Soil Compaction - Prevention, Treatment & Working Around It

Soil Compaction - Prevention, Treatment & Working Around It

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We all want the healthiest plants, trees, and shrubs! And that health comes from the ground beneath your feet! Fluffy, organically rich, well-drained soil is the basis from which all plant health starts!

Improving your soil is also the best defense against soil compaction! Optimal soil holds and conducts water efficiently, stores and releases nutrients better, and provides the air and gasses necessary for healthy plants. While soil compaction can have drastically negativesoil and grass effects on all that and more! 

What is Soil Compaction?

Soil compaction occurs when soil particles are packed together, reducing the air space between them. Heavily compacted soils can lead to stunted, stressed plants because water, nutrients, and roots cannot travel through these hard-caked areas. Compacted soil loses porosity, becomes anaerobic, cannot absorb rainwater, and sheds water too quickly - furthering the effects of erosion.

When it comes to your trees, shrubs and perennials, hardened soil results in diminishing health and their slow, eventual death. Roots cannot grow deep enough and instead grow along the surface of the ground. Resulting in drying out faster, having poor anchoring in wind, and reduced access to stored moisture and nutrients deeper in the earth.

The type of soil, the shape of the grains, the composition of the soil, and the amount of clay present - all contribute to how quickly and easily soil can become compacted. This anaerobic, compressed environment kills off not just roots, but also any microbial and soil-borne microorganisms, earthworms, and anything else that lives in your soil!

How Does It Occur?

One of the worst things you can do to soil is compact it! Anywhere foot traffic, cars, concrete or asphalt, or heavy objects have been sitting - can develop compressed dirt that needs your help before you can successfully plant anything in it! This heavy traffic and pressure squeeze the soil particles together, resulting in compaction. standing on grass

  • Driving over or parking on an area frequently
  • Heavy item storage
  • Foot traffic
  • Over tilling
  • Erosion
  • Rolling your lawn

Rolling your lawn is never recommended as it squashed down the soil particles and traps water and roots at the very surface of the soil. Leaving them high and dry in times of drought and getting baked in the sun.

Preventing Soil Compaction soil

Preventing soil compaction in your yard is easy if you keep the following tips in mind:

  • Don't work with soil when it is too wet - they are particularly susceptible to compaction.
  • Overworking with a tiller actually compacts the soil creating hard-pan
  • Use stepping stones or paths to spread the weight out when walking through an area
  • Keep foot traffic where it belongs
  • Add mulch and organic material to your soil
  • Mulch your trees and shrubs with a 3-4-inch layer of organic mulch year-round
  • Stop erosion - plant shrubs, plants & grass
  • Install a Rain Garden or barrier to detain the water until it can soak in
  • Water your yard regularly (especially during drought) 
  • Use Nature Hills Root Booster to encourage deep root growth and lifelong root health
  • Never roll your lawn!
  • Create designated equipment storage - on pallets or wide stones that spread the weight
  • Use a cover crop to protect and further loosen exposed soil

Adding arborists' mulch chips to the soil surface not only increases the health of your soil but also creates a natural habitat for earth-tilling organisms and as it breaks down, it further adds organic matter to your soil.  Picking up soil

Spread a 3-4 inch layer of mulch around paths and around plants to help hold more moisture. Mulching your ground further holds more moisture, slowing rainwater and allowing it to absorb into the ground! 

How To Reverse Soil Compaction

If your ground has become hard-pan, use a shovel, spade, or even a pickaxe to break up the top three to six inches of soil. Gently turn in organic matter, compost, small amounts of sand, and plenty of mulch into the soil to increase moisture holding capabilities and the soil porosity.

Regular deep watering encourages new root growth and rehydrates all the soil layers. Add earthworms to your newly mixed soil to boost the soil organism community and cover the area with either a cover crop, mulch, or shallow rootedpadding soil plants, grasses, and other 'pioneer plants' that thrive in these conditions. This helps prevent erosion and being baked by the sun.

Some great cover crops and pioneer plant species are:

  • Grasses - Try Buffalograss
  • Moss
  • Bachelor's Button
  • Clover, Radishes, Peas, Oats and Wheat cover crops
  • Daikon Radish drastically aerates and breaks up ground (plus you can eat them! Yum!)
  • Native Wildflowers!
  • The common and amazingly diverse, edible, medicinal, and pollinator-friendly Dandelion
  • Groundcover and Living Mulch perennials
  • Sweet Woodruff  watering soil

Perennials like Mullein aka Verbascum, Turtlehead, Coreopsis, Black Eyed Susan, Creeping Sedum/Stone Crop, Goldenrod, Bee balm, Penstemon and Joe Pye weed. 

Add some FoxFarm Bush Doctor Microbe Brew, earthworms, and Nature Hills Root Booster to help create a lifelong habitat for beneficial organisms under the ground!

Soil Chemistry 101

Soil Cations are a little-known factor in the health of your soil! While beginner gardeners really don't need to know about this chemistry aspect, it does help to know its existence.

Elements have an electrical charge called ions - positively-charged ions are cations and negatively-charged ions are anions. The major soil cations are calcium, magnesium, potassium, ammonium, hydrogen, and sodium, and typical soil anions include chlorine, nitrates,holding soil sulfates, and phosphate. Simply put, your soil's cation exchange capacity (CEC) is the amount of positively charged nutrients that can be held by the soil. Soil with high CEC levels holds more water and nutrients, leading to healthier topsoil. 

These can have a significant impact on soil's ability to hold onto essential nutrients and provides a buffer against acidification and an imbalance can be affected by compaction. Higher soil cations indicate high amounts of clay, poor drainage, and a lack of organic material in heavily-trafficked areas.

You can collect a soil sample for your County Extension Office to test for you.

Compaction and tilling your ground also disrupt what's known as the Capillary Action of the soil, which is the movement of water through the air pockets in the soil by the forces of adhesion, cohesion, and surface tension. Without its usual super highways to move through, water and rain become trapped at the surface and can't percolate into the subsoils. Not to mention all the earthworms you are chopping up in the process!

Combined with knowing your soil's CEC levels, it will help fine-tune any problem areas that aren't fixing themselves with proper care and maintenance.

What To Do If Your Soil Is Too Far Gone? 

Create raised beds and never walk or use heavy equipment on those raised beds. After planting, install a 4-inch layer of arborist wood chips and maintain that depth for excellent results.

Or you can create a patio or seating area in the compacted site and set out some chairs and an umbrella. There are many great ways to container gardens and Patio Gardening in pots and planters instead of in the ground! 

Loosen Up! watering soil

Keep that soil nice and fluffy, well hydrated, and let those roots grow deep! You'll have a more bountiful and happy landscape by taking the necessary precautions to avoid compacting your garden, or fixing that problem area with just a few steps!

Let Nature Hills Nursery help you create a garden environment that will provide you with years of beauty!

Happy Planting!

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