The ability to model and predict the formation of desiccation cracks is potentially beneficial in many applications such as clay liner design, earth dam construction, and crop science, etc. However, most studies have focused on statistical analysis of crack patterns and qualitative study of contributing factors to crack development rather than prediction. Because it is exceedingly difficult to capture the nonlinear processes during desiccation in analytical modelling, most such models handle crack formation without considering variation of material properties with time, and are unattractive to use in realistic modelling. The data obtained from laboratory experiments on clay soil desiccating in moulds were used as a basis to develop a more refined model of desiccation cracking. In this study, the properties, such as matric suction, stiffness and tensile strength of soil, and base adhesion, could be expressed approximately as functions of moisture content. The initial conditions and the development of suction due to desiccation and the varying material properties were inputted to UDEC, a distinct element code, using its internal programming language FISH. The model was able to capture some essential physical aspects of crack evolution in soil contained in moulds with varying lengths, heights, and materials of construction. Extension of this methodology is potentially beneficial not only for modelling desiccation cracking in clay, but also in other systems with evolving material properties such as concrete structures and road pavements. Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.