossoms of your plants.
What is Gypsum?
Another name for gypsum is calcium sulfate, and it’s used primarily as a fertilizer to leech excess sodium from the ground – replacing it with calcium.
In its native or raw form, it’s a sulfate crystal which is typically mined in Brazil, the USA, the UK, Spain, Thailand, and other places.
What is Clay Soil?
Put simply, clay soil is a type of soil which is heavy in mineral content, but lacking in organic content (meaning there isn’t much organic matter in the soil). It’s sticky and largely impermeable as the mineral structures are so tightly packed together.
As such, it doesn’t drain well, and water tends to form puddles. This means it’s not exactly ideal soil for gardening.
Ideally, you want loamy soil which has a mixture of mineral and organic content. The reason for this is that if you’re trying to grow flowers or vegetables, they won’t grow well in the densely compacted clay; their roots aren’t strong enough to get through it.
Advantages and Disadvantages
Clay soil is very dense and retains moisture well. It also tends to be richer in nutrients than other types of soils.
With that said, however, clay soil is slow to drain and is easily compacted – which may negatively impact your plants. It also tends to be very alkaline.
Why Add Gypsum to Clay Soil?
In agriculture it’s used to change the chemical structure of the soil by, as I mentioned, replacing excess sodium in the ground with calcium and breaking down the mineral components of clay soil to make it easier to work with.
Adding a layer of organic matter (i.e. grass cuttings, leaves, etc.) helps to make it more permeable. You can also detox the soil of your garden if needed by leaching out excess aluminum.
While these are certainly advantageous, there are some problems related to working with gypsum.
Problems with Gypsum
There is a myth around the use of gypsum that it changes the acidity of the soil and improves the fertility of acidic and / or sandy soils; it’s also supposed to improve the water-retaining properties of sandy soil.
Reality is quite different…
- ❌ Leeching the excess aluminum from the soil can detox your soil but it can also contaminate nearby watersheds.
- ❌ It can lead to deficiencies in iron and manganese.
- ❌ It can cause magnesium deficiencies in your plants when applied to acidic soils.
- ❌ Gypsum does not, in fact, improve soil fertility in acidic or sandy soils.
- ❌ It doesn’t improve the water-retaining properties of sandy soils.
- ❌ The effects are short-lived.
What are some Safety Hazards of working with Gypsum?
As far as safety hazards, calcium sulfate, in its solid form, is non-toxic and is an approved food additive. Powdered gypsum is the opposite: it can cause irritation to the skin and mucous membranes of those exposed to it.
How to Add Gypsum to Heavy Clay Soils
Adding gypsum is simple when you know how much to add and how to do it properly.
Before you begin adding gypsum, it’s important to do a soil test first. This will give you an idea of what type of soil structure you have and the soil pH level. Knowing these two things will help determine if adding gypsum is the right choice for your garden or not.
For instance, if your soil pH is already neutral or slightly alkaline, then adding gypsum won’t do much because it’s only an effective soil amendment in acidic soils with a pH lower than 6.5.
However, if your soil is acidic, then adding gypsum can benefit the overall health of your plants by increasing calcium levels in the soil while helping reduce sodium levels as well as improving drainage and aeration in clay-like soils.
Gypsum is a form of calcium sulfate that can come in several different formats, making it easy for gardeners to find the perfect match for their needs.
Gypsum ranges from powdered forms, which dissolve easily and quickly provide soil with all its benefits, to chunks and pellets, which can be scattered among soil and then washed away with regular watering.
Once you know that adding gypsum is right for your garden, then it’s time to calculate how much should be added based on the size of your garden bed or plot of land.
Generally speaking, one pound of gypsum per square foot should be enough for most gardens; however, this can vary depending on how dense or compacted the clay particles are in your specific area.
To get an accurate calculation, contact a local agricultural expert who can visit your garden and provide more detailed information about the amount that would work best for your situation.
You can purchase gypsum from your local garden store in bags or buckets, and incorporate it into the soil by tilling or spaying.
Work the gypsum into the top six to eight inches of soil. Once added, you should see increased plant growth within several weeks. To spread the gypsum, you can rent spreaders from your local lawn and garden store or simply spread it by hand.
After you have applied gypsum to your garden, it is important to water your plants. By irrigating the area, you can help ensure that the gypsum penetrates the soil and prevents erosion and runoff.
Doing this will also allow for the best absorption of nutrients leading to healthy plant growth in the future. Additionally, irrigation helps reduce salt levels in the soil and reduce compaction.
The best time of the year to spread gypsum is in late fall or early winter. Doing so allows beneficial elements and minerals to be absorbed into the soil over the winter, giving your gardens and grass a growth boost that won’t go unnoticed come spring.
Gypsum use also improves water infiltration, allowing gardeners to conserve water usage with fewer applications – perfect for areas with water restrictions.
Applying gypsum in late fall also ensures ample time for it to break down before you’re ready to plant in May or June, maximizing the peak benefit of its properties.
What if you don’t want or can’t use gypsum? Fortunately, there are several alternatives that can be used in place of gypsum for improving your soil. Let’s take a look at some of them.
Adding organic matter is one of the simplest and most effective ways to improve the quality of your soil.
Adding materials such as compost, manure, leaves, grass clippings, and other organic material helps increase the fertility and water retention capacity of your soil while also increasing its microbial activity.
This helps create a healthier environment for plants and increases their chances of flourishing. Organic matter should be added on a regular basis; once every two weeks is ideal.
Peat moss is made from decomposed plant material and has been used as an amendment for centuries, mainly because it has excellent water-holding capabilities. It also helps improve air circulation in the soil which allows oxygen to reach plant roots more easily.
Peat moss is best used when mixed with other amendments since it does not provide many nutrients on its own. It should also be applied sparingly because peat moss can become compacted over time and become difficult for plants to grow in.
Vermiculite is a micaceous mineral that looks like mica flakes when dry but expands when wetted with water.
It improves drainage by allowing excess water to pass through without becoming compacted or soggy, which can damage plants’ roots by suffocating them or by encouraging fungal growth and disease.
Vermiculite also helps retain moisture which makes it easier for plants to absorb water and essential nutrients more efficiently. Additionally, vermiculite contains magnesium and potassium which are both beneficial elements in healthy soils.
For best results, experts recommend spreading gypsum at least once per year. The best time to spread it is usually early in the spring before any crops have been planted.
While repeating adding gypsum more than once a year won’t yield more benefits, it will improve effectiveness if you spread it on freshly tilled soil and follow tight rotational times for your crop cycles.
Gypsum can also be useful in double-crop plans since it allows soils to receive extra nutrients later in the season.
The answer greatly depends on a variety of factors including the type of soil being treated and the quantity of gypsum used. That said, it usually takes between one to four months for gypsum to start breaking down in the soil and for its effects to become noticeable.
You should be careful when using gypsum as too much of it can have adverse effects on your crops or plants. When used in excessive amounts, gypsum can reduce the pH of soil, meaning plants don’t get the nutrients they need to grow.
Additionally, if applied too often it can affect the structure and porosity of the soil by reducing drainage or air circulation.
It’s important to speak to a specialist or consult information from reliable sources before you decide how much gypsum to use on your soil; following guidelines carefully can ensure your plants receive all the relevant nutrients needed for optimal growth.
Okay, so to recap:
- Using gypsum in clay soil changes the soil’s chemical structure by breaking up the mineral particles, and making the soil more permeable.
- You can use it to detox your soil, but it may contaminate nearby watersheds.
- It can cause mineral deficiencies.
- It doesn’t improve the fertility of either acidic or sandy soils.
- It doesn’t improve the ability of sandy soils to retain moisture.
- The effects that gypsum has are short-lived and you’ll have to apply it more than once.
Greg spent most of his childhood in camping grounds and on hiking trails. While he lives in the suburbs nowadays, Greg was raised on a small farm with chickens. He’s a decent shot with a bow, and a huge knife enthusiast. Find out more about Greg.