Maintaining the perfect conditions in your garden can sometimes be an arduous task, especially with all the contradictory information out there about ideal soil conditions. However, understanding exactly what your soil should look like and how it should be maintained is the best way to ensure your plants get everything they need. Most gardeners know that their soil shouldn’t be too compact – but can it be too loose?
Your garden soil can be too loose. That said, you’ll need to strike the perfect balance between compact and loose to give your plants the best chance of survival. Your soil, especially your topsoil, should be loose enough to promote aeration but compact enough to hold roots adequately.
In the rest of this article, we’ll discuss what happens when your garden soil is too loose and how compact it should be. We’ll also give you tips on how to make your soil more compact, whether you should be loosening the soil directly around your plants, and whether rain is a factor in soil compaction.
What Happens When Your Garden Soil Is Too Loose?
If your soil is slightly loose at the top, this can be a good thing. However, if your garden soil is too loose, it may not be able to support your plants’ root formations adequately. This means your plant stalks may wilt – and it could also mean that their roots won’t be able to take in nutrients properly.
When your garden soil isn’t compact enough, any moisture going through it won’t be able to reach those roots before it drains away completely. At this rate, your plants might not have a good chance of survival and could die before you can do anything about it – especially if you live in an arid region.
A good rule of thumb to always bear in mind is that your soil should be easily workable. This means you should be able to spread your hand through it without pushing too hard. However, being easily workable doesn’t mean being so loose that your hand glides through it without resistance.
Many gardeners loosen their soil as part of their gardening routines, but doing so can actually have an impact on whatever you’re growing. This means your plants may not be able to reach their true potential, and you might end up with poor growth.
The best way to loosen your soil without loosening it too much is to use a soil additive such as earthworms. Earthworms naturally loosen compacted soil to create aeration and drainage channels. We’ll discuss more about earthworms below.
How Earthworms Loosen Compacted Soil
Earthworms are almost like natural fertilizers. They wiggle through the soil at all levels, creating tiny channels through which they consume and digest organic matter. This organic matter is what your plants’ roots thrive on.
The worms create a cyclical biological process that naturally aerates the soil, creating a better capacity for drainage, decomposition, and nitrogen release. Once the earthworms have finished their life cycle, they themselves become part of this cyclical process.
Using earthworms to loosen up compacted soil is an all-natural approach that will do the job without you needing to add any harsh chemicals. It also means you don’t need to manually de-compact the soil, making it much more likely for your soil to reach the perfect density.
How Compact Should Your Garden Soil Be?
I bet now you’re wondering how on earth you can achieve the correct balance if you don’t currently have access to a bag of earthworms. Well, the answer is quite simple.
Your garden soil should be firm to the touch but a bit bouncy. It should be packed enough to attain an even, lump-free compression, but it shouldn’t be difficult to push a finger down into the soil.
You should understand that if your soil is too compact, it won’t be able to filter out water and nutrients to your plants. Always maintain some level of bounce, and you should be good to go. Additionally, pressing down around the roots of your plants only very slightly should create a much more supportive environment for those roots to spread out.
How To Loosen Compacted Soil Without Earthworms
If your garden soil is far too loose, you’ll need to make the area more compact. There are several effective ways to do this:
- You can use organic material to loosen the soil. This includes compost, peat moss, and even leaves. Mix up the organic material into the topsoil by a few inches, and it will begin to work its magic down to the subsoil over time.
- If you regularly till the soil in your garden, you should try to resist the temptation to do so. Over time, tilling can compact the subsoil, making it much more difficult for roots to reach proper depths. Instead, work the soil very occasionally using gentle methods, and use organic matter such as compost every time you do to work it into the ground.
- Use cover crops to loosen soil that hasn’t been used in a long time. Compacted soil that isn’t being used can be covered in a crop with long, dense roots to force the compacted soil open. By the beginning of the next planting season, you can push the plants back into the ground to decompose as organic matter. This will drive more channels into the soil, and the decomposition process will slowly loosen the area.
- If your garden soil is clay-based, use sand to loosen it up. You can purchase sandy soils at your local nursery – but try to refrain from using “sandpit” sand since it wasn’t made for this purpose and often contains clay substitutes.
Should I Loosen Soil Around Plants? (PAA)
You should loosen the soil around plants if the area is very compact. Too much density in the soil around plant roots will prevent them from growing properly. However, if the ground is already nice and bouncy, only press down slightly to support the roots without impeding them.
One thing you can do to help your new plants and their new roots is to loosen the small roots themselves before planting them. For example, if you’re replanting something that has sprouted in an indoor container, you’ll likely see a tangle of tiny sprouting roots when you remove the plant from its pot.
That’s one of the reasons you’ll see some garden soil products labeled as not appropriate for containers. Learn more about this label in my comprehensive guide on the topic: Why Does Garden Soil Say “Not for Containers”?
These roots can be (very gently) loosened up to allow them to spread more evenly outwards through the soil. It makes for a much more sturdy plant and a more robust root system.
Does Rain Help To Compact Soil? (PAA)
Rain does help to compact soil, but it’s not a foolproof way of doing so. It’s not a system that can be controlled well, so you may end up compacting the soil too much if you rely on heavy rain to compact soil that’s too loose.
Heavy rain can effectively block the natural aeration and drainage systems within the soil, making it much more difficult for the soil to breathe. It can also make it much more difficult for smaller, young roots to get nutrients that have been pushed down to the subsoil by the rainfall.
Since rain isn’t something that can necessarily be controlled, an excellent way to ensure your soil isn’t getting too much of it is to cover up your plant beds. If you’ve compacted your soil adequately, leaving enough aeration to allow your plants to receive their nutrients, then extra rain will make life more difficult for them.
Additionally, if you’re experiencing very harsh frost, you should cover your soil and the plants with something effective such as plant covers. Extremely cold weather can freeze the ground, making the earth much more compact.
Your garden soil should be slightly loose – but there is such a thing as too loose. Having adequate compaction to create a bouncy soil texture will help your plant roots push down into the subsoil, thriving over the long term.
A great way to loosen the soil naturally is to use earthworms (or earthworm castings). They wiggle through the earth to create natural “breathing” channels for your soil, creating an excellent all-natural, cyclical system that basically runs itself.
Take care of your soil and your plants will thank you in the long run.