Many ailments may fall over our gardens as they grow. Invasive bugs, pesky weeds, dryness, and compacted soil are all common problems. Compacted soil is one of the hardest things for a gardener to work with, and the solution isn’t straightforward. There are many things that could be causing your compacted soil, and you need to know the root of the problem in order to fix it.
Here are seven reasons why your soil might be so compacted:
- There’s heavy foot traffic in your garden.
- There’s car traffic in your gardening area.
- No or little organic matter is living in your garden.
- You’ve been tilling after rainfall or after you water.
- You’ve been tilling too much.
- You work in your garden without moisture.
- Your garden faced a rough winter.
Below, we will talk about these seven common causes of compacted soil and about the DIY fixes you can attempt to fix them. But first, let’s talk about what compacted soil is and why it is so harmful to your garden.
1. There’s Heavy Foot Traffic in Your Garden
One of the most solvable issues that could be causing your garden to compact is heavy foot traffic.
If you think about it, it makes sense. By constantly applying pressure with our feet and shoes to the soil that is supposed to be soft, fluffy, and arid, we make it compact. This is one reason why heavy-foot traffic makes dirt paths through green areas.
Excess foot traffic in a garden is common if you have younger children or work in a community garden, but even a personal garden can develop compacted soil if the owner walks through the garden to water, fertilize, and otherwise tend to the plants.
Generally, it’s a good idea to leave lots of space between plants if you have a larger garden bed so you can get to them without compacting the soil your plants rely on. Be careful to keep as much of a distance from the plants as you can, knowing that wherever you walk may become compacted and uninhabitable.
DIY Fixes for Heavy Foot Traffic in Your Garden Bed
If you’ve identified heavy foot traffic as the cause of your soil compaction, try these DIY fixes for your garden:
- Install Stepping Stones: Stepping stones in your garden path will absorb some of the pressure of compaction from traffic. It’s a good way of keeping people’s feet far from seeds, roots, and growing plants and serves as a gentle reminder of where other people should step in your garden.
- Make a Garden Path: If you have the space for it, you can make a garden path. Your garden bed is all prime real estate, but separating a space that’s just made for walking will be worth it if it means no more soil compaction where your plants are trying to grow.
- Use a Narrow Garden Box: Making your garden box less wide will allow you to step around it to get to each plant and tend it. If your garden bed is too wide, it will be difficult to reach the plants in the middle, hence why foot traffic may become an issue.
- Use a Raised Bed: If stopping foot traffic isn’t an option, you may consider lifting your bed off the ground. Making a raised bed won’t let your roots go down very deep, but you will at least get your garden off the path of walkers. This might be a good worst-case scenario solution.
- No Walking Sign: As simple as it sounds, a good “No Walking” sound may do the trick! This would be especially useful if you are worried about people in a community garden or neighbors walking in your garden.
2. There’s Car Traffic in Your Gardening Area
If foot traffic can ruin your garden, just imagine what car traffic can do.
Some might be thinking, “Why would anyone drive in a garden?” But driving is one of the top reasons soil may become compacted. This may make more sense for farmers who drive their tractors through fields or large community gardens where trucks bring in supplies, but this can be common in residences as well.
DIY Fixes for Car Traffic in Your Garden Bed
There may be some situations where you have little control over cars driving over your garden (like if you own a farm and use a tractor, or if you use a riding mower), but there are a few things you can do to help mitigate the damage:
- Try not to drive in the garden when wet. Compacted soil can happen in rain or shine, but it’s more likely to happen if you apply pressure when wet. A perfect example of this is when your footprints or tire prints make imprints in the mud, though they may have a harder time in the dirt. If possible, try not to drive out when it’s wet out.
- Add a “No Vehicles” sign and perimeter. A simple fix is to add a “No Vehicles” sign and a visible perimeter around your garden like a fence, so that drivers know this area should be avoided.
- Add stones to your gardenscape. If the driving is occurring on the edge of your driveway or near the road, you can add stones to your gardenscape. The stones will absorb some of the impact, which can help the rest of the soil thrive.
- Make a path. If your garden is large enough for cars to drive through, it may be worthwhile to add a driving path (with stones, gravel, or other material) where cars are allowed to drive through. If you need tractors or big tools to support your crop, finding a little extra space for them to get through will be worth it in the long run.
3. No or Little Organic Matter Is Living in Your Garden
Another common reason for compaction in gardens is deteriorating or non-existent ecosystems within your garden. Garden wildlife like earthworms and microorganisms are essential factors in a thriving garden.
A lack of aeration in your garden bed makes it difficult for organisms to make a home there. And if you don’t have organisms in your garden, you’re less likely to have aeration! For example, earthworms are helpful for keeping soil soft and airy. But if your soil is too compacted, they won’t be able to get their start.
It often makes sense to use an alternative method to initially loosen your soil and make it more fertile, then trust earthworms and other small organisms to maintain the aeration once they’re introduced.
If your garden is healthy, you should see tiny bugs, little worms, and all kinds of things as you dig through the soil. If you aren’t seeing much of anything but dirt and short roots, some of the DIY fixes below may help your garden.
DIY Fixes for Organic Matter in Your Garden
If you think that your tiny ecosystem may need some help, the solution may seem pretty obvious: you need to add some biodiversity to your garden. But how can you go about doing so?
Add Mulch To Your Garden
One solution for compaction and a lack of biodiversity is adding mulch to your garden. Typically, you’ll add a layer of mulch over your garden to improve moisture, fertility, and life. Mulch can be made of any number of things: leaves, bark, or synthetic materials. One simple way to mulch your garden is to simply rake fallen leaves over your garden beds.
Compost Your Garden
Composting is another easy solution for a compacted garden, and it has numerous benefits. Composting in your garden adds new organisms to soil, and it can help with fertility and make the soil easier to dig. It can be a difficult process to learn and begin, but it’s definitely worth it! This video talks about how you can get started with composting:
If you are uninterested in creating your own compost, some people make it and then sell it to others. You can check your local community listings or garden shops for more info.
Don’t Till Your Garden
Although it might seem like a simple way to aerate your soil and make room for organisms, tilling is actually one of the worst things you can do for your garden. Tilling is a root cause of soil compaction (as we will discuss below), and can also be terrible for organisms trying to make your garden their home.
4. You’ve Been Tilling After Rainfall or After You Water
Tilling isn’t a great practice for gardens, and this is especially true after heavy rainfall or watering.
Some gardeners till their gardens multiple times a season, and they may have their own reasons for this. If you are one of those gardeners, be cautious about when you are tilling your garden. Tilling after rainfall can be especially harmful to the organisms and roots of your plants, having the opposite effect of what’s intended.
Rain is great for a garden, but a heavy rainfall can put the garden in a vulnerable state. Tilling the ground while it’s in this state is a harmful gardening practice.
It’s best practice to let your garden be (no weeding, cutting, or of course watering) after it has rained. If you want to till but your garden is saturated from the heavy rain, think again. Tilling is harmful to gardens in the best of circumstances, and even more so in wet conditions.
Plenty of agriculture research has pointed to tilling being harmful to gardening. There are entire networks of organic and non-organic gardeners committed to helping their garden without tilling. Because of this, there are many resources available for gardeners who are looking for ways to aerate their soil without turning to tilling. Adding garden beds and composting are two options.
5. You’ve Been Tilling Too Much
In addition to tilling after rainfall, tilling too much can be a big problem for your garden and the organisms that live in it. While it can temporarily relieve soil compaction, it makes the compaction worse in the long term. It also causes harm to the ecosystem within your garden and adds a fruitless task to your to-do list.
Alternatives to Tilling
You can save money, time, and local ecosystems by moving to no-till farming and gardening. Even if you’ve previously tilled your gardens, you can still make the transition to a no-till system and see many benefits.
Many farmers and gardeners today are dedicated to a no-till lifestyle. Below are some examples of what they do instead to keep their soil soft and light.
Use Sheet Mulch
Adding sheet mulch to your gardening area is a great alternative to tilling. This method is one of the more time-consuming options, but it’s often worth it. Sheet mulch protects the garden from impact and makes the soil more hospitable to worms and insects.
This video explains how to sheet mulch in detail:
Sheet mulching may take some time to show results, but the results will be long-term, lasting from year to year.
If you want to learn more about how to add mulch to your garden instead of tilling, you can find some more in-depth information in this article.
Add Natural Materials
Adding organisms like worms can help loosen up the soil in a compacted area. You can encourage organisms to live in your garden with compost or mulch, or you can raise worms on your own to add them to your garden.
To raise worms, simply purchase a compost bin and fill it with organic matter and starter worms. Raising worms with compost is known as vermicomposting, and it’s a great way to revive compacted soil.
To start a vermicomposting bin, you’ll need a container with small holes in the bottom and sides, then you’ll line it with shredded paper and add dirt and red worms (or your worm of choice). Keep the worms fed with food scraps, avoiding dairy, fatty items, meat or animal waste, just like with regular composting. Then, you can transfer worms to your soil to improve its health.
Use a Garden Bed
Using garden beds is a great way to maintain good soil for your garden. It allows you to grow plants in fresh soil, not the hard, compacted soil you already have in your garden, and it also allows for good drainage so the soil doesn’t get soggy. Because garden beds are less likely to become compacted, using them essentially eliminates the need for tilling.
6. You Work in Your Garden Without Moisture
Working in a dry garden can also cause soil compaction, especially if you are overwatering and not doing much work to keep the soil loose. To know if moisture is your problem, you can use a plant gauge to check and see how much water your plants are getting.
Some reasons for soil dryness are more controllable than others. If you have an infrequent watering schedule, for example, organizing your watering schedule may be a simple way to improve the dryness of your soil. But if you simply live in a hot and dry climate, the best you can do is research which plants will grow well in those conditions and stick to native plants.
Below are some basic solutions for a dry garden.
DIY Fixes for Dry Gardens
Dry gardens are a common problem. Thankfully, the commonness of this problem means that there are tons of solutions for keeping a garden moist. The solutions below will help keep your garden from drying out, which will in turn make the soil less compacted.
Lock Down Your Watering Routine
Your watering routine is essential. If you water too much, you risk the garden getting muddy and compacted. If you water too little, you risk the garden bed getting dry and getting compacted.
Running the hose over your garden for small increments of time won’t be enough to help your gardens thrive. Check on the needs of your plants and stay in tune with the temperature. This should help you find the balance between dry and moist.
Add a Sun Shade above the Plants
In hot climates, you might consider adding a plant shade cloth to your garden for days with extreme temperatures. Retractable, moveable, or penetrable sun shades are the best choice, as you still want your plants to be able to get some sun without losing too much water.
As we discussed above, mulch can be very beneficial to your garden. One of its main benefits is locking in moisture for your plants. Adding a few inches of mulch to your garden supports water retention, thus creating a less compacted garden during dry seasons and helping your plants get the nutrients they need.
Add Organic Material
Additional organic material can also help a dry garden. Small garden organisms support water retention and help to naturally aerate a garden. You might consider adding little organisms by using a worm box or simply adding compost to your garden. Mulching is also a great way to add organic material to a garden bed in the hope that a greater ecosystem will develop.
Grow a No-Water Garden
If you run out of options, you can always try a no-water garden. This won’t solve compaction problems in your current garden, but it’s a great alternative to additional gardening if you live in an area with water shortages or can’t seem to get the water level right in your garden for any other reason.
7. Your Garden Faced a Rough Winter
Heavy snow, freezing and refreezing, and a lack of organism activity can all compact your soil during cold months. Thankfully, there are things you can do to decrease the damage that a cold winter has on your garden and increase the likelihood that you’ll come into the spring with a fresh, healthy garden ready for planting.
DIY Fixes for Rough Winters
You never know what a winter season is going to look like. Some will be frigid, and some will be mild. In either case, it’s a good idea to have a plan to protect your garden bed so you have fertile, ready-to-plant soil in the spring:
- Cover Plants: One thing you can do in the fall months before winter comes is cover your plants. This will lessen the impact of snow and protect your garden from taking on too much weight.
- Avoid removing snow: Snow might seem harmful to plants, but it actually provides a blanket of protection against cold winds. If snow falls on your garden, leave it in place and let it melt naturally when warm weather comes.
- Add Mulch: Adding mulch in the fall can help your plants in the spring by absorbing and trapping in moisture and warmer temperatures. Adding mulch will insulate the garden bed for a little longer, meaning organisms can do their jobs and aerate soil a little longer, too.
Why Compacted Soil Is Bad for Gardens
When your soil is compacted, you’ll know. Compacted soil feels hard and is difficult to dig into. It might feel like there’s no space for anything to grow or breathe, which would be correct. When soil gets compacted, all dirt particles are pushed together, leaving no room for air, water, or growth.
Having a compacted garden prevents you from planting anything successfully, and it keeps your current plants from thriving.
Your compacted soil can lower crop yield, affect nutrient intake from your plants, and make gardening more difficult for you. Not to mention compacted soil can create standing water, attracting mosquitos. This video by AgPhd talks a little about how you can find compaction in a field or garden:
Depending on how compacted your soil is or how curious you are about soil compaction, you can use a penetrometer to see how compacted the soil is. As mentioned above, knowing the cause of your soil compaction will aid you in finding the right solution.
If you’d like to learn more about preventing soil compaction in your garden, you could check this article out.