Compacted soil is the bane of many gardener’s existences. It’s impossible to dig into, water and nutrients won’t penetrate, and therefore, nothing grows.
Compacted soil is usually an indicator of high clay content in your soil. Soil with a high clay content is ideal for use as a building material but not so great when you try to garden. Not when it’s compacted, anyway.
The good news is that loosening compacted soil can be done, it’s not difficult if you do it the right way, and it’ll release all those nutrients that have been unavailable and locked up in the clay. It takes a bit of time, but the results are worth it.
- Tiller (can be rented)
- Paper/cardboard/organic matter
- Daikon radish seeds (optional)
Step One: Observe
Before you do anything, observe the compacted area. The goal here is not to just stare into the distance but to understand why the soil is compacted.
It might be something obvious. Is this a high-traffic area? Was there a heavy object for a long time? Do you park your mower here in summer?
It might be less obvious. Maybe it’s the only patch of sun in your yard for a few hours each day, so it’s a popular place for pets to lounge.
The idea here is to understand how the soil ended up compacted so that it doesn’t happen again after all your hard work. It might be worth taking a picture now so that you’ll know how to tell the difference between good soil and bad soil when you’re done.
Step Two: Water
No, we’re not irrigating the bare ground. The purpose here is to soften up the soil enough to penetrate it. If it’s rained recently and the soil is somewhat moist, you can skip this step. You don’t want the soil to be soggy, just damp.
Step Three: Till
It’s advised to rip the soil in one direction and then come back with a second pass to rip the soil in the perpendicular direction.
Step Four: Cover The Soil
From this point, you can act as if you’re rejuvenating an old garden from the soil up.
The first step is always to cover your soil. If you look around in any natural area, you won’t see much bare soil. Follow nature’s lead and cover your soil. Otherwise, nature will cover your soil with weeds.
You can use any organic material for this step. Even paper and cardboard can be used here to stifle the germination of any potential weeds. Just make sure there’s no plastic (tape, stickers, plastic paper) or staples present.
Covering the soil locks moisture in, which means the soil will continue to soften up over time. It also provides a habitat for all sorts of soil critters, which will help to soften your soil.
You can continue layering organic matter over the area if you so wish. You can even plant right on top of the area, as long as you’ve added plenty of compost to the top layer.
Step Five: Prevent Compaction
Remember all that observing you did in step one? Well, now it’s time to put your observations to use.
The most obvious way to prevent compaction is not to walk in the area. Don’t drive in there or put anything heavy. A rule of any garden bed should be “Don’t walk in the garden bed”.
That loose, fluffy soil is now bursting with life. All it takes is a small amount of weight over a sustained period, and you’ll be back to rock-hard soils.
Bonus Step: Put The Radishes To Work
Because of the size and depth to which daikons grow, they can be an excellent way to fix compacted soil. To use them as a winter cover crop, broadcast daikon seeds across the compacted area a week or two earlier than you would other winter crops. Cover the seeds lightly with mulch and wait.
As the daikons grow, that long, thick taproot will drill down into the soil, capable of breaking up tough compacted soil. Above the soil, the daikon will produce plenty of foliage, which will cover it and prevent weeds from sprouting.
Once they’ve reached maturity, and before they set seed, cut the foliage just below the soil line. Here’s the most important part: leave the daikon in the soil to decompose.
As that thick daikon decomposes it will fill your soil with nutrients and soil life while leaving you with loose, uncompacted soil.
To Sum Up
You’re not going to grow much in compacted soil. Besides, you’ll break all your tools while breaking your back if you try to dig through it.
The best way is to let nature do the work. All you have to do is create the environment for loose soil, and nature will do the rest.
The easy way takes time, but it’ll be worth it when you have healthy soil without having to do much except wait.